This report is part II in a two-part series on a behind-the-scenes look at the Wisconsin collective bargaining fight. Read part I here.
WASHINGTON -- On Feb. 17, the state Senate was set to vote on the budget repair bill containing the anti-union measure. That morning, Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) convened his caucus and told them to bring a change of clothes. They then decided to leave the state and head for Rockford, Ill.
But they immediately ran into a snag.
State Sen. Tim Cullen's (D-Janesville) close friend, a former legislator and state Supreme Court justice, had recently passed away. Cullen had promised the family that he would take care of some administrative issues, which would require him to be in the Capitol.
"Our denying a quorum only worked if all 14 of us were gone," said Miller in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post. "If any one of us was available for a roll call at any time, it would have created a quorum and it wouldn't have mattered that the other 13 were gone. So we were extraordinarily nervous about him, saying he was willing to come with us, but he had to fulfill this obligation to the family."
The incident ended up highlighting one of the few moments of bipartisan cooperation and humanity in the entire conflict. Cullen explained his situation to Wisconsin Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), who promised not to call the Senate back into session until he was out of the building.
"It took him a little longer than he thought, so Ellis actually called him, and he was just leaving the building. He said, 'Alright, I’ll give you another' -- I forget, 10 minutes or 20 minutes -- before they actually called the Senate into session. So Tim Cullen was on his way to the border when he finally did it. We got clear," said Miller.
That comity didn't last forever. Ellis took some heat for helping Democrats from University of Wisconsin Law School professor and conservative blogger Ann Althouse, and by March 2, he was using less-than-delicate language pressuring them to come back to the state.
“They are not heroes," he said. "They may be to those who support their position, but they are in effect traitors to the democracy they are supposed to represent. That may be a very strong word, and I may have to rescind it later when I see my friend [state Sen.] Bob Jauch. If he ever comes back.”
Ellis did not return a request for comment.
Wisconsin's Democratic state senators -- the Wisconsin 14, as they came to be known -- stayed away for 21 days. That was 21 days without their families, 21 days Gov. Scott Walker's (R-Wis.) budget repair bill couldn't move forward and 21 days for thousands of people to turn out at the state capitol and turn the nation's attention to what was happening in the Badger State.
In Wisconsin for those three weeks, there were massive protests in the state Capitol, with some people spending the night in the building's rotunda. Madison taxi cabs -- part of the "Union Cab" brand -- went around honking to the tune of the chant, "This is what democracy looks like." And Walker, of course, had his infamous phone call with who he thought was conservative billionaire David Koch, who turned out to be a journalist in Buffalo, N.Y.
Across state lines in Illinois, Wisconsin Democrats were struggling with the burden of staying away in order to show the nation what their GOP colleagues were trying to do, all the while knowing that in the end, Republicans could pass the anti-union measure in exactly the fashion they ended up doing.
Several senators secretly returned to Wisconsin on various occasions -- a risky move, considering Senate Republicans had ordered the arrest of their boycotting colleagues, and a fact that went unnoticed at the time.
Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), who was pregnant during the crisis, went back for a doctor's appointment. Another senator went home to see his family, but when he came back, he reported to his colleagues that, "My wife told me I need to stay here [in Illinois]," showing the commitment of the lawmakers' families to what they were doing.
"Our spouses could go down to the capitol or go to a demonstration in their area and see the energy that was being generated by the demonstrations," said Miller. "They recognized the huge significance and the power of the people protesting. And we'd kind of missed out on some of that direct energy. We could see it through the TV and so forth, but it's different when you're actually there."
But despite occasional press reports that Democrats and Republicans were possibly close to reaching a deal on the labor issue, Miller said the reality was that they were never close.
"When the Governor's Office wasn't returning our calls, I asked all my members to call any Republican that you have a relationship with and see if you can establish a line of communication. And that was unsuccessful."
"[It] really never went anywhere," he added of efforts to reach out. "The conditions that I wanted for ending the negotiations was ... a third party that could tell the truth about what was actually agreed to, and that we have to take collective bargaining off the table. But we never got to those negotiations. They never got spelled out."
When Senate Republicans passed the bill at the last minute -- with very little public notice -- the "Wisconsin 14," as the Democratic senators became known, were still in Illinois.
"We initially started to respond to it, and then decided it was pointless," said Miller, adding, "So then once it passed, there was no real purpose for us to stay because the damage had been done. So we decided to come back."
The next day, which was a Saturday, there was a huge rally in protest of what the legislature had done. That was the first time the senators were able to attend the protests in person -- a moment that Miller said he'll never forget.
"We got a chance to address the crowd, and it was very emotional on both sides," he said. "I mean, the people in the crowd were reaching out and touching us, their tears rolling down their eyes, and grabbing onto us as though we were the symbol of all their hopes. It was very emotional. The crowd was just as far as you could see, everywhere ya look, the streets were full of people, cheering 'Thank you' and 'This is what democracy looks like,' and 'Hey hey, ho ho; Scott Walker's got to go,' one after another."
"During our absence, the public outcry and mobilization occurred in a way that is just unbelievable to understand and appreciate. It is amazing what has happened not only in Wisconsin, but across the country. And so what we see is a popular movement against the right wing extremism that has a real chance of succeeding."
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