Showdown in Madison: A Chaotic Month-Long Standoff over a Collective Bargaining Bill May Have Changed Wisconsin Politics for Good

By Walters, Steven | State Legislatures, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Showdown in Madison: A Chaotic Month-Long Standoff over a Collective Bargaining Bill May Have Changed Wisconsin Politics for Good


Walters, Steven, State Legislatures


The four-week firestorm in and around Wisconsin's Capitol earlier this year will reshape the state's politics for years to come.

The debate over first-term Republican Governor Scott Walker's call to stop just short of eliminating collective bargaining for most public employees divided Wisconsin, prompted a walkout by all 14 Senate Democrats and sparked recall-election showdowns that will measure the political clout of unions.

From mid-February through mid-March, the Capitol in Madison was swarmed by tens of thousands of chanting, singing, shouting, sign-carrying protesters. Some of them slept in the Capitol for days, turning a first-floor hallway into a food pantry. Handmade signs were taped to miles of marble.

More than 500 police officers, on loan from the largest and smallest communities, worked 18-hour shifts. Lawmakers included a $10 million line item in the fiscal year 2012 budget for Capitol security. When one lawmaker refused to identify himself and go through a metal detector, an officer pushed him to the ground. State troopers were sent to the homes of Democratic senators, trying to catch any who returned from their self-imposed exile in Illinois.

About 90 threats against lawmakers and the governor were serious enough to investigate.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

ALL EYES ON THE BADGER STATE

The whole world watched. Reporters from Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Mexico joined American news crews.

By March 10, the drama was at a climax. That day, two Assembly members--Representatives Richard Spanbauer, a Republican, and David Cullen, a Democrat--had to crawl through a first-floor Capitol window just to go to work.

Spanbauer and Cullen climbed into a Democratic senator's office because police had ordered a lockdown of the Capitol--"nobody in, nobody out"--while they dealt with dozens of protesters who had camped overnight in the vestibule outside the Assembly chamber. The demonstrators were finally dragged or escorted from the area.

They were the remnant of thousands who took over the first three floors of the Capitol the night of March 9, forcing police to retreat and protect the Capitol's two top floors.

Alerted by social media--"OMG. Meet me @ the Capitol in 20 minutes!!!"--protesters were incensed that Republican senators had quickly taken up, passed and sent to the Assembly the historic change in collective bargaining laws that Walker had announced he wanted one month earlier. All the Senate Democrats were still holding out in Illinois in an attempt to kill the bill.

The original plan called for Senate Republicans to pass the governor's collective-bargaining bill on Feb. 17, less than a week after he unveiled it. But when all 14 Democrats bolted to Illinois that day, the Assembly had to go first.

After a record 62 hours of debate, with thousands of protesters massing in the Capitol rotunda daily, the Assembly passed it, 51-17, on Feb. 25. The 1:05 a.m. roll call caught so many exhausted, sleepwalking lawmakers by surprise that 28 of them never got a chance to even vote, since the electronic voting machine was kept open for only 17 seconds. Republicans left the chamber in a single-file line, as Democrats shouted "shame" and other insults.

The waiting game in the Senate then started: When would the 14 Senate Democrats return for a showdown vote they knew they would lose? Walker aides talked about possible compromises at a Kenosha McDonald's and other places in both states.

No deal could be struck, however. So, on March 9, Senate Republicans stripped Walker's bill of all non-spending issues, which eliminated the requirement that 20 senators had to be present to vote on it, and quickly passed it, 17-1.

That set up the Assembly's second vote for the collective bargaining changes a 53-42 vote for it on March 10. Walker signed it in private the next morning, then held a ceremonial signing hours later in front of about 100 reporters. …

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