The Wisconsin Capitol is a beautiful building.
Schoolchildren and bus tourists gawk at it. I take friends who come with me to Madison there, and they walk its marble halls and ornate staircases and stand in the splended rotunda and stare up, up, up, four and five and six stories up, all the way up to the golden dome and echoing heights of the top of the ceiling. The few times I did any reporting in the statehouse, I wondered how anyone could simply think of it as an office, or a place of business, and become used to the sights and sounds within, and not feel awe. On any day of the year, it is a beautiful building.
On Sunday, it was magnificent.
Some people had rededorated it, you see. They'd hung a small sign in one dark corner: "Home Sweet Home." In another, "Madison 14: We Thank You." A woman with a baby in a stroller circled on the second floor, her hand-lettered shirt reading, "I do not work for the state. I do support the unions." Around and around and around the marble railings, people proclaimed their home towns, their affiliations, their passions: Sauk Prairie Teachers. UW Department of Geography. People of Color Supporting Freedom.
Protesters were fighting to retain the rights of organized labor everywhere, now under siege by the newly elected governor and Republican legislature. Democratic state senators fled the state, avoiding a quorum call on the governor's budget bill, and in their absence the citizens of the state decided to move in. Some carried instruments, a flute, a drum. Others pounded on plastic buckets. A child banged a pot lid and sleigh bell together. "What's disgusting?" they called out during a lull in the music.
Upstairs, in a steamy hearing room, people packed the seats and sat on the floor as Democratic members of the state assembly took testimony, hour after hour.
Library student Alison Gerherd wore scrubs and carried a sign to support her roommate, a CNA who works in a nursing home, caring for the very old and very ill. "She has done things you can't imagine, for $15 an hour," Gerherd told Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, her voice trembling. "To disrespect someone who cares for others like that just isn't right."
Republican Governor Scott Walker's budget bill, SB 11, would strip collective bargaining rights away from unions that have had such rights for decades. Not without going through Gerherd, who has been protesting since Monday.
"I have been here every day and I will be here every day until this is over," she said. "I am not going away. None of us are."
Down in the rotunda, the drumming began again, so loud it could be felt in vibrations in the walls. "Tell me what democracy looks like!"
"THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!"
Mary Hughes-Greer's 89-year-old mother didn't want her child going out in the rain. Not on a bus, anyway, not all the way from Beloit in the cold. But Hughes-Greer needed to disobey her mother in order to honor her.
Her mother taught school in Racine's Unified School district during brutal strikes in the 1970s. Before that, she demonstrated for civil rights, instilling in her daughter a lifelong compassion for others and a bedrock belief in social justice.
"I remember walking around this same square with my mother for civil rights, and this is about civil rights," she said. "We don't need to take people's rights away. We don't need to divide people. We succeed by coming together and having hope, not by taking hope away."
Down in the rotunda, protesters carried signs decrying Walker not only for his move against the unions, but for his extreme right-wing views in general, and especially as enshrined in the bill. "Dread Scott," one sign read. "FORWARD: Our State Motto 1848. BACKWARD: Our State Motto 2011," read another. "Whose house?" people called.
In the hearing room, Sam Kellerman leaned forward into the microphone and read part of the governor's bill aloud:
"16.765 (1) Contracting agencies, the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority, the Fox River Navigational System Authority, the Wisconsin Aerospace Authority, the Health Insurance Risk−Sharing Plan Authority, the Lower Fox River Remediation Authority, the Wisconsin Quality Home Care Authority, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the Bradley Center Sports and Entertainment Corporation shall include in all contracts executed by them a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of age, race, religion, color, handicap, sex, physical condition, developmental disability as defined in s. 51.01 (5), sexual orientation as defined in s. 111.32 (13m), or national origin and, except with respect to sexual orientation, obligating the contractor to take affirmative action to ensure equal employment opportunities."
"Except with respect to sexual orientation," he repeated, his voice shaking. "They have to take action to ensure equal opportunities ... unless you are gay. I am appalled that this state would discriminate against my mother, because she chooses to love my other mother."
As the hearing room rang with applause, he leaned over to his mom, sitting next to him, and folded her into a hug. Out in the hallway, they both wiped away tears.
"I have no intention of backing down from this," he said. "We're going to privatize the state and encourage private contractors to recruit, but not gay people, because they couldn't possibly have anything to contribute."
The governor will formally introduce his budget to the state on March 1. Kellerman said he'd already requested the day off from work so he could be in the streets or the halls of the Capitol, demonstrating with others who believed, as he did, that the state belonged to the public. "This is too big," he said, "to ignore."
Down in the rotunda, a woman carried a large sign. "WE ARE THE REAL CITIZENS UNITED."
"Kill the bill!" protesters shouted. "Kill the bill!"
Update 2/23: Reader CE, who comes with credible legal expertise, writes in that the language excluding gays from protection in hiring isn't new, and that the bill does not change existing law in this regard:
If you read the section that Mr. Kellerman was referring to, the only actual proposed change to the law is that there is an Agency that is being excluded (for whatever reason) from the policies that currently govern the rest of the State's hiring practices. Otherwise this entire section simply reprints the law as it currently exists. The State of Wisconsin has never had an affirmative action hiring practice for LGBT applicants. Whether or not one thinks we should is a discussion for another day.