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Saturday, March 2, 2024

GOP looked for ways to punish Wisconsin Democrats

Massive protests in Wisconsin

Everything from taking away computers to denying a year of service in the state retirement system was considered to punish the 14 Wisconsin Democrats who fled to Illinois for three weeks to block passage of a bill taking away union bargaining rights, newly released emails show.

Members of Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s staff bounced ideas off one another and the Legislature’s attorneys for days about how to penalize the Senate Democrats for leaving and pressure them to return, according to records released Wednesday by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The watchdog group obtained the emails from Fitzgerald’s office under Wisconsin’s open records law.

The emails show Fitzgerald’s staff members were as worried about the public relations campaign as they were actually figuring out a way to get the Democrats to come back.

“I would just be somewhat cautious in whatever we do so that it doesn’t end up creating sympathy for the Dems,” Tad Ottman, a Fitzgerald aide, wrote to his chief of staff John Hogan on Feb. 20. “The more directly we can tie whatever action we take to what they are doing the better it will be.”

Democrats left the state on Feb. 17 to deny quorum in the Senate and block passage of Gov. Scott Walker‘s bill that took away all collective bargaining rights, except over salary, for Wisconsin’s public employees.

Their departure helped fuel protests in opposition to the bill that grew to more than 75,000 people. Senate Republicans finally used a maneuver to pass the bill without the Democrats present on March 9, a move now being challenged in court. Democrats returned after the bill passed.

Senate Republicans approved a number of sanctions during their absence, most notably voting to find the missing Democrats in contempt and ordering police to compel them to return. The emails show that Fitzgerald’s staff knew the state constitution barred them from actually arresting the senators other than for committing a crime or acts of treason.

“It now seems that monetary penalties and removal of privileges may be our only recourse,” Fitzgerald legislative aide Rob Richard wrote on Feb. 20, citing the constitutional prohibition on arrest.

The Senate voted on March 3 to find the Democrats in contempt and ordered the sergeant at arms to use police force to compel the senators to return. Fitzgerald said at the time that while the action was technically not an arrest, under Senate rules police could force absent members to return.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics has filed a complaint with the state Government Accountability Board, arguing Fitzgerald should be sanctioned for earlier sending state patrol officers out to look for the missing senators. The group said the emails show he knew the senators could not be arrested when he sent the troopers out.

Fitzgerald said Wednesday that troopers were only sent to assist the Senate sergeant at arms, who was looking for the Democrats, and never were expected to be asked to make an arrest.

“I knew they couldn’t be arrested,” Fitzgerald said. “That would have been a public relations nightmare.”

Fitzgerald said after the bill passed that the Senate would no longer seek to impose any of the penalties it approved, including $100 a day fines, taking away parking spaces and restricting access to Capitol copying machines.

The emails show there was a lot of discussion with legislative attorneys about how to legally impose fines on the missing senators and other steps that could be taken against them and their staff.

“I say we not only make it hurt for them, we have to make it hurt for their staff as well,” Richard wrote on Feb. 20.

One idea Ottman suggested in a Feb. 20 email was cutting the size of each Democratic senator’s staff by one person “since one person from each of their office is failing to show up for work (the Senator).”

That idea and several others, like reducing or taking away per diem payments and denying a year’s service in the retirement system, were not pursued. Richard pointed out in the same Feb. 20 email that taking away a year of retirement service likely would engender a court fight.

The emails also show there were discussions about what would happen if the Democrats returned unexpectedly. Fitzgerald’s chief of staff Hogan asked the Senate chief clerk in a Feb. 21 email what would happen if a Democrats showed up in the Capitol but not on the floor of the Senate.

“Then I assume we compel them back to the chamber via Ted/Trooper/TV cameras,” Hogan wrote, referring to sergeant at arms Ted Blazell. “We should just be ready with a procedure in case it happens.”

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