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"Given all that's going on in wi right now thank heavens we r taking Sb 100 up on the floor today...making the cream puff the state dessert."
You can almost see Jon Erpenbach's eyebrows arching in disbelief as he taps this recent Facebook post out on his phone. Under ordinary circumstances, the senator from Wisconsin's 27th district probably wouldn't mind a shout-out to the State Fair's signature snack, but these are not ordinary times, and his impatience is showing.
It is an impatience that also seeps through in a series of terse letters Erpenbach has written to state Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch about restricted access to the state Capitol.
"Have you had the opportunity to watch fourth graders as they are scanned by metal detectors?" he wrote the secretary on May 2.
On May 19, this: "Yesterday children from Creative Learning Pre-School had to get out of their stroller to be wand checked for weapons at the entrance to the Capitol. This is ridiculous and when will it end?
"I am still waiting for an answer."
In other areas, of course, Erpenbach and other legislative Democrats are getting answers - and they aren't the ones they want. Take the new laws on concealed carry and voter ID. And then there is the matter of the budget.
Erpenbach sees the writing on the wall. "Whether we like the budget or not, or are able to change it or not, it'll pass."
Erpenbach, 50, is fighting back with everything he has. Over the last several months, he has emerged as perhaps the Legislature's most visible critic of Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP. He accuses Walker and the Legislature's Republican majority of orchestrating "a hostile corporate takeover" of Wisconsin. "Walker just wants to hand the keys over."
Like others, Erpenbach was somewhat surprised with Walker's assault on public employee unions. But he adds that Walker's moves would "not surprise anyone familiar with [his] track record as Milwaukee county executive."
And Erpenbach even finds grounds for optimism in recent developments.
"Before," he says, "we were on cruise control in this state." Now, at listening sessions across his district, he finds that questions are well informed and "there's a sense of urgency." A brief pause. "That's good."
When Erpenbach uses the term "before," he's referring to the time prior to Feb. 14, 2011 - a date that forms a dividing line for the state of Wisconsin that is nearly as stark as pre- and post-9/11 for the nation.
That was the Monday that citizens first began to react to the provisions in Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair bill," announced the previous Friday with the goal of having it passed within a week. About 1,000 UW students showed up at the governor's office with "I ? UW" valentines.
By Thursday, tens of thousands of people were protesting on the Capitol Square. That morning, Erpenbach and all 13 other state Senate Democrats slipped across the border to Illinois to delay a vote on the bill, becoming folk heroes to some and villains to others.
Before Feb. 17, Erpenbach was probably best known for authoring legislation that led to the state's wildly popular "Do Not Call" list. He'd also served as Senate minority leader in 2003, in the shadow of former leader Chuck Chvala, who left to face charges of extortion, misconduct in office and violations of various campaign finance laws.
Erpenbach quickly emerged as an articulate, media-savvy voice for the Senate Democrats. He's been a frequent guest on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, appeared on Fox News, and even rolled with the punches on The Colbert Report. He's in demand to speak to groups across the country, from firefighters to teachers, about the battle for union rights that's going on in Wisconsin.
Erpenbach's schedule, his staffers warn, changes frequently, and the senator himself is constantly checking his phone to see what his plans actually are. A typical couple of days might include listening sessions, speaking to county Democratic Party meetings, a funeral, office meetings, legislative hearings, a game of golf.
On the eve of heading to New York state to address its teachers union, he has no speech written. "Those note cards? I would lose them," he says. "I'm not a real scripted guy."
But for being an off-the-cuff speaker, Erpenbach is consistently on-message. "You just say what's in your heart and on your mind. Maybe in the end, if you're passionate about it, you can talk about something forever."
Born to run
Erpenbach is a Middleton native, a 1979 graduate of Middleton High School, the third of four kids born to William and Liz Erpenbach. His dad was a high school guidance counselor in Middleton who went on to work for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for 30-some years; his mom taught first grade in Waunakee.
It was what he terms "a politically active family." But, even so, "this, as a career, was the last thing I thought of."
His older sister, Mary, remembers their mother and a group of neighborhood moms driving their kids around town to leaflet doors, and terms the family "civically engaged." Both parents served on the Middleton city council and various city committees.
The siblings were close. Mary remembers when they were kids, the two liked to stay up late on Friday nights and watch Ferdie's Inferno, a local presentation of B-horror flicks, and "we both really, really liked music."
After she bought Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album, "I ran home and put it on the record player in my room, and within a minute, Jon was in my room, saying. 'What is this, who is this?' And I remember the two of us sitting on my bed, while we went over the liner notes and the lyrics."
At Middleton High, Erpenbach was among a group that put a VW bug on the roof of the school as a senior prank - all it took was "15 guys and a really strong rope." After graduation, he headed to UW-Oshkosh, where he lasted "about 20 minutes." (His official bio puts his attendance from 1979-81.)
"I had a great time," Erpenbach says with smile. Age 18 was "not the best time for me to go to college. I had a job at the student union. I had money, and I had a good time."
When the guidance department suggested a leave might be in order, Erpenbach got an internship at a Madison radio station, which led to stints as a host at stations in Portage and Milwaukee as well as Madison.
"My first real on-air job was in Portage, which was a blast," he says. "You didn't get paid much at all, but you had to do everything from news to sports, the farm market reports - it was great." (Erpenbach has stated elsewhere that he used to play "as much Springsteen as I could.")
After about a decade in radio, he was looking for something a little more stable. Ironically, even politics seemed more stable than radio; he started work at the legislative caucus in communications, then later as an aide for Joe Wineke, then representing the 27th Senate District.
The 27th District includes townships north and west of Lake Mendota (including Madison's north and far west sides), much of Fitchburg, southwest Dane County, all of Green County, and small blocks of Rock and LaFayette counties.
When Wineke decided against running again in 1998, Erpenbach stepped into politics in earnest. His race against Republican Nancy Mistele was the most expensive in the state's history at that time, and, although she outspent Erpenbach by 40%, he won by 13.2 points. He ran unopposed in 2006 and defeated Republican Kurt Schlicht in 2010 with nearly 62% of the vote.
Erpenbach holds a second, part-time job at the Marriott-West, driving the courtesy shuttle van. That's right. "Back and forth to the airport, to and from Epic [Systems, in Verona], help with luggage, recommend sights to see, restaurants, whatever they need," says Erpenbach. Do hotel guests recognize him?
"Sometimes," he says. When they do, they're "usually curious about what's going on politically in the state."
Erpenbach has always had a part-time job, noting that while he thinks legislator salaries are adequate, even generous, he has two kids to send to college. He's previously worked stocking Frito-Lay products on grocery shelves, as well as a "short order cook, meat packer, truck driver, and city of Middleton recreation instructor," according to his campaign bio.
Another of Erpenbach's part-time jobs was at the old Land's End call center in Cross Plains, answering phones. "They just drilled customer service into you," he remembers, and he finds that an applicable lesson for state government. The state must provide good customer service.
"Hire more people at the DOT," he advises. "Hire more people at Revenue. That basic customer service is missing."
As Erpenbach sees it, "People like the governor, or me, come and go." But longtime state employees "know how things work. They know how to be more responsive to customers. Then you can streamline, and save money."
In February, when Erpenbach was in Illinois and public school in Middleton was canceled as teachers called in sick to protest, he sent his two high-school-age children, Joey and Amy, down to his office "to answer phones." Later he was amused to see photos of the two of them hanging out his office window waving to protesters.
On Feb. 17, on his way down to Illinois, Erpenbach called his sister to say he "might need some help with the kids." (Erpenbach, who is divorced, has the kids "most of the time," and characterizes his relationship with his ex-wife as amicable.)
Mary remembers the day. "There was a sense of, all of a sudden, something just huge was happening, as opposed to another roadblock or difficulty or anything that goes along with legislative politics."
His sister thinks the experience of fleeing the state "didn't change Jon. It's funny. It would have changed me. I think it would have changed most people. But he's still positive, hopeful, engaged. That's one thing I remember about Jon growing up. He couldn't say anything bad about anybody. It just wasn't in him."
In his spare time - when he's not ferrying people in the hotel van - Erpenbach likes golfing, reading and hanging out with friends, many of whom have been in his circle since high school. He makes it a point to spend "as much time as possible with the kids, even if I have to force them to."
He pauses, as if this doesn't sound like enough activities, and mumbles something to the effect of "Maybe I need to get a life."
A recurring theme on signs held by anti-Walker demonstrators is to note the governor's lack of a college degree. Since that's also true of Erpenbach, does that ever rankle? No, Erpenbach says. "It's no secret that I don't have a degree."
But Erpenbach is perhaps kinder than some toward this aspect of Walker's résumé: "There are certain experiences you get along the way that do help you do your job that you'd never get in college."
Erpenbach would like to finish his degree, probably online, in political science or public administration. "If you have kids, it's hard to tell them that a college degree is important when you don't have one," he says. But ultimately, "a degree should be important to yourself."
Education is one of Erpenbach's big issues, and Walker's cuts in education funding and increases in the school choice program aggravate him deeply. He worries that expanding the voucher system and getting rid of income requirements will result in public schools that are "dumping grounds" for special needs and ESL students.
Mainstreaming special needs students, Erpenbach argues, has been a huge success. "When I went to school, they were bused away and you never saw them," he says. "This generation, going out into the world, they know how to treat people with special needs. They understand that everyone has something to offer."
It's part of Erpenbach's larger egalitarian worldview. "We did not form a more perfect union to save a buck," he says. "It means chipping in" to help others, to help everyone. "You can't trade a special needs student to another state. You can't lay kids off. That work needs to be done."
While Erpenbach was in Illinois, he watched videos of the protests at the Capitol and was impressed by how people had, as he puts it, "checked out of their lives not once but many times" to make their voices heard in Madison.
Those protests should have been the governor's first indication that his budget proposals were a bad idea, says Erpenbach, but "he's tone deaf. There is no compassion in those eyes. He may think he's doing the right thing, but he's not."
Does he think that Walker was listening at all?
"No," comes Erpenbach's quick answer. "All he had to do was open his window," he continues with staccato force. "These were not 'slobs.' In many cases, these were the people who elected Scott Walker to office."
A continuing thorn in Erpenbach's side is the ongoing restrictions on Capitol access. He doesn't quite dismiss the Republican "death threat" excuse, which he agrees needs to be taken seriously. But "those are not the first death threats and they won't be the last" received at the Capitol.
"The state patrol is still in there, and they should be keeping people safe on highways," Erpenbach says. Instead, they're putting school kids through metal detectors.
"In fourth grade, you study Wisconsin history and you take a trip to the Capitol," he notes. "And the first thing the kids used to do was go in and look up at the dome. Now the first experience they have at the Capitol is that they are wanded."
Erpenbach's ire on the topic bled through during a committee hearing in late May on concealed carry. At one point he asked Sen. Pam Galloway (R-Wausau) if she thought concealed weapons should be allowed in the Capitol. Galloway looked uncomfortable, like it was a trick question, which in a sense it was.
"Flash back to four weeks ago," Erpenbach suggested.
Galloway had been arguing that there should be no exceptions to the concealed carry for public places - like bars and day-care facilities. Yes, Galloway finally admitted, concealed weapons should be allowed in the Capitol.
"Then what's the point of having metal detectors?" Erpenbach returned. "Then there's no need to have the state troopers here."
As Galloway calmly outlined why having concealed carry in the Capitol would be perfectly okay, a note of sarcasm crept into Erpenbach's generally businesslike demeanor.
"Yes, you've been really consistent on that."
The version of the bill that passed in the state Senate this week with bipartisan support will allow weapons in the Capitol.
On candid camera
Erpenbach has taken to social media, particularly Facebook and his video series Erpenbach to the People. Both were "a good way to reach people" when he was in Illinois, and he still finds it a useful way to explain to voters what specific issues may mean for them. "People are responsive. People comment. I read them, good, bad and indifferent."
The original videos - friendly, to-the-point (usually less than a minute long) and impassioned - were direct addresses to the public. They came about completely by chance, when Madison video producer Katy Sai ran into Erpenbach in a Chicago hotel lobby when he was "in hiding" and Sai was on a weekend vacation. Why not try a direct-to-YouTube video series, she said, to keep in touch, inform constituents of where things were at and when the 14 might return?
They were also fun and a little flip, as when Erpenbach characterized collective bargaining as "a tradition in the state of Wisconsin, a lot like euchre, or sheepshead, depending on what side of the state you're from."
His latest videos, addressing specific items in the governor's budget, have turned more serious and doubled in length.
Erpenbach has been mentioned as a possible candidate to run for Herb Kohl's U.S. Senate seat in 2012. He says this is "not something I'm interested in," but allows that he might run for the state's 2nd Congressional District, "if Tammy runs for the U.S. Senate seat."
For now, Erpenbach is focused on the upcoming recall elections, "both to hang on to [Democratic Sens.] Jim Holperin and Dave Hansen and Bob Wirch, and to work real hard for the Democrats who are running against the [recalled] Republicans."
Clearly, the best way Wisconsin Democrats can stop the GOP agenda, moving forward, is with a Senate majority. "At that point, the governor will have to sit down and talk to the Democrats, something he has chosen not to do. It will force the governor to govern the way I think any governor should, and that's by consensus, and by bringing in as many people as possible to try to work out an issue."
Nobody has a crystal ball on the recalls, but Erpenbach is optimistic. Regardless of the outcomes, though, he warns of an even larger battle.
The fight over collective bargaining and the budget and Medicaid, he says, has diverted attention from an extreme agenda on social issues, legislation directed at "your morals and values and thoughts."
"People don't know it's going to be coming, but it's something I'm extremely concerned about," Erpenbach says. "Whether it's legislating what's going on in your bedroom, or your house, or who you can be with and who you can't be with, who gets benefits and who doesn't. We've seen it in the talk of immigration legislation being introduced that is as tough as Arizona's if not tougher.
"All that has yet to really come forward. But it's there."