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Reporter Kerry Lester Says #MeToo & Recaps Sexual Harassment Developments At Statehouse

Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein's downfall due to sexual assault and harassment claims from numerous women - it's glaringly apparent that the issue is not limited to a certain industry or segment of society. Statehouses across the nation have joined in the #MeToo movement. Some are saying state legislatures harbor environments where such activity is commonplace.

In Illinois, over 150 people signed an open letter calling for change and alleging rampant sexual harassment within the system of state politics. Kerry Lester was one of those people to sign. She's spent years covering the statehouse as a reporter for the Association Press, she's now with the Daily Herald. She says like many other women, she has been treated inappropriately by men in power, but hadn't know how to respond in a meaningful way that wouldn't threaten her credibility. Listen to an interview with her below about what's been going on in Springfield as a result of that letter.

This conversation was recorded before a new legislative inspector general was appointed. More information on that development is here.  

It appears there is no strict structure for recourse when it comes to the state's leaders and sexual assault claims against them. Over two dozen complaints have stagnated, they aren't all sexual assault related - but the legislative inspector general position went unfilled for two years. One victims' rights advocate and lobbyist says she filed a complaint involving State Senator Ira Silverstein (D - Chicago) a year ago and never heard a response. Leader of the chamber, Senate President John Cullerton, removed Silverstein from his position of majority whip and Cullerton's spokesperson issued a statement saying the investigation into the claim is "on-going."

Over the weekend, the Legislative Ethics Commission appointeda new legislative inspector general. Julie B. Porter was the pick - she worked on the corruption cases of former Springfield power broker Bill Celleni and former governor Rod Blagojevich.

Pending legislation that came about as a response to the #MeToo movement and the letter specific to the Illinois legislature could mean lawmakers are required to undergo training. Some also want the statute of limitations on claims of wrongdoing against lawmakers to be prolonged. 

Not everyone is on board with these proposals. State Representative Steve Reick (R - Woodstock) penned a provocative post on his website. In it he writes, "I’m damned sure not going to allow myself to be painted with their broad brush, nor will I subject myself to whatever 'training' is imposed. By implying that I’m part of the problem simply by occupying a seat on the House floor or through the accident of birth of having been born male, they’re giving me every reason to say 'no'. I assume the culture extends beyond Ira Silverstein. If they want my support, then name names."

In a round-table discussion on WTTW's Chicago Tonight legislators had said they didn't want to meddle into past accounts and name names - but instead to look to future fixes. What remains to be seen is what those fixes might be and how far they will go.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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