The Awl: In Madison: Scott Walker Packed His Budget Address With Ringers

March 2, 2011- 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 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.


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