The state Senate set the tone for a tumultuous 2011 in Wisconsin politics. It began on February 17th, a scheduled Thursday floor session for the Wisconsin state Senate, for which the fourteen Democratic Senators failed to appear, to the chagrin of Majority Leader, Scott Fitzgerald. “I’m not sure where the Democrat senators are,” said Fitzgerald, who had dispatched law enforcement officers to find them.
The Democrats, it turned out, had left the state to forestall action on Act 10 – Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, which stripped the right of public employee unions to bargain collectively. A week later – February 28 – the Democrats were still resolving to stay away. “It’s hard to say when exactly we will be returning,” said Madison Senator Fred Risser, in a phone interview. “We’re not going to be staying out indefinitely, but the appropriate time has not yet arrived.”
Fitzgerald tried a number of moves to penalize the Democrats, including levying $100 fines and finding them in contempt of the Senate. That supposedly enabled law enforcement officers to detain the lawmakers and return them to the Senate, but it never happened. Finally, on March 10th, Fitzgerald made an end run around the absent Democrats. By stripping fiscal elements out of the budget repair bill, he advanced the measure to a vote a conference committee vote, over the strenuous objections of Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca. The legislature passed the bill, and two days later, the Democrats, who had been dubbed the “Fab 14” by their supporters, returned to Madison and a tumultuous welcome.
“We walked away, because it was a bill that wasn’t honest, it wasn’t fair, and the process wasn’t just,” said Milwaukee Senator Lena Taylor. “We came back because the people of Wisconsin created a movement that the world is watching.”
While the action by the Senate Democrats did not halt the passage and implementation of Act 10, it DID set stage for a wave of recalls against Senators of both parties, recalls which resulted in the Republican majority in the chamber being whittled down to just one seat.