Report: Elect women, change campaign culture to end abuse

(Illinois Springfield/Flickr)

Illinois' political parties can make a leap toward eliminating sexual harassment and bolstering gender equity by electing women to half of all political offices in the state, according to a report released Wednesday by a panel of women in state government.

The report from the Illinois Anti-Harassment, Equality and Access Panel challenges political organizations to make government more representative of the population, and recommends measures for political parties to combat harassment and make politics fairer for women.

It is perhaps the most far-reaching review of harassment, intimidation and bullying in Illinois politics in the #MeToo era .

Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan appointed panel members State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, state Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake and state Rep. Carol Ammons of Champaign to study the issues last winter following a series of sexual harassment complaintsin the Legislature . All three are Democrats, but the panel established itself as a nonprofit and maintains it is nonpartisan.

Other recommendations from the report include tying party funding of campaigns to solid anti-harassment policies and training, requiring campaigns to establish anti-harassment policies that exceed legal definitions, establishing procedures for investigating complaints that are independent of campaign organizations, and having state parties hire "diversity directors" to recruit a wider range of candidates.

Following these suggestions would give Illinois politics a chance to "make a break from a past where women were subject to debasing and unacceptable behaviors in the workplace that not only humiliated and shamed them, but stunted or ended the potential of many bright careers," Mendoza said.

Although there are 64 women in the Illinois General Assembly, 36 percent of 177 members, the report stresses that parties should actively strive for half, Bush said.

"The parties have to intentionally go after this, look at how they can build diversity," she said. "It should not just happen organically." 

The report offers a revealing glimpse of campaigns, a world in which volunteers, consultants and independent contractors are put together for long days and long nights on a temporary basis. They are generally not covered by anti-discrimination laws, and it can be unclear who is in charge and who would field a complaint of abuse.

Tina Tchen, the panel's legal counsel, said abuse in such an environment rarely meets the legal definition of sexual harassment, nor does that definition cover much of the offensive behavior, so the report seeks campaign policies that go beyond what's required by law.

"It sets out a policy for the first time ever that, even if you're just a volunteer on this campaign, these are the cultural values you need to have," said Tchen, who was an adviser to former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. "If you won't do it, we don't want you on my campaign. These are things that have not been talked about in campaigns before."

Mendoza, Bush and Ammons noted that they heard from hundreds of women from across the political spectrum at six "listening sessions" in July.

They said the report offers a road map for change.

"Those leaders who choose not to implement these recommendations will simply be choosing more accountability that will be brought to them," Ammons said. "People are not going to be silent about the levels of abuse we've seen and they'll hold them accountable."