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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Overcast
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When your governor doesn't listen
Some advice for the ill-treated citizens of Wisconsin
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Credit:Linda Falkenstein

Dear Linda: My new governor seems controlling and doesn't listen to me when I try to talk with him. I've had governors before, and while things weren't ever perfect, this feels really different. I don't feel respected, and I feel like it's more about him than about us. What can I do to make this relationship work?

- Worried populace

Dear Worried: Face it, Wisconsin. If Scott Walker were treating a person the way he is treating our state, you'd tell that poor soul to get the heck out of the relationship. You'd say "run."

Even if you are no fan of unions, you should be alarmed at how Walker communicates with the citizens of his state. This whole impasse started when he wanted to quickly pass his "budget repair bill" within six days of its introduction, scant time to discuss it. And anyway, discussion has been a moot point, as Walker has from the beginning insisted he will not compromise.

The people have been trying to get Walker to listen since Feb. 14, when a bunch of UW students brought valentines to the Capitol. There has never been any indication that the governor has paid attention to what citizens are trying to say. If he did listen, he would learn a lot.

I've been out talking to protesters almost every day. It's a simple approach, one the governor could try. It goes like this: "Hi. Where are you from? Is this your first day here? Why did you decide to come today?"

People are not shy about telling their stories. They are concerned about their futures and the future of this state.

They are mostly Wisconsin residents. They travel here from all over the state, like the young correctional officer from Eau Claire who'd made the three-and-a-half-hour drive a couple of times but couldn't always stay in Madison long. "Child care, you know," he said with a shrug.

They're people like Peggy Arnold, a retired schoolteacher battling stage 4 breast cancer who had, when I talked to her on Feb. 25, come to the Capitol 10 days in a row for "at least six hours a day." Her purpose was to let people know some of the benefits that unions have brought to women teachers over the years - things like equal pay with men, maternity leave and sick day banks.

Although this is a serious fight, dear Worried, the mood has never been dismal, not even in the cold and damp. I have been elated by my fellow Wisconsinites' sense of humor; their outrage that has not descended into bitterness.

I loved the kids from a Racine high school pep squad who stood outside the Capitol doing political cheers like "This bill is bananas" on mini-megaphones. And the five students from the UW group Madtown Ballroom dancing to disco tunes via an iPod and a scratchy boombox at the South Hamilton Street entranceway on a chilly Friday afternoon "to show solidarity with everyone."

And the lone trumpeter walking around the Capitol playing the notes of doom used in the score to Star Wars whenever Darth Vader comes on the scene. And the guy making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and giving them away. And the ad hoc oompah band playing "If you want to be a Badger." And the delicious, ironic sprouting of inflatable palm trees - a jab at Fox News' attempt to fob off footage from a protest in Sacramento, tropical foliage in the background, as being from Madison.

But that spirit is up against a campaign of consistent misinformation - and not only with regard to the budget bills.

Consider the outlandish estimate of $7.5 million to repair "damage" to the Capitol, reduced to $350,000 one day later - after the impression had been generated that the building was somehow ruined. Now some feel even this lower figure is an exaggeration.

Or the Department of Administration's crowd estimate of the rally last Saturday, March 5. It came up with the number 12,000 for a crowd the Madison Police Department placed at 30,000-40,000. Well, well. Crowd estimation truly is an art and not a science.

Moreover, dear Worried, the national media have also failed to give the state the respect it deserves. The New York Times has consistently done Wisconsin a disservice, from initial coverage that drew plaudits from Walker himself (during his phone chat with the fake David Koch) to the condescending description of Rotunda protesters "seiz[ing] their 'I Have a Dream' moment."

(Yes, everything is a "moment" now. Maybe the Times would like to seize its "Woodward and Bernstein moment" on this one.)

But forget the East Coast. Forget The Ed Show and The Daily Show and all the rest. Remember that we learned to sing "This Land Is Your Land" in elementary school, and that we read The Grapes of Wrath in high school (in my case, at a school named after Wisconsin's great progressive, Robert M. La Follette). And let us never forget that we are not saps for insisting that, in the United States, the people have a voice and their governor should listen.

Linda Falkentein is a fourth-generation Wisconsinite and features editor for Isthmus.

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