CAP TIMES: Life inside Capitol being made difficult for protesters, Assembly Dems

February 28, 2011
Steven Elbow

State Rep Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, says she was denied access to the Capitol at several entrances this morning because she refused to show her Capitol ID card.

"I said I'm a representative, but I don't feel you have any legal basis for restricting my access whether I have a Capitol ID or not," she says.  "And they said, 'Our orders are that no one gets in this building unless they have a Capitol ID.'"

She eventually got in by tagging along with a member of the media.

She says, several lobbyists were able to get in "without difficulty."

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, says he tried to bring in firefighters to a meeting today, but at first was denied. He was subsequently allowed to bring in a limited number.

"The rules are changing every 10 to 15 minutes," he says.

He says it was frustrating to watch as state Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler entered the Capitol in front of him with six people.

"It seems the rules apply very inconsistantly," he says.

The Wisconsin ACLU today weighed in with a statement complaining that restricting access to the building raised constitutional issues.

"Prohibiting protesters on either side of the debate from entering the Capitol during normal business hours or during legislative hearings or sessions, while allowing others with 'business' in the Capitol to enter, is manifestly content-based and hence presumptively unconstitutional," a letter from the group to Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said.

Tom McCarthy, spokesman for Rep. Sondy Pope Roberts, D-Middleton, says Pope Roberts has run into similar problems, as have several other Democratic lawmakers.  

The doors to the Capitol have been closed today to protesters, who have set up camp to protest Gov. Scott Walkers proposal to undercut public employee union power. Pocan says Democrats are planning to hold a meeting at 2 p.m. on the proposal, which was abruptly approved by Republicans on Friday to the jeers of Democrats, many of whom say they didn't even get a chance to cast a vote. Pocan says he was told the public will be allowed in for the meeting, but access remained limited.

Roys says police were making people form a line, sign in, wear a sticker and enter the hearing one at a time, "which doesn't really sound like a public hearing to me," she says.  

At about 4 p.m., Roys says, protesters inside the Capitol were down to about a dozen.

On the Senate side, staffers for the 14 Democratic senators that fled the state to avoid voting on the bill and deprive Republicans of a quorum, say the Republican leadership has put in place further measures designed to make it difficult for them to do their jobs. The measures apply to any senator who has missed two session days.

"They revoked our copy codes, so we no longer have access to copy machines," says Tryg Knutson, spokesman for Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. "And they'll be charging us for every piece of paper we print out of the printers in our office."

The crowds outside the Capitol today were lighter than in days past, but several hundred boisterous protesters braved low temperatures to confront about two dozen officer from the Capitol Police and far-flung areas of Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, Lake Geneva, Osceola and Pierce County.  

The protest remained peaceful, and at one point the crowd spontaneously broke out in a rendition of the national anthem, prompting some of the officers to doff their hats. 

"It's an abuse of our law enforcement officers and certainly an abuse of his powers as governor," Roys says. "He's trying to turn them into a private police force rather than peace officers for the citizens of the state."

Activists say the decision to close the Capitol doors to additional protesters this morning is contrary to what they were told Sunday, when police and protesters negotiated conditions to allow an overnight stay to continue the two-week protest.

Jodi Jensen, executive assistant for Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, said in a press statement that all but a few of the protesters have voluntarily complied with a request from law enforcement to remain in designated areas in the Capitol. Police are dealing with those who didn't comply, she said.

"No additional protestors will be allowed into the building until this situation is resolved," she said. "Once it is, law enforcement will continue to implement the procedures that were announced this morning. Under those procedures, protesters will be allowed into the building, but crowd size will be adjusted to accommodate the cleaning crews, the preparation for Tuesday's joint legislative session."

The legislative session will be for Walker's budget address, provisions of which could be fodder for new renewed anger. For two weeks, ever since Walker proposed to effectively end collective bargaining rights for public employees, Republicans have been dogged by throngs of chanting, drumming and heckling crowds that have formed a protest village within the Capitol.

"It's definitely different from what they were saying last night," says David Wasserman, who was at the Capitol Sunday night, but who was back at his teaching job at Sennett Middle School this morning.

Wasserman says police told protesters Sunday that the Capitol doors would be open for business as usual this morning.

"Our understanding was the general public would be able to access the Capitol based on the regular hours and they actually specifically said that at 8 o'clock the doors would be unlocked," he says.

About 100 protesters remained in the Capitol this morning, according to Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, who added that floors have been cleaned.

Department of Administration spokeswoman Carla Vigue said today that protesters will be allowed in the Capitol later today.

"The plan is to let new people in the building. It's just taking a little bit of time," she said.

It's uncertain what access protesters will have Tuesday as police prepare for Walker's budget address.

"Procedures for tomorrow are still in the works," she said.