In Madison: Scott Walker Packed His Budget Address With Ringers

by Abe Sauer

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s budget address was delivered beneath a dead and stuffed eagle. His address made commitments to a better educated Wisconsin, even while offering almost guaranteed decreased funding of the state’s schools. He criticized the state’s wasteful use of “our tobacco settlement,” and then minutes later praised, for his “bold new ideas and strong leadership,” former Republican Tommy Thompson — the state’s key architect of that tobacco settlement spending.

He twice passed into reverence for “our state’s constitution,” even while it was being broken two floors below him: the Capitol’s doors were still locked.

One possible reason for why the doors remained locked to Wisconsin citizens nearly six hours after a judge ordered them open soon became clear. The assembly gallery had been packed with ringers.

In the run up to Walker’s address, a press pass allowed me access to the goings on inside the dome, as well as to the assembly address itself.¹

By noon, as chants of “Let us in” at the King Street entrance to the Capitol grew, none of the police officers I spoke with knew what was happening. Everyone had heard a judge had ordered the doors open, including the thousand or more demonstrators outside, but nobody knew who actually would say “open the doors.” One sheriff’s deputy guarding access to the west wing said he only knew to do what the DNR officer in charge told him to do. Later, just after Walker’s address finished, I found myself face to face with grim-looking Madison Police Chief Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs. “What’s going on here?” I asked. “We’re still debating,” he said. I tried to follow up; “Later, later,” he said. I never saw him again.

The Department of Administration’s battle against the judge’s order to open the capitol is ongoing. (Follow the Isthmus reporter in the courtroom, Alison Bauter, for the latest.)

About 120 porters remained in the capitol from the night before. Wearing his construction hat, Chad from Cross Plains said he’s been in the dome for days now; his boyish face was just barely sprouting patchy whiskers. He is with Union Local No. 599, Operative Plasterers’ & Cement Masons’ International, who constructed and renovated the capitol. “We built this place,” he said. “And I’m not leaving.”

(A bit of service journalism for the politically active in Wisconsin. “Koch” is pronounced “coke.” This detail makes many of the otherwise “clever” Koch-pun signs invalid.)

Another group was the drum circle; they appeared not to have left since last Wednesday. Their energy was high and sporadically they would break into loud percussion. The children’s area has reopened on the second floor and for those concerned, yes, food is still quietly getting in.

Sitting behind the Capitol’s information desk in his green vest, Jim gave directions to protesters, media and even legislators. He’s been a seasonal Capitol tour guide for the last 12 years. Jim grew up in Medford and claims his friends were the founders of Tombstone Pizza. He moved to Madison 30 years ago. “Everyone who moves to Madison never leaves,” he said. Jim said that usually at this time they get more than a thousand fourth-graders a day as part of their government education class — “some from northern Illinois even, as Springfield is too far to drive.” Asked if he’ll ever work recent events into his tour, he said, maybe — but that “I just give you the facts.”

Throughout the afternoon, those having an appointment with a legislator were allowed access, with each legislator only allowed a small number of badges. At about 2 p.m., I noticed an increase in the number of men in suits and long overcoats being brought into the capitol and then allowed upstairs. One sheriff’s deputy asked me, as four more came in, “Do you know who those guys are?” Later, I would find out.

Thanks to mobile technology, those with access to the Capitol really know very little more than those locked outside. In fact, without fast access to email, Twitter, and numerous news sites, I am, in a way, less well-informed while inside the capitol than somebody sitting with a laptop at home… anywhere.

At 3:40 p.m., I took a spot in the back of the Assembly room and waited for Walker.

In a red suit that screamed “Look at me, fuckers” Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch worked the Republican side of the assembly like a brothel’s madam. From the way she bawdily glad-handed among the Republican leadership, it was clear that Kleefisch, a former TV news reporter renowned for refusing to debate her opponent during the 2010 election, thinks she is somehow important to the GOP’s goals in Wisconsin. She thinks she’s a player. It’s adorable.

The shades were drawn and, with the limited number of protesters in the Capitol below, one wouldn’t have known there was anything at all going on outside… or inside. In the background, a dim drum beat could be heard. Only during Dan LeMahieu’s (R-59) pre-event prayer did a huge cheer go up from outside. Reporters and legislators alike largely ignored it.

Peter Barca (D-64) said many Democrats had a difficult time coming to the event and he lodged his “concern” that the address “might be a violation of the open meetings law” and “if we don’t follow our own rules we cease to be a nation of laws.”

Whatever, dude.

Walker entered to thunderous applause, though not from the Democrats, who refused to rise. At least two-thirds of the East audience galley was loudly applauding but they had nothing on the West coast. It was now clear who the men in business attire were. Nearly without exception, the west gallery was all men in black suits and, when the governor said something meaningful, they all rose and applauded, and they did it with verve and volume. I’m not saying these guys were not from Wisconsin, but if you know Wisconsin, you know for a fact that even for most businessmen, black suits are not part of the wardrobe. In general, the only time one will see a large gathering of Wisconsin men in black suits is at a funeral, or, apparently at a Governor Walker budget address.

Reporter Kristin Knutsen found evidence that many of these ringers may have entered through the capitol’s access tunnels, noting the presence of the Division of Criminal Investigation — the same officers I saw upstairs outside the Assembly chambers following the address escorting unidentified men.

Needless to say, with no citizens allowed past the doors, and none of the rotunda’s encamped protesters allowed past the first floor, the GOP had stacked the audience. So what if the move is declared unconstitutional now? Walker’s address, and the heavy applause, has already been broadcast.

* * *

In the coming days, everyone is going to hear a lot of specifics about what Walker’s bill means. Some will say it means 10% of teachers will be laid off. Others will say it means a $900 million cut to education and a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin system — all while increasing funding to prisons. After the address, outside, I asked one of a handful of protesting corrections officers if Walker’s commitment to spending more on prisons in any way offset him losing his collective bargaining rights. Brian — a corrections officer from Black River — said, “No. And anyway, I don’t see him doing it.”

There are already rumors that one of the 14 AWOL Democratic senators is returning. That’s a rumor. Do the research. Don’t believe any one source.

After the address, some of the Democrats addressed those in the rotunda. Nick Milroy (D-73) thundered against Walker’s promise to deliver 250,000 new jobs in four years: “It’s clear now those jobs are going to be in license plate manufacturing.” David Cullen (D-13) said: “Screw the middle class, that’s Scott Walker’s message.” One accidentally criticized the Tea Party, and was reprimanded by a guy who said, “Hey, I’m the tea party!” Apologies were made.

While spirits were high, the Democrat rebuttal message came across a bit like a eulogy. Taking turns standing atop a plastic delivery crate and using a small PA system to address no more than 80, each encouraged listeners to go back to their communities and fight there. “We’ve done all we can do here,” one said.

I exited the capitol into blazing sunset. While many spoke of a collecting gloom inside, it had been a sunny day in Wisconsin, a real rarity. Thousands and thousands of protesters appeared as my eyes adjusted. “What’s going on in there?” one goateed man yelled.

“Is the address over? Is it still going on?” asked another. “How many are in there?”

I left them at the King Street entrance. They were still chanting: “Let us in!” On the way to my car, I passed the Northeast Wisconsin Fox affiliate shooting an update. While its parent was willing to trip over itself to cover any gathering of tea partiers greater than 100, Fox 11 has chosen to shoot from the vantage of East Washington — highlighting a nearly empty Capitol grounds.

Of all the angles of the Capitol, that one up East Washington is the sole view that would make it appear as if nobody was there. (Though, I’m not even sure why Fox 11 is even bothering given that Fox News has just started passing off stock footage of fights as the Wisconsin protests.)

Thousands continue to gather every night at their capitol in Madison. Many are now camping out on the grounds overnight.

Sure, they are teachers and corrections officials and nurses and other public employees who stand to lose the most from the bill. But increasingly, the numbers of private employees joining those threatened are the very middle class private employees who’ve seen recent statements by the governor as indicative that he’s coming for them next — including his plans for BadgerCare recipients to pay more for the coverage as they get jobs in the private sector.

And now, some of them are even self-identified Walker voters. And like good Wisconsin boys, they’re apologizing for it.

¹ The press credential process at the state capitol was not set up to handle a lockdown situation. Passes are issued by the press corps themselves, and while generous, they are faced with having to make the difficult decision about who to credential as legitimate press and who is, say, with the Heritage Foundation. The Awl’s pass was arranged by Mr. Dick Wheeler who writes The Wheeler Report, an excellent source of state news and information. Please go follow them on Twitter.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.