Sexual misconduct allegations rock statehouses

 In Politics

Statehouses from Boston to Sacramento have been rocked by an onslaught of sexual misconduct allegations, creating unprecedented pressure on state legislative leaders to take immediate action.

Amid a flood of recent testimonials from female legislators, staff and lobbyists, a portrait is fast emerging of male-dominated state capitol cultures rife with sexual harassment and bereft of protections for victims, where complaints from women frequently languish — or are outright ignored.

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In Illinois alone, hundreds of women signed onto an open letter charging a pervasive predatory culture in the state capitol, prompting a public hearing that exposed a grossly neglected, nearly non-existent reporting system.

Already, one high-ranking Illinois lawmaker has been stripped of his leadership post — and mandatory training from an outside professional is likely to become legally required. An emergency meeting of an ethics commission is set for next week.

“Every industry has its own version of the casting couch. Illinois politics is no exception,” read the letter signed by women who work in the Illinois Capitol. “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.”

In California, the story is much the same. More than 150 women — state legislators, staffers and lobbyists — launched a website and campaign called “We Said Enough” with a public letter last week detailing “dehumanizing behavior by men with power” that included groping, sexual innuendo, and inappropriate touching and comments.

In Massachusetts, after a Boston Globe report last week detailed anonymous accounts from a dozen female lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, and activists alleging improprieties from men in or close to positions of power on Beacon Hill, Democratic state House Speaker Robert DeLeo launched a review of the chamber’s sexual harassment policies.

POLITICO Florida reported Friday that six women claimed the state Senate’s powerful budget chairman, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala, had inappropriately touched them without their consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies.

In several of these states, the publicity surrounding the wave of testimonials has already spurred — or perhaps shamed — leaders into taking concrete action. Outside investigations are underway in California and Massachusetts — with the threat of expulsion from the legislature on the table for bad actors.

In a sign of the urgency and clamor for action, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan — who has held his position for 32 years — took the rare step of appearing before a House committee on Tuesday to push through a bill that would require anti-harassment training of state legislators and also require lobbyists to file details of their policies with the Secretary of State’s office. But that hearing exposed more inadequacies in the statehouse — including the fact that the inspector general position tasked with probing harassment claims has gone vacant for at least two years.

“We deserve better,” said Illinois state Rep. Litesa Wallace, a Democrat, who told POLITICO she has been a victim of harassment in the statehouse and didn’t even know where to bring the complaint. “We deserve to go to work and focus on what we’re supposed to do, and not focus on what uncomfortable situation we’re going to be put in.”

The deluge of revelations in Illinois — and the ensuing political finger-pointing — is threatening to dominate debate in the upcoming veto session. A state Senate leader, Democrat Ira Silverstein, was demoted from his majority caucus post on Wednesday after lobbyist Denise Rotheimer openly accused him of harassment at a public hearing one day earlier — a charge which he denied. One candidate for attorney general, Democratic state Rep. Scott Drury, is calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate claims of harassment and assault.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who announced Silverstein’s resignation from his post as majority caucus chair, also announced that Senate lawmakers will undergo sexual harassment awareness training next week — and that a vacant legislative inspector general position would be filled.

“It’s our duty to fill that post. I take responsibility for my role in that lapse, and I apologize for it,” Cullerton, a Democrat, said Wednesday. “These corrective actions are a first step in changing an unacceptable culture that has existed for too long.”

On the West Coast, similarly disturbing allegations of assault and abuse continue to surface, leading California Democratic state Senate Leader Kevin de Leon to hire two outside firms to launch an independent inquiry into the culture of sexual harassment.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the California legislature has paid out more than $580,000 in the last five years alone to settle cases involving harassment and racism charges. Among the settlements was a $100,00 settlement paid to a former legislative staffer who charged that she was fired from her job after she reported an assemblyman once exposed himself to her.

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