Wisconsin Senator Chris Larson speaks

As the budget repair bill debate rolls on, Wisconsin’s Democratic senators are almost a week into their self-imposed exile. Their goal: to slow down the vote to allow examination of Scott Walker’s 144-page budget repair bill, and to preserve the collective bargaining rights of public union members. The Wisconsin 14 initially kept their heads down, but now some are talking to the press. Freshman senator Chris Larson of Milwaukee is one of them; calling from an undisclosed location in Illinois, Sen. Larson spoke with ThirdCoast Digest about being in exile, the hard work being done by the Wisconsin 14 and how this stalemate will end.

In addition to questions posed by TCD, readers were invited to submit their questions via our Facebook page. The two most common were “When would the Democrats return to Madison,” and “What could constituents do to support the cause.”

Larson said he and his colleagues are working very hard, caucusing on the issues before the Senate and developing a plan for their return. Larson said the Senate Republicans’ move to require members to pick up their paychecks from the Senate Speaker in person is a gimmick that will not work.

“I don’t work for the Fitzgerald brothers or Gov. (Scott) Walker,” Larson said. “I work for my constituents. I have received over 4,000 responses from constituents, and 70-80 percent of them are in support of the walk-out.”

While unwilling to return just because Walker ordered it, according to Larson there is a trigger that will bring the Democrats home.

“We are waiting for the legislation to be pulled,” Larson said. “This bill (SB11) has huge problems. It is 144 pages long and Club for Growth had ads on the air about it before it was even given to us.”

Larson added that the bill was handed to Democratic senators on February 14, with a vote was expected three days later – on a measure that changes 200 state laws and allows for political appointments.

“It sends Wisconsin in the wrong direction and can we can tell that by the outpouring of protesters at the capitol. It is the single worst piece of legislation in state history.”

Larson hasn’t spent much time  yet getting to know Republican Senators (he has only been in Madison for less than two month)s, but he said there is communication between the parties. One compromise being floated is Sen. Dale Schultz’s (R-Richland Center) 2013 proposal. This amendment would allow for the suspension of collective bargaining rights for the 2011-2013 budget, with the rights being reinstated on July 1, 2013.

“It won’t happen; Walker has said he won’t let them bring forward that amendment.”

Beside the obvious block by Walker, Larson sees two other problems with Schultz’s compromise.

“First, rights are rights and it is not right to take them away. They are not temporary and it is a basic right to bargain in good faith,” he said. “Second, the governor has the line item veto and he can simply line it out if we pass the amendment. We’re not buying it.”

Another tactic Senate Republicans are using to bring the Wisconsin 14 home is to call a vote on a piece of legislation dear to the Democrats hearts – Voter ID. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said a vote on the non-fiscal portions of that bill today, with or without the Democrats. One change was made to the bill in committee Tuesday, adding U.S. Passports and Tribal IDs as acceptable forms of identification. in addition to a state driver’s license, military ID or a WI Department of Transportation-issued identification card.

When asked if the idea of missing  this vote would weaken the resolve of the Democrat Senators, Larson said he didn’t think so.

“We’ve put a lot of amendments forward on this bill and there has been no consideration of our ideas by the other side,” he said. “This will be the most restrictive voter bill in the nation, and it is not right.”

Larson is concerned about passage, since it still does not allow the use of college or university IDs as a form of voter identification.

“As the youngest Senator, this is close to my heart. I want to encourage the democratic process among students and get them to stay here after graduation. But they can’t be active in the process if they can’t use their school IDs.”

He said the bill will also end same-day registration, limiting voter signup to 10 days or before an election.

“It’s unfortunate that this will pass, but the Republicans have been rubber-stamping Walker legislation for the last month.”

Larson said he had heard the Boston Beast’s David Koch prank call to Walker and at first thought it couldn’t be real. “But in listening to it, I realized it speaks for itself. Scott Walker is showing his true colors in that exchange. If you notice, he never speaks about Wisconsin’s workers or our future.”

Larson said the story shows us that Walker is at the end of his rope.

But Larson isn’t: he is taking his exile in stride. And no, he has not met up with the Indiana Assembly people who have fled their state for Urbana, IL, for similar reasons to the Wisconsin 14. When asked where he was in Illinois, Larson matter-the-factly said, “I’m right here.”  He refused to disclose any more about his whereabouts, out of concern for his safety.

He reiterated that the costs for this mobile Democratic caucus are coming out of the Senators’ own pockets, and that the stories of unions or the national party are footing the bill are untrue. And while it is a financial hardship for Larson, his mood picked up when he received a care package from a constituent in Bay View.

“I just enjoyed some crackers and licorice that someone sent,” Larson said, adding there were healthy options in the package, too.

He is also heartened to hear that people are supportive of the stand he is taking, and said they need to keep the pressure on Walker and the Senate and Assembly leadership.

“Call, email, send them a letter,” he said. “Talk to your neighbors, share the impact that this bill will have on families and workers. There is a lot of pressure on us from the Koch brothers; we need to counter that with the truth.”


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