Chelsea Manning is running for the United States Senate. She faces a steep uphill battle in challenging Sen. Benjamin Cardin in the Maryland Democratic primary. But as with all disruptors, isn’t her presence in the race already a victory of sorts?
The fact that Ms. Manning has grit is undeniable, but she is also controversial and polarizing. Time and time again she challenged the forces that threatened her rights as an American. As a whistleblower and hunger-striker, Ms. Manning shined a spotlight on issues of governmental ethics, freedom of speech, health care and gender. You don’t have to approve of her decisions to admit that she has been successful in her effect.
And I can tell you firsthand how hard that is.
Recently I triumphed in a seven-year battle over my ethics. It started in a moment mixed with conviction and fear, and resulted in my publicly uncovering a group of people’s abhorrent behavior. It was the first-ever legal victory under the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.
It both defined and labeled me in the process.
I was happily working in my job of 10 years as senior attorney and associate vice president at Chicago State University, until a change in the top-most leadership upended my career and life. A few short months after Wayne Watson, the new university president, began, I was fired for reporting misconduct by him and other high-ranking university officials.
My termination had come with ultimately disproved charges aimed at destroying my career, a very visible escort off campus by an Illinois state trooper, and my office being turned into a crime scene complete with yellow police tape. In reality, I was illegally fired after refusing to withhold legitimately requested documents under the Freedom of Information Act, and after I reported improper contracts to the Illinois Attorney General's Office.
All of this to say, people with professional power over me tried to make me complicit in acts for their own gain. This violated not only my oath as a lawyer, but also my personal moral code. That moment led me to become what is in legal and public parlance called a “whistleblower.”
Although my story is quite different from Ms. Manning’s, the similarity is that by both of us being a part of this select club, we bear the repercussions of choosing to speak out and demand transparency in government.
There are laws that try to protect people like me in this context, and I took advantage of those protections after I was retaliated against and my career derailed. To quote the circuit court judge in my lawsuit, “the defendants went out of their way to crush Crowley.” And the vast reach that the effects of this had to my legal career would fill another article.
I also understand the reality of being labeled a “whistleblower” in today’s political climate — even a victorious one. It’s polarizing. It’s controversial. No matter the outcome, some people believe you, some people don’t. You will be a hero and villain; righteous and self-righteous; trustworthy and untrustworthy; a crusader and an attention-seeker. Almost no one wants to interview you for a job.
So, I am not asking you to vote for Chelsea Manning. I am asking you to hear her out and give her a fair chance. By rallying behind those who are brave enough to come forward and challenge our institutions, by remaining open to the people who test our ideas and by giving everyone a fair shot at new opportunities, isn’t that truly the kind of thing that makes America great again?
James Charles Crowley (Twitter: @JamesCharlesC) is an American lawyer best known for his role in the 2014 whistleblower lawsuit against Chicago State University, the first-ever case stemming from a whistleblower claim filed under the Illinois State Official and Employees Ethics Act.