By Ruth Conniff
Last week was the final week of the 2011 – 2012 Wisconsin State Legislature’s regular session. Many dozens of bills were passed by both the Senate and the Assembly, whose final “day,” beginning at 10 am on the Ides of March, lasted a grueling thirty-three hours.
By the end of the day Friday, two of Governor Scott Walker’s generals who crossed the Rubicon with him last year declaring war and Imperium on the public sector and the neediest people of Wisconsin were effectively killed as power brokers. Brothers Jeff and Scott Fitzgerald both lost their leadership positions in the Assembly and Senate respectively. This at a time when the John Doe investigation surrounding alleged campaign violations during Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County Executive spirals closer and closer to Walker himself.
When the final gavel came down around 5:30 pm, bills privatizing public education, curtailing women’s access to reproductive health care, eliminating comprehensive sex education in public schools, and gutting environmental regulations among many, many others were passed on mostly party-line votes. (For more information on these bills, go here, here and here.)
The proceedings were drawn out by a Democratic filibuster on SB 275/AB 353 which hands over the governance of Milwaukee Area Technical College to a nine-member board dominated by business owners. Dubbed the “Stick-It-To-Milwaukee” bill by Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), this and a related bill favor the interests of companies like Caterpillar, Inc. over the needs of staff and students.
Also on the final day of the session, Senator Pam Galloway (R-Wausau) sent out a press release indicating that she was resigning her senate seat. More than 29,000 citizens from her district had signed recall petitions against her, and the election date was recently set for May 8.
Galloway’s resignation leaves the Senate with a 16-16 split, stripping Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) of his Majority Leader status. Wisconsin election law mandates that the recall election still take place, and Rep. Jerry Petrowski (R-Wausau) will face off against former Assembly Assistant Minority Leader Donna Seidel (D-Wausau) for the vacant senate seat.
The slap-happy, sleep-deprived Assembly representatives spent the final half-hour of session saying goodbye to each other. It just so happened that the state high school basketball tournament was being held in Madison during this time. Farewell speeches were peppered with cheers for representatives’ home teams. In fact, the whole scene resembled the last day of school.
This legislative session was marked by the extreme hubris of majority power wielded by assembly Republicans whereby they rarely engaged in floor debate with Democrats because their votes were pre-determined by leadership. In all but a few cases, Republican assembly representatives were warm bodies on the floor rubberstamping the Fitz-Walker agenda. For example, watch this video of Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) giving a passionate speech about public education while the Republican members hold side conversations, wander around the room and crack jokes.
Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), who is giving up his seat to run for U.S. Senate, gave his parting speech to the body. Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbottsford) introduced him as a person who has worked hard to “protect the institution.” To use a turn of phrase favored by Fitzgerald himself, there is a big gap between the rhetoric and reality of that statement since he has been the most divisive leader in recent memory, and he championed Act 21, which abdicates legislative oversight power to the governor.
Fast forward to the 1:41:00 minute mark of part 8 of this video of the proceedings for Suder’s introduction and Fitzgerald’s speech. Stay tuned and watch what happens immediately after. After waxing rhapsodic about the great “dialogue” in the Assembly and all of the Democrats ideas that had merit (but got voted down), freshman member Warren Petryk (R-Eleva), co-founder of the musical entertainment group “The Memories,” is asked to perform a song.
Fitzgerald opened his speech with a final, “I get it, I get it,” which became his shorthand for, “You Democrats know we have the votes to dominate every decision made here so why do you bother speaking at all? Sit down, shut up and let’s get on with it.” He then went on to praise everyone for their public service, and said that despite the “wild ride” this year, what he values most is his relationships with colleagues. He invited them out for a burger and a beer, said he would miss them dearly, and then he was gone.
Stephen “Papa” Fitzgerald is still head of the State Patrol, but by the end of last week most of the Fitz had been removed from Fitzwalkerstan.
It’s as if a spell has been lifted.
It might simply have been the effects of exhaustion, but coming home after covering the death rattle of one of the most divisive and corrupt Wisconsin State Assembly sessions live for 25 hours straight, the warmth of the wood and the intensity of the colors in my house knocked me out. The early budding and leafing of plants melted my heart. The personal connections to my husband, children and parents felt supercharged.
Wisconsinites have been through one hell of a war this year, losing battle after battle with those who would hijack our government and economy for the benefit of a chosen few corporate masters. But an extremely large and diverse group of concerned citizens has responded to the threat of social, economic and environmental devastation posed by Scott Walker’s policies with love, solidarity and a reverence for life that only grows stronger and amplifies throughout the state as the election date for Walker’s recall draws near.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.