MADISON, Wis. – Even before the media knew what was happening, the Republicans abruptly ended debate on a bill that would take away rights from public workers and rammed through the vote in the Wisconsin Assembly along party lines, 53-42.
Shocked and outraged, all 42 Democrats stood shouting, “Object!” while the crowd in the balcony jumped to their feet and started yelling, “Shame, shame, shame!” as GOP lawmakers filed out of the chamber.
The Democratic minority leader, Rep. Peter Barca, had pulled out a megaphone in an attempt to make the Republican majority leader, Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, follow the rules. Democrats charged that the vote today, as well as the state Senate vote yesterday, was a flagrant violation of open meeting laws. They vowed to fight in the courts and from the smallest towns to the biggest cities in the state.
In an interview after the vote, Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, said she was “without words,” adding, “They completely trampled the voice of thousands of our constituents and theirs. It’s shameful.”
“The people will not tolerate this. This is not over,” Grigsby said.
Yesterday, state Senate Republicans met and carved every budgetary provision out of the budget bill, leaving only the provision to kill collective bargaining. As there were no finance measures in the bill, the Republicans argued, a quorum was not necessary, and they could vote without the Democrats. They did, and sent the bill to the conference committee, which then sent it to the Assembly for today’s vote.
But Democrats point out that, under Wisconsin’s open meetings law, last night’s session, as well as today’s Assembly session, were not allowed to take place without a day’s notice – which the Republicans never gave.
When word got out about the impending Republican-finagled Senate vote last night, thousands of people rushed to the Capitol, and occupied it until it was cleared by law enforcement officers working under orders from higher-ups.
Democratic lawmakers, along with media, were blocked from entering the Capitol at 9 a.m. this morning, despite a court order that it be open to the public at 8 a.m.
Democratic Rep. David Cullen of Milwaukee was not allowed into the Capitol in the morning despite showing his identification and telling guards he had to get to the Assembly to vote. He said on the Assembly floor that he had had to crawl through a window to get in.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson had also been locked out. “Workers are against the wall,” he told protesters, “are losing jobs, homes to foreclosure. Students can’t pay their loans. This is unhealthy for democracy. But the people of Wisconsin are fighting, because they still have hope.”
Jackson called for people to get involved in the effort to recall eight Republican state senators, and to “re-vote” on April 5, when elections for Wisconsin municipal and judicial posts will take place. He noted that April 4th was the day of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and said that to vote would be a commemoration of King’s life.
Labor unions, students and other democracy activists vowed to continue protesting and said they will battle in the courts.
Wearing orange T-shirts which read “Assembly Dems fighting for working families,” Democratic lawmakers tried to slow down the union-busting and freedom-busting GOP juggernaut, while the Capitol rotunda thundered with the chant “Kill the bill!” With the chanting echoing its way into the chamber, GOP lawmakers sat stone-faced, occasionally speaking only to repeat their talking points.
Democratic lawmakers first made a motion to remove Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, which failed to pass, also along partisan lines. They then took the floor in attempt to lay out exactly was at stake in this vote.
Milwaukee Democratic Rep. Frederick Kessler, who had been part of the seven-year-long struggle to pass civil rights legislation in Wisconsin, said, “Many people in Wisconsin do not know the consequences of this bill, because reasonable debate has not been allowed.”
Democratic Rep. Leon Young, also from Milwaukee, answered the Republican charge that Democrats were playing a game because the TV cameras were on. “This is not a game,” he said. “We are fighting for people’s rights. People are demanding to be heard. By the thousands they have come and continue to come. They attempted to participate in this process, but you shut off debate.”
In perhaps the most pointed speech of the session, Rep. Grigsby called out the Republicans, saying, “This is disgraceful and you all know it. You are on the wrong side of history. The entire world is watching you today.”
After the vote, Marika, a mother with her two daughters, Mara, 15, and Mina, 11, and friends Alaina, 17, Caitlin, 14, and Elysia, 16, stood outside the chamber. The girls, students at Madison’s East and West High Schools, are members of a Shakespeare theater group and were discussing which of the bard’s plays the day’s events most paralleled.
“Measure for Measure,” Alaina said, referring to the play in which people petition and get justice. “Except it’s the opposite.”
Dan Margolis contributed to this article.
Photo: The Wisconsin State Capitol, March 10. (John Bachtell/PW)