GO
Loading...

Life on the Run For Democrats In Union Fights

By now, Jon Erpenbach, one of 14 Democratic state senators on the run from Wisconsin, has switched hotels in this city three times, a necessity, he says, as word kept slipping out about where he was staying.

Protesters fill the courtyard and steps outside the State Capitol building on February 16, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters were demonstrating against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.
Getty Images
Protesters fill the courtyard and steps outside the State Capitol building on February 16, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters were demonstrating against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.

At first it was unsettling: the essentials were forgotten — extra slacks, socks, even underwear — in a last-minute race to get south of the state line. But gradually the lawmakers restocked, thanks to packages delivered by family members and trips to discount stores.

And while they seem to be adjusting to the rhythms of life on the lam, they are still trying to come to grips with being part of a sudden Democratic diaspora that everyone knows about but that the lawmakers themselves do not want to reveal. Speaking by telephone, many of them will say merely that they are staying “somewhere in northern Illinois,” in hotels or homes or something else, together or separately or both.

“It all feels very spylike,” said Senator Chris Larson, who managed to get a belt from his Milwaukee-area home with help from a friend who met him in a parking lot. “It’s almost like a reality TV show,” Mr. Larson said, ticking off some in the melting pot of personalities who find themselves together — a lot: a pregnant mother, a dairy farmer, an urban senator, a lawmaker who was first elected in 1956, and Mr. Larson himself, who took office less than two months ago.

As battles over limits to public-sector unions and collective-bargaining rights erupted in capitals in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, Illinois suddenly found itself as the refuge of choice for outnumbered Democrats fleeing their states to block the passage of such bills. By Wednesday evening, most of Indiana’s 40 Democratic state representatives were living in rooms (“plain but all we need,” in the words of one) at the Comfort Suites in Urbana, Ill., about 100 miles west of the state Capitol in Indianapolis. Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats were preparing to mark their first full week, on Thursday, somewhere in northern Illinois.

Republican leaders left behind in the various Capitols fumed, but Gov. Patrick J. Quinn of Illinois seemed to delight in the new arrivals, some of whom said Mr. Quinn, a Democrat, had telephoned them to offer his personal welcome. “We believe in hospitality and tourism and being friendly,” Mr. Quinn said on Wednesday, quickly adding, “I also believe in unions.”

The main reason Illinois was suddenly a magnet for vanishing lawmakers was a matter of geography. From both Wisconsin and Indiana, getting over the Illinois line before state law enforcement authorities might be able to find them and haul them back to their stately chambers was a matter of a few hours by car. Still, the state seemed a fitting getaway. As Republicans seized control in a number of Midwestern capitals in November, Illinois was one of the few where Democrats held on to theirs.

“It seems like very friendly territory,” said State Representative Win Moses, 68, one of the Indiana Democrats who say they have been meeting in a hotel conference room, working on business as usual (so far, they have drawn up 105 amendments to the Republicans’ proposed state budget), dining at the Cracker Barrel, and waiting for some sign from Indianapolis that efforts to limit unions will be dropped.

The theory of these lawmakers from Indiana was the same as those from Wisconsin: the only way to slow bills to which they were opposed was to leave, since Democrats control only 40 of the 100 seats in Indiana’s House, but a bill cannot pass without 67 representatives present.

“It was time to do something different, so I went and got my clothes,” Mr. Moses said. In the case of the Indiana crew, they openly divulged their location only hours after disappearing from the Statehouse. The way they understood it, the Indiana law enforcement authorities could not follow them over the line anyway, so why bother keeping secrets?

The legislators from Wisconsin have been far more cryptic. Some said they had received threatening e-mails and phone messages, and a comment on one newspaper Web site read, “Looks like I need to go hunting south of the border,” Mr. Larson recalled. Not long ago, a handful of people who said they were Tea Party members turned up in a regular meeting spot at which the senators had come to gather, taking photographs of the senators’ cars. They would not, Mr. Larson said, return to that location (wherever it was).

For many, days look like this: wake up, talk on the phone with the other senators, call your Madison office, talk on the phone with the other senators, handle constituents’ e-mails and calls, talk on the phone with the other senators. Food has often been room service.

The 14 secretly gathered last Thursday morning in Madison, hours before a floor vote was to take place, and agreed to disappear — a move no one could remember having seen before. Standing in a circle, they sealed the plan, all putting their hands in like a sports team.

For now, these senators say, most people from their home districts still seem supportive, and their families, if confused as the days dragged on, still seemed patient. But pressure is mounting: Those left in Madison this week, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to limit collective bargaining and cut benefits, agreed to a brand new rule about paychecks. Direct deposits to senators’ bank accounts are now barred for anyone who misses two or more days of the legislative session. Those who wish to be paid their salary must collect their checks in person, on the Senate floor.

Democratic Party leaders in Indiana volunteered to pay for legislators’ hotel stays, but some of the Wisconsin senators said they were on their own, using discount travel Web sites in search of deals every time they moved to a new hideout.

“I really miss my kids, and I’m going to have to find a Laundromat soon, said Mr. Erpenbach, who is living, he says, out of a duffel and a backpack. “But I can deal with this. When we come home is up to the governor.”


Contact Politics

  • CNBC NEWSLETTERS

    Get the best of CNBC in your inbox

    To learn more about how we use your information,
    please read our Privacy Policy.
    › Learn More