Controversy surrounds Walker dinner visit
JANESVILLE It’s a safe bet that Forward Janesville’s annual dinner next week will be the most heavily attended in the history of the city’s private economic development organization.
That applies to the 700 paying folks who will be inside the Holiday Inn Express & Janesville Conference Center to hear Gov. Scott Walker deliver the keynote address.
It also applies to demonstrators planning to gather outside to protest Walker and the highly contentious agenda he’s pushed since taking office Jan. 3.
A Facebook page serves as an organizing point for a rally and protest that will run from 4 to 9 p.m., Tuesday, March 29, outside of the conference center.
The Forward Janesville event is 5 to 8:30 p.m.
As of Monday afternoon, the Facebook page showed 217 friends would attend the rally, while 148 others might attend. Two hundred and fifty friends indicated they couldn’t make it, while another 1,100 hadn’t responded.
Creators of the page couldn’t be reached Monday, but the page indicated the rally would be directed at Walker and not businesses that are Forward Janesville members.
“The owners of these businesses are our family, neighbors and friends,” the page says. “We do not dislike their businesses and this is NOT calling for a boycott, but that we do not agree with Gov. Walker attendance’s given his recent actions.”
President John Beckord said Forward Janesville booked Walker for the event shortly after his election in November.
The organization did the same thing in 2002 with Gov. Jim Doyle, who spoke at Forward Janesville’s annual dinner in March 2003.
“If you think about the role and mission of this organization as it relates to economic development, it makes sense for us to cultivate a good working relationship with every administration, Democrat or Republican,” Beckord said. “A part of the process of encouraging local expansion and new investment requires that we be involved with the state, particularly through the Department of Commerce and the office of the governor.
“It is incumbent upon us to cultivate those relationships.”
Beckord said Forward Janesville is a private group funded through donations from members. While it does lobby lawmakers, it does not endorse them.
“We are completely non-partisan,” he said.
Still, Beckord and his group are well aware of the political firestorm touched off by Walker’s recent budget proposals.
“I understand the protestors’ feelings,” said David Bagley, Forward Janesville’s incoming chairman and director of McGladrey & Pullen in Janesville. “My wife works for the School District of Beloit, so we understand the financial impact these changes are having on families.
“The protestors have every right to be at this event protesting, however, I hope we can let civility rule the day. The sooner we can come together as a community, the faster we will be able to focus on growing our economy and bring good paying jobs to Rock County.”
Forward Janesville is planning for protesters. It is working with the Janesville Police Department and will pay for extra security around the conference center on Tuesday.
Security also will be on hand inside for the event, which sold out in four days and now has a waiting list for the specialized tickets that will allow access to the parking lot and conference center.
Beckord said a Forward Janesville team has been working on the logistics of the day from the early morning to late at night.
“We want to make sure we accommodate everyone’s rights, including those who want to demonstrate and those who want to enjoy the event,” he said.
Deputy Police Chief John Olsen said demonstrators will be kept to the public right of way on Wellington Place and Midvale Drive, which border the conference center’s parking lots.
Beckord said he’s received a couple hundred e-mails from people shocked that Forward Janesville would host Walker, whom many emailers refer to as a dictator bent on the destruction of Wisconsin’s middle class.
He said, however, that the organization has not second-guessed its invitation to Walker.
“We believe that Gov. Walker deserves the same opportunity (as Gov. Doyle) despite the volatility of the past month,” Beckord said. “A key part of the concept of civility is a certain level of respect for our elected officials whether one agrees with them or not on matters of policy.”
Beckord doesn’t know what Walker’s message will be next Tuesday.
“I expect that he will talk about making the connection between his goals and economic development organizations such as ours and Rock County 5.0 to accomplish his top priority: bringing the economy around by creating new jobs, new investment and growing the tax base,” Beckord said.
“I also would expect to hear about a lot of the issues that are on the table, and there are many more than just one.”