Monday, February 21, 2011

Friday's Assembly Floor Drama

The events unfolding this past week here in Wisconsin are even more amazing than most people realize. This is a bubbling cauldron of democracy versus plutocracy (or oligarchy, as Paul Krugman calls it, although I still think plutocracy is more apt). It is a roiling torrent of heavy-handed power grab versus groundswell of popular opposition. We are in the process here of holding back what we can of the flood that is decimating the middle class. It's as if the people of Wisconsin are all holding their finger in the dike. Let's hope they continue to stand firm.

Fortunately, the people of Wisconsin are not without their heroes: Wisconsin's Fighting 14—Mark Miller (my state senator), Tim Carpenter, Spencer Coggs, Tim Cullen, Jon Erpenbach, Dave Hansen, Jim Holperin, Robert Jauch, Chris Larson, Julie Lassa, Fred Risser, Lena Taylor, Kathleen Vinehout, and Robert Wirch—walked out of the senate on Thursday to prevent there being a quorum, thereby making it impossible for the senate to vote on Walker's so-called budget repair bill. If it weren't for the Fighting 14, the bill would already have been passed.

And we have yet more heroes, these in the State Assembly. It is something of a puzzle to me that I haven't seen or heard more about this in the media. I thought media outlets were looking for high drama, and if this isn't high drama, I don't know what is. Thanks to the Wisconsin Eye, I was fortunate enough to see this drama unfold live on Friday afternoon as it was broadcast from the State Assembly floor.

The Assembly was set to begin at 5:00pm. But unaccountably the roll call begins at 4:55pm. For some strange reason, the Republicans are present and accounted for, but the other side of the aisle is strikingly empty. Still, at 4:57 the Assembly actually votes on and passes two amendments. At 4:58 the Democrats, all wearing their orange tee-shirts proclaiming their support of the public employees protesting the bill, begin running into the chamber, Representative Gordon Hintz (Oshkosh) the first among them. As Hintz is requesting to be heard, and over the shouts of the Democrats running into the chamber, the Assembly votes on and passes the bill itself.

State Assembly minority leader, Peter Barca (Kenosha) (at the top of his lungs, without his microphone turned on): "Mr. Speaker, I have a point of principle on rule 61. I don't know if you are deaf or what the problem is, but I demand you recognize me." Finally, Barca's microphone is turned on. Mind you, it is still 4:59pm.

Barca: "What you have just witnessed here, once again, is unprecedented. ... It is unbelievable to me, absolutely un-be-liev-a-ble, that you would first of all be here before five o'clock, and take an illegal vote, before even the time the proceedings are supposed to start. Unbelievable! Unprecedented! Un-American! Not in keeping with the values of this state! You should be ashamed of yourselves, each and every one of you! ...

"Where's the rest of the people in the gallery? Unprecedented! Right, you're probably not letting them in! You don't want people knowing what's going on in this body. There's a stench in this body! It is a stain on the history of this state, what you have done! It is outrageous, absolutely outrageous!" Barca then makes a motion to strike the last vote.

Barca continues: "Mr. Speaker, it is even more outrageous. I didn't think it could possibly be any more outrageous. But in fact, Amendments 2 and 3 [not the two that were voted on before the Democrats arrived], which were before the body, were never addressed. I don't think there's a legislative body in the country, maybe not in the world, that actually ignores amendments that are before it. You do not have a right! You might think that because you've been elected to the legislature, you can do whatever you damn well please. But you can't! We have rules! And whether you like it or not, you gotta follow the rules. ...

"What is wrong with you? Honest to God! This is worse than a kangaroo court. This is absolutely beyond the pale, beyond the pale! You ignore amendments that are before you!?!? ... Are you really that eager to shut down this process, to strip people of their basic worker rights, that you're willing to do anything?"

Barca is then followed by Gordon Hintz (Oshkosh) and Cory Mason (Racine), who were equally adamant and articulate in voicing their outrage over what had occurred in the State Assembly.

Gordon Hintz: "I got an e-mail from the gentleman from the 69th, that said 'be here by five o'clock.' So it was three minutes to five. As I was walking here from caucus and saw that we were actually voting. ... Once I heard you guys already decided to vote on things, well then I realized that—why would that happen?—and then, I'm like, oh that's right. It's consistent with how everything else has been handled.

"Like last Friday morning, when I was driving to a school business administrators' meeting in De Pere, and I turned on the radio, and there was an ad saying, 'Support Governor Walker's budget repair bill. Paid for by the Club for Growth.' Well guess what?! I'd never been given a bill. I hadn't even been given talking points yet. And I know we're in the minority, but I'm elected the same way you were elected by the same public from the state of Wisconsin, and I deserve better than that. And it's bad enough, it is bad enough that I had to hear it from a radio ad from Washington, DC, and then show up at a meeting with no details."

At this point Hintz, whose voice is rising in righteous indignation, is interrupted midsentence by Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (Horicon) so he could ask the people in the gallery to be quiet. Hintz makes some funny faces while he's waiting to begin again. It's not easy to hold on to your fervor while someone else is shushing the hoi polloi, but Hintz succeeds in doing so admirably.

Hintz continues: "So, while we heard that we may or may not get an emergency bill, we may get a repair bill, I found out from the radio, from a Washington DC interest group. What does that have to do with Wisconsin? And then, it's a hundred and forty-four pages. And then, we get briefed on Monday, and I'm told that we're going to vote on it on Thursday or Friday. And then when we ask for public hearings, and the public wants to speak out, you cut them off. This isn't how we do things to each other. It's not how things get introduced. And it's just simply not what we do to the public. If you want to jam through a bill, you gotta sit through the messy process that is democracy.

"When we sit there in fourth grade, and we learn about Wisconsin government, and we learn about U.S. government, we learn how amazing it was that they came together. But we also learned that it was bloody, that people had to fight for it, and they wanted to make it hard to do big things. You're supposed to be a deliberative body, you're supposed to have discussions, and you're supposed to be transparent, because the public matters in all of this input. ...

"We show up here, and you guys are gonna vote without us three minutes before you told us to be here. Are you seeing a pattern here? ... But if you want to know why there are thirty-five thousand people here, look at yourselves in the mirror, and have a little respect at least for your colleagues."

Cory Mason (Racine): "I cannot believe what we are seeing here in Wisconsin this week. I cannot believe what we're witnessing. In these times, when I feel like we're seeing the most mean-spirited, anti-worker legislation that I've ever heard of. And you're bringing out the absolute worst in what you're trying to do to working people in this state. And then to see tens of thousands of people bringing out the very best of what democracy is, and what it means.

"And so what have we seen in a week's time? First, you want to take away people's democracy in the workplace. Then you take away people's democracy and their right to speak at a hearing on a bill. Then you take away the minority's ability to dissent and have a voice. You're in the majority, but being in the majority doesn't mean you get to take away people's freedom! We exist in this state to serve the same people. The same people sent us here, and we swore an oath to ourselves and to our constituents and to the Almighty that we would adhere to certain principles that have long been the foundation of this state and this country.

"I do not recognize what is happening in this great state. You're in the majority. You get to set the agenda. But we still have the right to dissent, and you cannot silence our right to dissent as long as we draw breath. We have rights! We have rights in this country and they will be abided by!"

Mason is then followed by Representative Kelda Helen Roys (Madison), who is moved to the point of tears in her plea that the assembly not pass the bill in this way. Finally, the Speaker of the House, Jeff Fitzgerald (Horicon), backs down and consents to strike the earlier, illegal vote and to adjourn until Tuesday morning at 10am.

I have watched the videos of this drama many times now, and I'm still amazed at the power and conviction of these representatives. I want everyone to know what a brave stand they took, not only for Wisconsin's public employees but also for democracy and for fair, democratic procedures in the State Assembly.

Here are the links to the two videos of this amazing drama:


Please watch them. Please share them. This story of political chicanery and the brave stand Barca, Hintz, Mason, and Roys made against it must be told. And of course it has hardly made a blip in the media. So if we don't tell people about it, no one will know. And everyone who cares about what's happening in Wisconsin should know.

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