Exactly two years ago, Capitol chaos erupted
“The institutions of the state—from the Legislature to the Wisconsin Supreme Court—at times seized up and ceased to work as they had for years.”
That’s how two Capitol reporters, Jason Stein and Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, nicely summarized the 2011-12 political tsunami that swamped Wisconsin in their new book, “More Than They Bargained For.”
As another reporter who slogged through those political storms, although not with the exhausting deadline-per-minute intensity of Stein and Marley, I commend their reporting.
In fact, here are 10 things I learned from the book:
1. Jim Messina, chairman of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and an Obama deputy campaign manager, warned against trying to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a fall 2011 Madison meeting.
But Messina was told that there was no stopping the momentum behind a populist statewide push to gather enough signatures to force a recall election. Walker became the only governor to survive a recall in U.S. history on June 5, 2012.
2. Supporting Walker’s Act 10 changes that all but repealed collective bargaining for public workers, except for police officers and firefighters, was a wrenching decision for some moderate Senate Republicans. One of them, Senate Education Chairman Luther Olsen of Ripon, wept after casting a committee vote for it.
3. So few police officers were on duty one night during a mass protest that they used handcuffs to lock a Capitol door—a maneuver that could have resulted in injury or death in the event of an exit stampede.
4. Although this Capitol was fully completed in 1917, there are no “maximum occupancy” crowd limits set for it, and there were no accurate ways to count the protesters in the building.
That forced UW-Madison Police Chief Susan Riseling, often officer-in-charge of interior security during the protests, to develop both her own method of crowd counts and interior crowd-safety limits. Riseling’s department oversees the 80,321-seat Camp Randall Stadium.
5. At one point, Riseling also refused an order from a top Walker aide who wanted the Capitol cleared of protesters. Instead, Riseling said there was no way of implementing the order over the crowd noise and that doing so would have invited a riot. Or worse.
6. Walker “dismissed” the suggestion of the longest-serving Republican senator, Senate President Mike Ellis, who warned the governor that private-sector unions would join public employee unions in their war on Act. 10. Ellis was quickly proven right.
7. Stein and Marley document the balance-of-power shift caused when all 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois on Feb. 17, 2011—a move that delayed a Senate vote three weeks.
When they left, Senate Democrats “shifted the power dynamic within the Capitol. … Suddenly, Walker and GOP lawmakers were no longer fully in control. For the first time in his short tenure as governor, Walker needed something from a Democrat.”
8. Although all Senate Democrats agreed to leave Feb. 17, they did so without talking about, or even considering, what it would take to get them to return. As a result, they often fought bitterly over whether—and when—to come back.
When two compromise-seeking Democrats, Sens. Tim Cullen of Janesville and Bob Jauch of Poplar, tried to broker Act 10 changes, they were ripped by their peers. Cullen, who was Senate majority leader in the 1980s, is “trapped in a time bubble,” one veteran union official anonymously complained.
9. Three union leaders, including National Education Association Executive Director—and former WEAC lobbyist—John Stocks, met with 13 of the 14 Democrats at the Illinois Education Association office one day. Jauch refused to attend.
Jauch chafed at union leaders who wanted to control the exiled Senate Democrats. “Some of the union leaders didn’t care if we stayed in Illinois for the rest of our lives,” Jauch told the authors.
10. After Senate Republicans' dramatic March 9 vote for Act 10, police had to escort the Republicans from the Capitol through an underground tunnel and to a bus.
Some of them were thirsty. They are from Wisconsin, after all.
“When the bus neared the Avenue Bar—a favorite tavern for some—Sen. Rob Cowles asked if the bus could stop.”
Told that protesters were following the bus, Cowles reconsidered. “Forget it then.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.