March 9, 2012 by Michael Matheson
[Two years ago today, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-13) and the State Republicans held a last-minute session to remove the union busting portion of Walker’s controversial budget bill and pass it as the separate Act 10. Introduced the month before, the budget bill was so draconian that the 14 Democrats fled the state to avoid quorum and give the people time to read it. On March 9, with the Dems still in Illinois, under the cover of darkness and in what appeared to be violation of open meeting law, Republicans called the session, and immediately 5,000 protesters stormed the building to bear witness and demand justice. Later, Republicans were found guilty by Judge Sumi, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court. Former Republican Representative turned Justice David Prosser was declared the winner after a controversial recount of the race against Joanne Kloppenburg. WCMC remembers this day.]
Sometime around 4:00pm on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, several State Troopers assigned to the Wisconsin State Capitol laughed and cheerily exclaimed, “Here she comes again!” as Rachel Veum, the Senate’s Records and Forms Management Specialist awkwardly ran past them in her wooden clogs. In her hand, Rachel held a notice of a meeting for a Joint Committee of Conference to take place at 6:00pm that day. That notice required the signatures of Senate Majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, the presiding officers for the Joint Committee of Conference meeting, prior to being officially posted.
Veum obtained the signature of Senator Fitzgerald minutes later on the floor of the Senate. She then proceeded to Representative Jeff Fitzgerald’s office but was unable to locate him. Ultimately, while noisily hastening through the Capitol in her clogs, the assemblyman was located in the office of his brother. She proceeded to make copies of the notice and post them at three locations: the Senate bulletin board, on a board resting on an easel located at the top of the steps outside of the vestibule of the Senate Chambers, and on the Assembly bulletin board. It was well after 4:00pm before any notices of the meeting had been posted.
At 4:24pm on March 9, 2011, Rachel Veum emailed a scanned copy of the Joint committee of Conference meeting notice to Dick Wheeler, at his request. The publisher of the on-line news service, “The Wheeler Report” may have personally observed Veum’s dash through the Capitol. Perhaps the most widely available notice of the Committee Conference was posted on the Wheeler Report shortly afterwards. Jeff Renk, a staffer with the Senate Chief Clerk’s office, published the notice on the Capitol web-page shortly after the days final page update at 5:00pm. At 5:15pm he called the technical department to make sure that the information would be updated before 6:00pm.
Although the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin would later rule that the unusual antics concerning the notice of the meeting for a Joint committee of Conference on March 9, 2011 were within the constitutional powers of the Senate’s Republican leadership, the meeting had been planned since at least the 7th of March. On that Monday, Bob Lang, the Director of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, was asked to remove all of the fiscal items from Assembly Bill 11, Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill”. This tactic removed the constitutional requirement for a quorum in the Senate. While all 14 Senate Democrats remained in Illinois, the Republican majority had decided to vote not on fiscal items, but on removing the rights of public employees to collectively bargain.
In the days leading up to March 9, 2011 Wisconsin citizens had experienced something unusual and unprecedented in the history of the State: The doors of the Capitol had been locked. Shortly after the Assembly’s questionable vote on AB11 during the early morning hours of February 25, the Department of Administration began implementing a series of restrictive policies, including security checkpoints, culminating with a complete lock down of the building during the last week of February. That Friday, police began handing out a flier announcing that the Capitol would be cleaned beginning at 4:00pm and restricting sleeping locations and items permitted in the building. Shortly afterwards, the police union announced that their members would be sleeping over that night. Although initially able to maintain the occupation of the Capitol, the last protestors left, by their own accord, on Thursday, March 3 in response to a court order.
That Thursday, University of Wisconsin Police Chief Susan Riseling reported that 41 rounds of .22-caliber ammunition had been discovered scattered around the Capitol grounds. The Madison Police Department also announced that live ammunition had been scattered throughout the City-County Building. The discoveries were made at the very moment attorneys were arguing in the courtroom of Judge John Albert concerning the access policies at the Capitol. Judge Albert would rule later that afternoon that the protesters must leave when the building closes, but that the DOA must “open the state Capitol to all members of the public and rescind the access policies put in place (Monday) and replace them with the access policies in effect on Jan. 28, 2011.” It would be almost 2 months before the Walker Administration complied with this order.
Restrictions to access of the Capitol spurred outrage, confusion, and absurdity. On Tuesday March 1st, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney withdrew his deputies announcing they would not serve as “palace guards“. Legislators found entering their work place difficult if not impossible, including Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman who provocatively strolled among a crowd of angry protestors, only to find that his access to the building was equally restricted. On Wednesday March 2nd, retired Congressman Dave Obey was denied entrance to the building to attend the 100th anniversary of the Joint Finance Committee. Responding to their constituents inability to enter the Capitol, several Assembly Democrats moved their desks on to the lawn.
On Thursday March 3, several thousand protestors staged a New Orleans style funeral procession from the UW Library Mall to the Capitol. That evening, several dozen protestors gained access to the building although all were eventually removed. Later that night, Assemblyman Nick Milroy attempted to enter the building to retrieve some clothing from his office. While asserting his rights as a Legislator, Milroy was tackled by law enforcement. In a statement Milroy said, “Law officers are doing the best they can with the orders given to them. I think they’re doing a great job but because they come from every corner of the state, it’s hard for a good communication system. The rules keep changing… who can keep up with the confusion.”
By Monday March 7, confusion still reigned. Public access to the Capitol remained restricted, with airport type security protocols, severely limiting the ability of people to enter. Protest was prohibited outside of the ground floor. On Tuesday, the Capitol Police issued a list of items prohibited from the building, including vuvuzelas, crockpots, massage chairs, balloons, and trash can lids. By this time, a team of staff from the Legislative Reference Bureau and the Legislative Council offices were performing the task of removing fiscal items from Assembly Bill 11. The finished work would be in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald the following day, Wednesday March 9, 2011.
In the wake of a large rally the previous Saturday, the Capitol was relatively calm that Wednesday. Access was limited to two doors, the King St & N Hamilton St entrances. Around 3:00pm, Deputy Capitol Police Chief Dan Blackdeer decided to release many of the on-duty officers because it “had been a very slow day”. At approximately 4:00pm, Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs called Blackdeer and informed him that “something would be happening in the Senate that night and not to release any more people”. News of the Joint Committee of Conference spread through social networks around 5:00pm and people began flocking to the Capitol. At that very time, Senate Sergeant at Arms Ted Blazel requested officers to be sent to the Senate Chambers and Senate Parlor, where the meeting was scheduled to occur. Because of an insufficient number of officers on-duty, the decision was made to close the N Hamilton St entrance to the Capitol.
As 6:00pm approached, the line of people attempting to enter the Capitol grew longer. Entry was stunted by the security protocols as the crowd of over a hundred people grew increasingly apprehensive. Two young men, starting at the very end of the line, informed the waiting crowd that they were going to pull the pins on the 2 locked doorways on either side of the entrance. They advised people to rush into the vestibule. Moments later the doors flew open, and the crowd rushed into the building. Initially loud and raucous, chanting, “Let Us In“, then using the “peace sign” to indicate quiet for communication, law enforcement agreed that everyone could enter the building after passing through screening.
The Joint Committee of Conference Meeting was convened at 6:03pm. In attendance were Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), Senator Michael Ellis (R-Neenah), Representative Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), Representative Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) and Representative Peter Barca (D-Kenosha). Senator Scott Fitzgerald presided. Each was provided with a memorandum from Bob Lang containing the modifications to AB 11. Around 6:05pm as the crowd grew in the hallways around the Senate Parlor, Representative Barca questioned the legality of the meeting under the Open Meetings Law. While expressing his objections of the failure to give 24 hour notice and the fact that he had not received or reviewed the Lang memorandum prior to the meeting, roll was called and the Republican committee members quickly voted to recommend adoption of Conference Substitute Amendment 1 and adjourned. They then rose in unison and exited the parlor. Peter Barca remained to explain his objections to the press and the 20 people who had been admitted to the meeting. He was asked if the Senate planned to “go to the floor tonight.” His response to the question was delivered barely two minutes before the Senate reconvened in special session, “That I do not know, you’ll have to ask them.”
Sometime around 5:40pm, law enforcement had escorted 24 people into the center Senate Gallery. The seats in the side galleries were empty when the Capitol Police locked the doors because of the security breach at the King St entrance to the Capitol. Outside the Senate Parlor and Chamber, it was not clear what was actually occurring. Upon adjournment of the Conference Committee, many reporters had returned to the Press Room. People in the hallways, checking for information on their smartphones, exchanged conflicting accounts of the proceedings. In fact, at 6:14pm The Senate reconvened and adopted the Joint Committee of Conference report on AB 11, Conference Substitute Amendment 1, immediately messaged it to the Assembly and adjourned at 6:22pm. Only one Senator voted against the measure, Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center). Confused by the initial adjournment of the Conference Committee, reporters began scrambling into the hallway to cover the vote.
Around this time the closing of the Capitol was announced over it’s public address system, ironically noting that the closing was under the court order of Judge John Albert, the same order that had instructed the DOA to open all of the doors to the building. At some point during these events, law enforcement had locked all of the doors. The several hundred people gathered inside declined to obey the order to leave as hundreds more amassed outside of the building. Over the course of the next hour and a half, the crowd inside the Capitol slowly grew in number as law enforcement directed it’s limited resources to contain security breaches around the building. People opened ground floor windows in bathrooms and some legislative offices. Others planned elaborate distractions to misdirect officers while doors were opened at opposite ends of the building. As the crowd grew, people grouped together to block lines of sight, allowing still more people into the the building.
For more than an hour the law enforcement officers assigned to the Wisconsin State Capitol attempted to maintain a security perimeter as the crowd outside grew into the thousands. By 8:00pm, in a hopeless situation, they stood down and people streamed into the building. Shortly afterwards, Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs was observed in the Rotunda inquiring, “Who’s in charge?” For this night, the people were in charge. It is estimated that 7000 people stormed the Wisconsin State Capitol on the evening of March 9, 2011.
Amidst the chaos, the 19 Republican Senators left the Capitol under heavy guard. They were secreted off on a commandeered Madison Metro Bus. The crowd inside the building continued to grow as cars paraded around the inner and outer rings of the Capitol Square honking “this is what democracy looks like.” The occupation would continue through the remainder of the night, waning in the early morning hours of March 10th, when Capitol Police were able to once again lock the building down. Some slept in the hallway blocking the office of Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, positioning themselves in a final act of civil disobedience against the passage of the bill. The Assembly was scheduled to reconvene that morning at 11:00am. While police physically removed the demonstrators, Assembly Democrats found themselves locked out of the building. Some climbed through the office windows of their colleagues, others waited. After finally gaining admittance to the building, they found themselves locked out of the Assembly Chambers. It would later be revealed that much of the delay of that morning was not due to the disruption caused by civil disobedience, but by Bob Lang, the Director of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. He had determined that Conference Substitute Amendment 1, passed by the Joint Committee of Conference on March 9th, actually contained fiscal items. He prepared another memorandum, dated it March 10, 2011, and distributed it by email at 11:50am that morning.Shortly after 3:30pm, by a vote of 53-42, the Assembly passed 2011 Wisconsin Act 10.
Many people contributed to this story by providing their experience of March 9, 2011 through the social network utilized on that night. Their recollections can be found here.
Special thanks to: LSSR, WCMC, Brenda Konkel, and Rebecca Kemble.