MILWAUKEE, Wis. - The bottom line reality, veteran Democratic legislator Cory Mason reminded me in an interview on June 21, is how "this Republican state budget reeks from top to bottom." Speaking about Wisconsin, he was also unfolding a strategic move that could extend nationally to refocus Democrats, not on ineffective tirades against ugly GOP bills state by state, but on long-term campaigns to change the makeup of ballot box power across the nation.
"With so many horribles in it, nothing we offered could salvage it or lead any responsible official to vote for it," Rep. Mason, D-Racine, said of the budget sessions in Madison, the state capital. "All we can do now is point out the depth of the disaster and hold Republicans' feet to the fire for allowing in so much they said they would oppose."
He was describing the motivation behind a unified Democratic strategy that surprised the GOP, stunned media watchers on June 20, and has since led to what he calls "intramural nonsense" criticizing this "refusal to go down in flames fighting."
The Wisconsin strategy emerged when Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called for an immediate vote on the state budget rather than introduce any of the 211 amendments the Democratic side has prepared to point out the frailty, haste and giveaways rampant in the two-year budget.
On the Wisconsin Senate side where the GOP only holds a razor-thin majority (the budget passed that chamber with one vote), the Democrats will still attempt to force a modicum of common sense in continuing sessions through June on related bills while the final budget (passed 55-42) already sits on Gov. Scott Walker's desk.
But in the Assembly where the GOP has a massive margin - even though one of their own members called this the worst budget he had seen in a decade - the Democrats had worked for months to cajole and shame the majority into small language changes, having enough success around the edges that the GOP called a halt to any more logical persuasion. Anything major was then ignored while GOP concoctions were bullied through the Joint Finance Committee. The Assembly majority even quashed the internal rebellions within its own ranks, met in secret, minimized debate and public scrutiny and voted in the wee hours of the morning to squeeze through a budget it is unwilling to change by a comma.
Yet still the Assembly Democrats were ready with 200-plus amendments to clarify or improve the train wreck known as the 2013-2015 $70 billion budget. What stopped them cold, insiders reveal, was not the GOP stubbornness with the press but a caucus Democrats held to work out procedural details with the GOP's leader in the Assembly, Robin Vos, who regards himself as lord in chief and ultimate decider on what can advance onto the floor.
At the meeting, an unfailingly polite but persistent Democrat, Sandy Pasch of Milwaukee, asked Vos the direct question: Would any of these amendments, which hadn't even been read by the opposition, "get any sort of play" or even a hearing? Vos' answer, described by one participant as "typically arrogant" and by another as "contemptuously dismissive," was no: no debate, no consideration. It was typical of how GOP-controlled statehouses around the nation are treating efforts for persuasion or debate.
Vos' obduracy led to a Democratic unified strategy meeting to leave all those amendments unsheathed and force an immediate vote. With the opposition refusing to reconsider anything, Barca said, it was time to "stop beating our heads against a brick wall" and force the Republicans to expose their own culpability.
The decision not only caught the opponents and legislative reporters flatfooted, it allowed the Democrats to immediately disperse into truth squads that headed into swing districts and even some red-tinged territory to explain the budget catastrophe to voters.
"These were Republicans assuring their districts in interviews with local papers that they would oppose expanding voucher schools into their territories or lower property tax rates rather than raise them," said Mason. "We are not going to let citizens forget those reversals."
Commented freshman Milwaukee Rep. Evan Goyke, part of a team that headed to western Wisconsin, "These moderate Republicans have a vote in the left pocket and a vote in the right pocket. We made them eat this budget despite what they tell their districts. It is a massive giveaway to a tiny minority of the very wealthy rather than protecting their own citizens."
This was another reason Vos froze out the Democrats' amendments. Citizens might learn the details of too many secret measures whose details are only now unfolding, including the so-called "technical fixes" that give millions of dollars more to the voucher movement.
Beyond that, Vos knew the Democrats' proposals would even in failure attract some Republican votes - not enough to derail but enough to embarrass.
The Democrats borrowed a playbook from the GOP of the past in a uniform refusal to not introduce the amendments developed over long painstaking hours. Today's GOP may be rife with internal debates and hidden discords, not just in D.C., but in Wisconsin where many Republicans are upset at the extremists. But in the past, unity even for distasteful proposals was a lock-step hallmark that even some Democrats admired and wanted to emulate. In the Democrats' big tent party, every strategy tends to be disputed and debated aloud in public, giving the impression not of democracy in action but of disarray. Not this time.
"There's something happening that is a hard point for the media to grasp," said Goyke. "There's a change in the Capitol. More Republicans who didn't listen to us on the floor crowded into our press conference to see what we were up to. The Democrats are winning in the building. Candidates that are running a defensive campaign lose. It's the Republicans forced to defend a bad law. We're not the ones in the crouch. And our strategy forced them into that position."
Some Democrats still point to the national attention when angry Wisconsin progressives stand up in a lost cause, specifically the ultrasound bill the GOP whipped through June 14, ostensibly to address abortion but forcing comprehensive women's health care providers to be regulated by nearby hospitals, many controlled by conservative boards.
On June 21, wielding coat hangers (a symbol of backroom abortions in the past) and chanting "Focus on jobs, not our vaginas," dozens of protesters stormed the Capitol and attempted to invade Senate chambers, ending with eight arrests but with powerful video to galvanize more frequent viewings of earlier passionate revelations by women legislators about their own experience with rape and difficult pregnancies.
"Ours was an inside baseball decision that district discussions rather than floor objections would get media attention," reflected another legislator who voted for the Assembly strategy but now has second thoughts. "So far these truth squads haven't raised a ripple while ultrasound video fills the news."
Goyke stands "110 percent behind" the strategy, but respects the internal disagreement within the party, on social media and particularly among respected strategists looking ahead to 2014. At least the Democrats, as opposed to the GOP, remain open about it.
Another legislator contrasted the Democrats' decision with the ultrasound media fever. "You could argue that this is the sort of emotional issue the media leaps to cover," she said. But she didn't deny that suddenly Wisconsin was all over the national news including CNN and MSNBC with extensive images and discussion.
Why, some Democrats now ask, couldn't the same be done on the GOP extension of voucher schools, refusal to expand Medicaid, creation of bail bondsmen against the advice of every respected law enforcement official and increasing local property taxes while pretending to do the opposite? These also are emerging as national concerns.
Rebutted another legislator, "This was a mature reaction. I think were we all tired and disgusted that ideas worth discussing weren't even getting a hearing. You can't ask intelligent people to waste their time forever."
Goyke is among those pushing a long-range strategy rather than temporary media excitement. He revealed that many neglected Democratic amendments will return in the fall as separate bills - "a clear, well-articulated Democratic agenda" much closer to the 2014 election cycle.
It was an indirect reply to a comment from another Milwaukee Democrat who ran for office: "If the Republicans had refused out loud to discuss any amendment, even a simple sensible one, that would speak volumes about their attitude to the citizens. It would help all us candidates in convincing the public we represent a party willing to fight." Said Goyke, "True-blue Democrats should know that this is about what can Democrats do to get the voters' attention. That is a long game. Something more lasting than a slugfest over amendments."
Respected Shepherd Express reporter Lisa Kaiser in an online commentary suggested the Democrats should "pick your battles ... Offer a handful of amendments instead of 211, if you must, to focus your message and let your righteous anger go viral around the state."She was not alone in arguing that Democrats should "raise holy hell on the Assembly floor" even if they were about to lose badly.
Democrats were so furious at what Mason describes as "top to bottom" disaster in the budget they couldn't whittle down their objections. "It was all so flawed, frankly, that even if the Republicans had agreed to listen we couldn't vote for it," said Mason.
"I was deeply ingrained and supportive when thousands joined us in protesting Act 10 in Madison (Walker's infamous 2011 union-wrecking "budget repair" bill) and sure appreciate there is a time to fight," he noted. "But these are new times requiring new methods."
Commented a veteran of the Assembly chamber: "It's just not my style. I would have fought for every amendment I could. I respect the decision and the need to change with the times. I don't like beating my head against the wall, but that's almost a definition of the political process."
Looking ahead to 2014, when all these Assembly seats and half the Senate are up for re-election as is the governor, "I think I would want to go down screaming," the Assembly veteran said.
"It comes down to what wins," said Goyke. Does public anger, like the protesters storming the Capitol, make people rethink their positions or harden existing attitudes? Does forcing Republican legislators to own up embarrass them or let them wriggle away from voter consequences?
Proponents on both sides of this squabble agree on one thing. It's a strategic debate about how best to reach the public - and no one knows how deeply the voters are paying attention now or how harshly they will speak out as election time nears.
Photo: Rep. Evan Goyke (center, flanked at left by another freshman Assembly compatriot, Rep. Daniel Riemer ) rallied Democrats at an outdoor rally. Photo by Dominique Paul Noth.