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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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From lockdown to shutdown, a day of anger, a day of shame in the Wisconsin Capitol
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Barca: 'This is wrong, terribly wrong.'
Barca: 'This is wrong, terribly wrong.'
Credit:Bill Lueders

The toughest thing I did today was get into the Wisconsin state Capitol. It took more than two hours. For the first time in a month of protests and restricted access, my press credentials actually a thick stack of them, one from each day got me nowhere, at least early on. I'd hold these up to the windows of the doors at the various entrances, and the law enforcement officers inside would look at me and shake their heads.

"Let us in, please," people were shouting, all around the building, as they banged on the building's various closed entrances. "Shame on you!" came a chant from large groups of people outside. Earlier in the day, some demonstrators were forcibly removed, the first time that's happened.

I don't like the idea of reporters having special access. I think any citizen ought to be able to walk into the state Capitol. But the media have in recent weeks enjoyed special access, and that's the only way we've been able to do our jobs.

At 11 a.m. the building's east entrance was opened, and people were allowed to begin trickling in. This was done because the Assembly was supposed to go into session, and the state Constitution makes it illegal for the Legislature to meet if the building were closed.

All were subjected to weapons screening, supposedly because of threats that had been received. This had the effect of preventing most of those who wanted to enter from being able to do so, in a timely fashion.

Just before 1 p.m., I was able to enter, through the building's Martin Luther King entrance. I made my way to the Press Room "give me this day my daily pass" and into the Assembly chamber, where the issue on the floor was whether to remove Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

"This is wrong, terribly wrong," said Rep. Peter Barca, the Assembly's minority leader. He said of the speaker, "Your judgment is impaired." He argued that last night's surprise vote to pass the budget bill in the Senate violated the state's Open Meetings Law and that the denial of access to the building was a travesty. "Democracy is ceasing to exist in the state of Wisconsin."

Assembly Republicans, no surprise, saw it differently. Said Speaker Fitzgerald, "If you want to talk about Democracy not being upheld, talk about your 14 Democratic colleagues [who left the state]." He noted that the budget repair bill had been the subject an 17-hour hearing and a 61-hour legislative session, the longest in state history. And now it was time to do what the public wanted: pass the bill.

"The public spoke," said Fitzgerald, referring to the Nov. 2 election. "They said no more." He reiterated Gov. Scott Walker's tried-and-true line, "We're broke." He admitted passing the bill, which effectively eliminates the collective bargaining rights of most public employees, was a "bold political move" (again a phrase used incessantly by Walker) and "a gamble" (which is not a note Walker has struck). He said Republicans believe "this is the right thing for Wisconsin."

Fitzgerald said that in the 60 hours of legislative testimony, "I didn't see one serious effort to address the budget shortfall." The only idea he heard the Democrats suggest was "tax the rich" an idea Fitzgerald apparently considers so outlandish as to be unworthy of consideration, although most state residents agree this is a good idea.

Then, Fitzgerald tried to present himself as a victim of irrational and dangerous people. He read a presumably anonymous email from someone making ridiculous claims about planting bombs "in and around places where you frequent" as well "putting a nice little bullet in your head." Isn't that the very definition of overkill?

Fitzgerald said most protesters were peaceful but "there are some people out there who have problems" and suggested that allowing full and open access to the Capitol amounted to putting people's lives at risk. "You're going to vote on this bill and it's going to pass. I hope everybody gets home safe."

Rep. Donna Seidel (D-Wausau) spoke in support of the motion to remove Fitzgerald as Speaker, saying the "chaos" the state has experienced over the last several weeks shows "a failure of leadership." Her voice quivered with outrage as she described a scene from yesterday's surprise session, at which "a woman imploring to be heard [was] removed in her wheelchair." She said she and other Democrats were "heartbroken" by what they see happening in their state.

Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) found this ridiculous. "The emotion we hear … is a distraction, a delay tactic, a gimmick," he said. "We all know that." He said the Speaker has followed every rule required of him and now it was time to get on with it. "Democracy is not always easy and it is not always pretty."

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) noted that he has over the last six terms "evolved a lot" and made common cause with Republicans. But what he was seeing now amounted to "a complete meltdown of democracy." He said he felt he was living in a place he no longer recognized, a place he called "Fitzwalkerstan."

"We've locked out the public," said Pocan. "We've locked out the press. We've locked out legislators. … There are no rules in this building anymore." He openly speculated that many of his Republican colleagues would be removed in recall elections for what they were preparing to do today. "[People are being asked to] jump off a cliff [and] you have no idea where the bottom is."

The vote on removing Fitzgerald was defeated 57-38, a party-line vote. Then the Assembly promptly passed the budget repair bill, 53-42. Four Republicans (Dean Kaufert of Neenah, Lee Nerison of Westby, Dick Spanbauer of Oshkosh and Travis Tranel of Cuba City) dissented; that's four fewer recalls.

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