Thursday, January 19, 2012

Petition your government, in 2 minutes or less

In March of 2011, as Wisconsinites were still reeling from the shock of the Budget Repair bill, the Governor introduced his 2011-2013 budget.  I attended the Governor's budget address as one of the 20 guests for which the Democrats were allowed tickets.  The gallery was packed full of Walker supporters, and there was a noticeable contrast between the mostly working class Democratic party guests and the hundreds of immaculately-clad Walker supporters.  I could feel eyes burning into the back of my head when I failed to applaud during the speech, and I was actually hissed at when I failed to rise to give the Governor a standing ovation as he outlined his plan to dismantle our state piece by piece.

What a budget it was.  A billion dollars in educational cuts.  Cuts to Badger care which would result in tens of thousands of Wisconsinites losing access to medical care.  Enormous, gluttonous tax breaks for corporations.  Utter dismantling of environmental protections.  If the Budget Repair Bill was the appetizer, the budget itself was the main course in Walker’s menu of destruction.

But before a budget can be passed, there are public hearings.  These types of hearings have been, how should I say, “problematic” for the Wisconsin Republicans.  It means they have to come face to face with the great unwashed, and they don’t like it.  Particularly in Madison.  I can almost picture them talking while drumming their fingers around a conference room table in some secret location:  “what to do, what to do?  I know, let’s not hold any of them in Madison.  Let’s hold them away from the population centers, in conservative areas."  Great, problem solved.

So four public hearings were scheduled throughout the state:  April 7 in Stevens Point, April 8 in Minong (population 531), April 11 in West Allis, and April 13 in Arcadia (population 2,925).  The locations of two hearings, Minong and Arcadia, were subsequently changed due to those jurisdictions expressing concerns about their ability to handle potentially large events.

It was in this backdrop that Cops for Labor were asked to attend the budget hearing at UW Stevens Point on April 7, 2011.  I received a call a couple of days before from a representative of the Democratic Party in that region, asking us to attend a rally before the hearing and to testify at the hearing before the Joint Finance Committee.  So my friend Dave McClurg and I decided to make the 2 hour drive from Madison to Stevens Point.  I spent some time the night before preparing my testimony before the JFC.  I was ready.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived was the large number of on-duty police officers staffing the event.  They were friendly and helpful, but their mere presence made it obvious the Joint Finance Committee was expecting trouble.  I guess it is understandable given the size of the protests in Madison, but it was an interesting window into how some of our legislators perceived their constituents.  Perhaps it was actually a tacit acknowledgement of how wide-ranging the destruction of this budget would be.

We met with representatives of the Democratic Party, and it became clear that the rally was not going to happen, as there had been too little time to organize prior to the hearing date.  So we instead proceeded inside the gymnasium where the hearing would be commencing shortly, and reached the table where those speaking had to register to testify.  The table was manned by a couple of 20-something Senate staffers.  When it was time for me to sign up, the young man in the blue blazer and prep tie told me I would have two minutes of speaking time.

“Two minutes, are you serious?” I asked of him.  (Eye roll from the 23 year old with the blazer and prep tie)  “Yes, sir, I am serious.  Two minutes.”

You have no idea how big of a problem that presented me.  I am a LAWYER, for God’s sake.  Do you have any idea how much I can talk?  (Ok, you are reading this blog, so the answer is yes)  I can barely get warmed up in 2 minutes.  This was an outrage, I tell you!  With a sigh, I filled out the registration form, and we took our seats to wait. 

I was told I would be around number 60 or so to testify.  The gym was busy.  Not packed, but there were clearly a lot of people there to have their voices heard.  At the outset, we were cautioned against any sort of disruption, including applause (Good thing a gathering of more than four people wasn't considered a "protest group" back then!)  I then spent the next two hours working on my testimony.  I had far more than two minutes written, so I whittled and whittled it down, reading each new draft silently in my head to the time on my wristwatch.  Two minutes exactly. 

It was immediately evident that the vast, and I mean vast, majority of people were there to speak out against the budget.  At the end of the day, almost nobody spoke in favor of the agenda this budget represented.  Those speaking came from all walks of life:  teachers, college professors, farmers, physicians, nurses, and recipients of state services that were on the chopping block.  I listened to all of them.  They told heartbreaking stories that outlined a dismal future.  And almost each time, a buzzer went off well before they intended to finish, awkwardly and painfully silencing their voices.

When my name was called, I proceed to the podium, set my watch,  and delivered my comments.  I told them how devastating this budget was to this State, particularly to the areas of education and public safety.  I told them that I knew for a FACT that some of the members of the committee who voted to strip collective bargaining rights of public employees privately did not support that measure, and allowed party to win over their personal conviction.  I asked them to think about what kind of legacy they wanted to leave when their public service was over.  Finally, perhaps in a moment of naivete, I told them it wasn't too late to change course.

As I spoke, I immediately noticed, with some level of irritation, that many of the Republican legislators on that stage did not appear to be listening at all, and could be seen tapping on their smartphones, talking to staffers, or otherwise occupied.  The Democrats were making eye contact and appeared to listen intently.  In stark contrast, most of the Republicans on the stage seemed totally disengaged from the citizens speaking.  I wanted to stop and yell “excuse me, but I’m driving over 4 hours today for 2 lousy minutes, the least you could do is LISTEN.”  Instead, I plowed through my remarks, because two minutes is not a lot of time.  I couldn’t help but think that this exercise was like all others we had seen lately from our state government:  perfunctory, obligatory window dressing.  The barest acknowledgement possible of the input of citizens on the way to a predetermined result.  It was the same drill I witnessed the night the collective bargaining bill was rammed through, as I described in my essay “Contempt, thy name is Fitzgerald.”

The highlight came immediately after, when I was approached by Sen. Lena Taylor and Sen. Bob Jauch.  They thanked me for my comments, and we exchanged contact information.  These two are true public servants, elected officials who know the meaning of representing their constituents.  I took comfort in knowing at least someone was listening to the citizens of this state instead of the corporate elite that had purchased the Governor’s office.

Lest you think I am being unfair, or disingenuous in reporting on what I saw, Republican Senator Alberta Darling, in dismissing the overwhelming amount of negative testimony about the budget,  admitted with alarming forthright to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:  "Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), a committee co-chairwoman, said most people express their budget preferences at the ballot box, rather than by coming to committee hearings."  Even worse was the admission that Sen. Darling and Rep. Voss scheduled these meetings during the day, knowing full well most working people would be unable to attend.

The Governor and Republican lawmakers, by their words and legislative choices, have expressed over and over again that they represent the interests of a tiny, select group, and not those of average Wisconsinites.  This is my opinion, but I believe it is supported by an overwhelming mountain of evidence.

Apparently, about a million Wisconsinites agree with my assessment.

Four hours was a lot of driving for two minutes, yet I would do it again in a heartbeat.  The day we stop forcing them to hear our voice is the day we lose this fight, and the stakes are just too high to do that.

The best line of the day, by far, came from Dr. Bill Hettler, former director of the UW-Stevens Point Health Services.  A clearly exasperated Hettler, in blasting the wide-ranging damage of the proposed budget to the citizens of Wisconsin, as well as the two-minute time limit, told the committee “I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony.  I know what I am supposed to do, I just don’t know where to start.”



  1. Thank you Brian! Not much has changed in a year has it?

  2. Love it. Keep em coming. So glad you've gotten your Blog ON! xo Linda

  3. I am so impressed with your eloquence and passion. Please continue to write your very important blog, and keep advocating FOR Wisconsin and AGAINST Walker. You are s "must read" for me--and that's a very short list.

  4. I didn't go to the hearing, mostly because I knew how Republicans blew off the citizen testimonies during the hearings at the Madison Capitol in February. I followed a UW-SP student's Twitter account as he sat through it. He reported that Darling made a nasty remark about the people who came to testify that day--something to the effect that there would have been more people coming to support the Republicans, but they were at work that day, implying that the people sitting right there in front of her were most likely unemployed riffraff. He also reported that one of the people who testified said he wouldn't start his testimony until Robin Vos stopped playing with his phone and at least pretended to pay attention. Almost unbelievable arrogance. Thank you Brian for resurrecting my anger and drive towards the continuing work of fighting for our state.