Don’t Rush New Sexual Harassment Policies, Some Women Lawmakers Warn

The Illinois legislature was one of the first in the country to confront the fallout of the #metoo movement. Lawmakers there worry that going too fast could result in faulty policies.
by | December 5, 2017
Illinois state Sen. Toi Hutchinson says legislators need to be thoughtful in addressing a culture of sexual harassment. (AP/John O'Connor)

One of the top agenda items for state legislatures next year will be to address the rampant sexual harassment in state capitols. Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have been accused of sexual harassment -- or worse -- since the #metoo movement took off in mid-October.

But several women in the Illinois legislature, which has already passed new laws in response to the outcry, caution that lawmakers should take their time when writing new sexual harassment policies.

“When you’re in crisis mode, you tend to move quickly. I don’t necessarily think crisis-legislating makes the best policy,” says Illinois state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, who is also the incoming president for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Her advice to lawmakers in other states?

“I would suggest that you invest the time to really dig in. We’re not going to solve this overnight --there’s no need for bills overnight,” she says. “Realize this has to last beyond the next couple of news cycles. It’s that important, that meaningful and that worth it.”

Illinois was one of the first state legislatures in the country to respond to allegations of sexual harassment within its ranks. Lawmakers there regularly convene in November to act on bills vetoed by the governor. This year, Illinois' veto session came just days after more than 100 women signed an open letter saying sexual harassment in the capitol is pervasive (the number of signatures has now grown to 300).

“Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed council chambers or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry,” they wrote.

House Speaker Michael Madigan tried to get out ahead of the issue by proposing legislation to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the legislature. Madigan’s proposal also called for mandatory sexual harassment training for lawmakers, staff and lobbyists, and required the state Department of Human Rights to set up a hotline to report sexual harassment in the legislature.

“The leadership wanted to do something and do it big, do it strong, do it fast and do it definitively,” Hutchinson says. “But there were a lot of women under the dome that thought we are not going to eradicate this with one bill.”

The speaker’s hopes for a quick resolution were initially derailed.

During a hearing on the proposal, a lobbyist accused a state senator of sexual harassment. The lobbyist had filed a complaint a year ago, but it had gone nowhere because the office of the legislative inspector general -- the only person authorized to handle those complaints -- had been vacant since 2013. That effectively froze investigations of 27 ethics complaints, which may include other sexual harassment charges. The complaints are confidential.

So the legislature’s focus turned toward hiring a new inspector general (which it did) and extending the statute of limitations on the pending cases. With the immediate crisis over the inspector general resolved, the legislature then passed Madigan's proposal that included mandatory training.

But the new laws don't change how sexual harassment complaints are handled, which some say is problematic. Those accusations will still be vetted by an inspector general and referred to an ethics committee.

“Our process was the equivalent of a car up on blocks. Just throwing tires on it doesn’t mean it’s going to run well. I feel like that’s what we did,” says state Rep. Kelly Cassidy. “What we could have done is address some of the things that were truly pressing, while taking a more thoughtful and methodical approach toward discovering whether the process we just reinstated was the right one in the first place.”

Sen. Karen McConnaughay, who sits on the ethics committee, says both Illinois' ethics process and its process for handling sexual harassment claims need to change.

She says the role of lawmakers needs to be minimized in picking an inspector general and acting on complaints so that victims feel more comfortable reporting offenses. That would address a major factor common in sexual harassment cases: the imbalance of power between the offenders and their victims.

“First, you have to have a process in place that does not intimidate a victim from coming forward. Second, there needs to be clearly delineated boundaries for behavior. Thirdly, there needs to be consequences for behavior that cause people to think twice” before harassing someone, McConnaughay says.

The fact that the inspector general only received 27 complaints over the last few years -- and not all or even most were necessarily about sexual harassment -- shows that women did not feel comfortable reporting violations, says Cassidy. She, herself, never knew who to report violations to.

“That speaks to the culture of the building, that it never occurred to me to figure that out. Those complaints are the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”

In the meantime, both chambers set up separate task forces to develop new sexual harassment policies for the long term.

Cassidy says the idea that the two chambers were working separately on this issue is “bananas, frankly.” She says the legislature should be taking a bipartisan, bicameral approach to solving the problem.

Both Cassidy and Hutchinson have worked as lawmakers, legislative staff and lobbyists. They say a new policy has to take into consideration all of those different situations.

“We need to really look at the complexity of it,” Hutchinson says. “When you are a contract lobbyist, there is no HR [human relations department] to go to. If people don’t feel the legislative process works, they’re not going to go to a legislator to report a legislator. We need to look at what happens when things can be highly partisan and politicized, which means protecting the integrity of the investigatory process so that the results are held above reproach.”

“There are gradations of this,” she added. “In much the same way that battery is different than murder, an off-color comment is different than putting your hand up somebody’s skirt in the middle of a bill negotiation. The most egregious things do need to be handled differently.”

But Cassidy also worries that even the best policies won’t be effective if people don’t have a chance to weigh in on the problem and help shape the solutions.

“The most important thing we can do, is to come up with the policies as openly and inclusively as possible,” she says. “Just as important as fixing the broken process is restoring faith for the people we represent that this will be addressed properly. They need to know we have seen and heard them because these are their houses too.”