By Samir Goswami
On February 3 2010 Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic primary to become a candidate in the general election for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. On February 4th, Chicago’s news media flooded the airwaves and newsprint with revelations that he abused his ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend. Since then, Scott Cohen has dropped out of the race; however, this would not be the first time that a political figure in Illinois has been in trouble for violence against women.
Blair Hull, a candidate for U.S. Senate was arrested for domestic battery. Mel Reynolds, a U.S. Congressman was convicted of sexual assault of a minor. Scott Fawell, chief aide to former Illinois Governor George Ryan, exchanged government contracts for lobbyists and arranged visits to prostituted women in Costa Rica. Alexi Giannoulias, currently Illinois’ State Treasurer and Democratic nominee for Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat authorized loans from his family run bank to a convicted pimp.
As the nation has amply witnessed, much media and public attention is focused on public corruption in Illinois, little on how elected officials treat women, which is a disservice to Illinois voters. Violence against women, whether it is domestic battery, sexual assault or the exploitation of women in prostitution is as pervasive among politicians as it is in the rest of society.
Do we want our elected officials to simply disregard, and in some cases perpetrate acts of harm against women? Do we want these men to run our state and represent us? How does that affect their votes on legislation about women’s safety, health and well being? What message does that send to young boys throughout the state? These are key questions that voters of all political backgrounds should ask because the answers matter.
In the 2010 Illinois budget funding for domestic violence programs was cut by nine percent, funding for sexual assault programs was cut by 19 percent and no funding was provided for preventing abused children from being further victimized by pimps and traffickers. Each percentage point of funding that is cut means that hundreds of women will not be able to flee abusive partners because they have nowhere to go. Hundreds of victims of rape will not be helped and thus their rapists not prosecuted and taken off the streets, and more children will have to suffer and endure child abuse in silence. A state’s priorities are reflected in its budgets. These are not the actions of a state that prioritizes addressing violence against women in any meaningful way.
How did we get here—how did we get to a point where an issue that affects one in four women in Illinois gets such little investment? We got here by willfully ignoring the many, many stories about abusive men that stare at us in the face every day. Actually, Scott Cohen told Illinois voters in the very beginning of his campaign that he had been arrested for battery. Despite this revelation by a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the fifth most populous state in the nation, Illinois’ news media did not adequately cover the story, his opponents did not make an issue out of it, and apparently the few voters who voted in the primary did not think that his propensity towards harming women mattered.
Violence against women does matter. It is the news media’s duty to adequately report it, it is all of our duty to work against it, and it is our civic obligation to ensure that our elected officials, rather than being perpetrators themselves, champion measures to end sexual harm. We have gotten to a point in Illinois that the message we send to a victim is that the violence that was perpetrated against you, the horror that you had to endure, is only important if it serves a higher political purpose. And that is simply not acceptable.
Samir Goswami is a 2010 Chicago Community Trust Fellow and a Chicago Foundation for Women “Impact Award” winner.