Accusations of harassment from a campaign worker against her supervisor and close aide to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Kevin Quinn, led to Quinn’s firing last month. Madigan is still struggling with the ripple effects from Alaina Hampton’s claims, with some observers predicting this could be the downfall for the powerful politician.
Hampton’s story has also brought attention to how political campaigns deal with sexual harassment.
Organizers with a national movement to unionize campaign workers say with the high-pressure and temporary nature of campaign work, there’s often a push to ignore problems like harassment.
“We think that (campaigns) are important and working really hard to elect the candidates is something that can change the future of our state,” said Emma LaBounty, an Illinois-based organizer with the Campaign Workers Guild. “But, it’s also something where a lot of times employers will use that as a reason why people should just put their head down, work really hard and just not allow themselves to worry about anything else. . . until after election day.”
Four Chicago House Democrats recently held a meeting with the Campaign Workers Guild. Campaign workers were invited to talk about their experiences and what they wanted to see change in the workplace.
Meanwhile, one of the legislative groups tasked with addressing sexual harassment in Illinois government is looking to change the state election code and Human Rights Act to add protections for campaign workers.
A panel appointed by Madigan in the wake of the Hampton’s allegations – U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, Comptroller Susana Mendoza and state Rep. Carol Ammons – will examine the issue as well. The panel won’t handle any investigations, but plans to talk with those who have spoken out about sexual misconduct within the Democratic Party, according to a letter from the three officials released last month. All funding and work for the panel will be independent from the Democratic Party.
“This is a long-standing problem,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat and one of the lawmakers who met with LaBounty. “This is something that is endemic to this industry. We are the most nontraditional of nontraditional workplaces.”
In an environment that requires considerable work in an often tight time span, it’s common to encounter unclear expectations and confusion about where employees go to report a problem such as sexual harassment, LaBounty said.
Often one person is assigned the human resources role in addition to their campaign duties, and that person rarely has training or experience, LaBounty said. In large campaigns, a more formal HR department is more common, but its existence does not remedy the concerns of campaign workers.
“Those are the sorts of situations where, while having adequate processes and adequate HR is certainly something that might be a little bit helpful for stabilizing the situation. . . the HR people still work for and are accountable to the employer at the end of the day,” she said.
The guild is working in Illinois and several other states to get contracts for campaign workers that include specific clauses protecting them from harassment and requiring each campaign to have a person to file complaints with and a process to move the claim forward to an impartial third-party investigation.
So far, the union group has only been contacted by Democratic campaigns, but if a Republican campaign staffer were to approach the group with an interest in unionizing, they would help, LaBounty said.
Leaders of the House Task Force on Sexual Harassment are looking to strengthen the complaint reporting process as well. Their proposal includes changes in the state election code that would mandate all political committees maintain discrimination and harassment policies. Additionally, training in sexual harassment and discrimination would be required.
“They would have to have some of the things that we require of ourselves in government,” said state Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, a Republican from Leland Grove. She and Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie co-chair the task force.
By expanding the definition of an employee to include some campaign workers and the definition of employer to include the political committees that run campaigns in the Human Rights Act, Jimenez is hoping the committee will be able to tackle the issue of the campaign misconduct reporting structure.
“A lot of what we’re doing right now is diving into our current law to see where we need to make some adjustments to include places for folks not only to get training if they work on a campaign, and if something were to happen, how they could report that up through the process and get a due process situation to hear their complaint,” Jimenez said.
The task force has set up an email account, email@example.com, for the general public to submit suggestions and tips for amending the law to better tackle the nationwide issue of sexual harassment and discrimination.