Amid sexual harassment scandal, bipartisan female senators join to form Women’s Caucus

By Dan McCaleb 
Illinois News Network

Several female senators gathered Thursday at the Illinois Capitol to announce the creation of a Bipartisan Women’s Caucus in the Senate.

The news comes as lawmakers deal with the fallout of a growing sexual harassment scandal at the statehouse.

“When you get women mobilized, you get them at the table, they solve problems together, big thorny problems,” Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said. “We want to formalize and continue to have ways of doing that.”

Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, learned just last week that 27 complaints filed with the Legislative Inspector General’s Office went uninvestigated because lawmakers had left the IG post vacant for two years. She and seven other elected lawmakers are members of the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has oversight over the inspector general.

“It’s statistically accurate that women, when they get together, have a profound impact on policy that affects women,” McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, said. “Women are the major caregivers. They’re the major decision makers at home. Many of them are the head of households. And the kinds of policies we make here are critical to women all across our state.”

Earlier this week, both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously passed legislation that would specifically prohibit sexual harassment in the state’s ethics code, something that had not been the case, and assess a fine up to $5,000 per violation.

The measure, which was rushed through the legislative process after a rash of mostly anonymous sexual harassment allegations were levied in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein Hollywood scandal, also would require every constitutional office holder to adopt a sexual harassment policy that must include a prohibition, details on how individuals can report complaints of sexual harassment, and prohibition on retaliating against anyone who files a complaint.

It also would require annual sexual harassment training for lawmakers, state employees and lobbyists, and create a hotline for victim’s file complaints. Lawmakers underwent that training this week.

This past weekend, the Legislative Ethics Commission appointed Julie Porter, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, as special legislative inspector general.

At Thursday’s news conference, Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago, said this new caucus includes a diverse group of women from across the political spectrum. She said that was necessary so legislative leaders would take it seriously.

“We intend to be taken seriously,” Hutchinson said.

The first order of business for the caucus is to make sure task forces created in both the House and Senate to examine the culture that allowed rampant sexual harassment in the Capitol and recommend more reforms are real.

Senators said females of the House are in the process of putting together there own Bipartisan Women’s Caucus.

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