Courting Public Favor

04 Mar

Such a classic showdown of iconoclastic contrasts could not have been better staged by Capra himself.  On the right the attorneys for the Department of Administration, i.e., the State of Wisconsin, i.e., Scott Walker, led by Assistant Attorney General Steven Means glossy slick in pinstripes flanked on both sides by his lady attorney girl Fridays sutured in skirt suits, all corporate polish, hairspray-metallic.  On the left, former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager in a denim jacket and coffee-stained slacks, her legal assistant next to her in a corduroy jacket, disheveled hair, his shirt unkemptly tucked as he leaned back in his chair like a recliner, hands folded behind his head.  The issue at stake: an injunction filed on behalf of the people of Wisconsin against the Department of Administration to rescind forthwith the latter’s continually changing, incrementally draconian policies restricting access to the state Capitol building.

This was Day 3 of what was supposed to have been a one day-long injunction hearing.  Dane County Circuit Court John Albert had personally anticipated delivering his decision by 4:30 pm; he did so by 7:00 pm.  Turns out the Democrats in the State Assembly, criticized just last week for stall tactics and dragging out process, are not alone in strategic tedium.  The difference is, whereas they tossed in every trick and consideration just shy of the kitchen sink to slow the Republican juggernaut steered by Fitzgerald the younger (but engineered by Walker) in the State Assembly in the name of democracy and honoring the people’s opposition, the drip-drop fatigue of the DOA counsel was purposefully poised to keep the Capitol closed off for as long as it could get away with so as to hinder the protest efforts – literally locking us out in the cold.  In the end, the people won; the Capitol was ordered that it be reopened as soon as possible, as before but with reasonable limitations.

[Update: would this were so!  To date, March 14, 2011, the Capitol continues to operate under unreasonable restrictions, in violation it would seem of court order.]

If there is one impression I took away from the proceedings inside the court it was the debate between the persuasion of moral argument with a populist imperative and the gotcha technicalities of legal precedents.  To be sure, that might be my own bias, so predisposed to see it that way.  That said, the counsel representing the plaintiffs left little to be admired along the way: probably the same bug that I myself and everyone I know who has been down at the Capitol the last two weeks has caught, Lautenschlager was preoccupied by a cold; often inarticulate and stammering, she hardly evinced a professional appearance or commanding demeanor.  Her desk was a mess where organization groaned beneath the scattered weight and chaos of miscellaneous papers, an alphabet of manila folders, post-it notes, and 20-odd documents entered as official evidence, some of which fell to the floor.  There would be even awkward silences when she did not realize it was her turn to speak, only to be prompted by the judge (to which she would respond apologetically, offering that she had a cold and could hardly hear).  The lead lawyer unable to hear during a trial?  I doubt I was the only one thinking of Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons and wondering “I can’t believe it’s a legal counsel!”  Lord knows I’m no scholar of the law, but even I know that Citizens United was ruled last year, not “a couple of years ago” as she stated, and that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church fiasco had to do with homophobia, not abortion as Ms Lautenschlager cited.

Neither did the plaintiffs’ own witnesses help matters much.  Democratic State Assemblyman, Brett Hulsey, exhibited how clumsily he could shoot himself in the foot and make a trifling fool of himself by deliberately and demonstrably evading simple questions for the sake of political shots and shouts out, much to even the judge’s annoyance.  Hulsey was admonished on at least two occasions.  Take your pick: either he was a boob or a consummate politician wherein a simple yes or no answer was instead replaced with a more philosophically equivocal “not to my knowledge.”  (Think Kanye West’s backpedaled “apology” about his once notable reproach of President Bush as not caring about Black people.)  It’s telling that the Madison liberal-UW graduate-state representative-County Board member was outshone both in terms of presence and eloquence by a firefighter from Stoughton, a piece of tough beef as blue collar and no-BS as it gets, whose buzz cut flat top head of hair was so streamlined and military-straight you could land a jet on it.  He it was who captured so well the frustration and preposterousness of shutting off the state Capitol by telling the judge matter of factly that even he and his crew, called in for an emergency rescue – someone (we later learned a police officer) was trapped inside an elevator – were barred admission into the building by the police and told to go to a different entrance, all resulting in a loss of some 15 minutes, he calculated.  What if it had been a life-threatening emergency?

On the other side of things the defense had an exhausting barrage of witnesses, up to and including the Secretary of the Department of Administration itself, Michael Huebsch – former Assembly Speaker since appointed by Governor Walker to head the DOA (and graduate incidentally of Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the largest Charismatic Christian university in the world).  You could place bets, but it would be tricky to call a winner between Judge Albert himself or Sec. Huebsch, as to who was more surprised to learn that the state Capitol building in Wisconsin, unlike say an elevator or even a dive bar off the square, has no determined maximum capacity holding for fire codes – which goes straight to the very question of how/why could the DOA restrict the amount of people in the building or enforce its “one person out, one person in” rule for crowd flow; if there is no maximum capacity, it does not hold that there can ever be too many people at any one point.  (Besides, we’re talking about a very, very big building.)

There was Lucas Bacher, a staffer for Republican State Assemblyman Brett Davis who asserted – under oath, of course – that the protesters, during the two week-long occupation of the Capitol, defaced his office door, left shavings and body hair in the bathroom sinks, were “banging” on windows and doors, shouted obscenities.  Indeed, the young man in a crisp suit with the fashionable but compulsory American flag lapel pin went on, female staffers were encouraged (or told) to ask for police escort to and fro the building, lest they be groped at (as Republican state Senator Glenn Grothman claims) or heaven knows what by all that seedy and unseemly underbelly of kindergarten teachers, college TAs, Earth Mother midwives nursing babies, tripped out hippies seeking to “Om the dome,” secretaries taking their lunch breaks to protest this bill, or, worse, six year olds running around in the “Family Quiet Area” cordoned off on the first floor!

(Odd then how the police – composed of dozens and dozens of local (and not so local) precincts and county sheriffs’ departments – universally commended the protesters for their civility and good conduct during the largest expression of speech in the history of the state – and not one single injury – as was mentioned many times by the judge, visibly impressed by this.  Ardors, sure, but odors, no.  Democracy may be messy, but the only thing that stinks is a fink bill forced down your throat.)

And who will forget the phantom tape expert?  Calling to mind the flamboyant absurdities of O.J.’s glove or just a really good Monty Python gag, I never thought I’d hear so much about the adhesive qualities or the residual legacy of blue painter’s tape.  The DOA went on the record saying that it would cost $500,000 just to assess the damage rendered by the tape’s stickum to the geological integrity of the marble and granite comprising much of the Capitol’s architecture, with a whopping $6 million price tag to repair the compromised minerals’ delicate chemistries.  Where did such eye-popping estimates come from?  A private vendor whose voodoo identity remains anonymous.  By total coincidence, my car broke down last week exactly when all this was happening.  I had it towed to a shop that quoted me as costing over $800.  That seemed mighty high and beyond my means.  Naturally, as anyone would, I called around town for a lower price (and found one for under $400 – more than half the amount).  Did the DOA bother to do this?  Nope!  What’s more, the DOA had already begun the process of removing some of the many, many, many signs, banners, notes, notices, arras, and posters that for three wonderful weeks beautifully littered the Capitol rotunda with the letters of semiotic democracy; the people’s house both a gallery and a work of art itself, a mosaic and mural, a living skin of sentiment and semantics, a palimpsest of protest, a body politic and poetic screed penned by librarian and iron worker alike, firefighter and boilermaker, nurses and teamsters – some with directions to the building or local phone numbers for a couch to crash on, day care or first aid; others the private and public asseverations of versed voices come together in scrawled chorus, a harmony of humor, outrage, sarcasm, obscenity, and scathing wit.  Sorry man, but this glove don’t fit; for if it would have cost six mill. to “professionally” remove that testy tape, the DOA wouldn’t have already authorized removal of the signs, notices, and posters.  But they already had.  Worse still, after Judge Albert’s decision was made, the bloated cost increased to an incredible $7.5 million total!  To remove painter’s tape – tape, it must be mentioned, that the DOA originally told the protesters to use in the first place in order to avoid damaging the marble!  And I can’t tell you how diligent and ubiquitously directed all were to use the blue painter’s tape and none other (lest you wish to be on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing by a hyper-vigilant undergrad who’d find you faster than a gallery security guard commanding you to please step away from the artwork) in order to comply and be respectful.

Days later, the DOA has recalculated the total cost drastically lower, as of this writing to the tune of $350,000 (or roughly 21 times less expensive)!  Furthermore, why aren’t fiscal conservatives roaring in discretionary rage over this?  Is this not the epitome of government waste?  More than a quarter million dollars to remove tape!  Hell, I’d do it for $350!  Or better yet, invest that money into the arts programs in schools, or high speed internet in rural areas, or a couple more public buses, and a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand of us all will volunteer to remove tape and rebuff a few pillars for free.

Whatever the actual cost, one wonders who’ll do the work.  If not state employees, what private contractor – and how beholden are they to Walker, or Walker to them?  Does this not call to mind a smaller version of Bush-Cheney’s Haliburton or Bechtel in Iraq?  We shall see.  But in the meantime, that initial estimate of $7.5 million went like wildfire on the news networks (Fox especially).  So even though the real cost is nowhere, nowhere near the original conjecture – seriously, so ludicrously nowhere near the cost as to be too staggeringly fantastic a discrepancy to comprehend – the damage is already done, as it were, for first impressions are always the most resistant to reality-based reconsideration.

And this seems to me a pretty perfect metaphor of the Republican Party at present: a machine run by two fraternal twins – one an incompetent amateur, the other a calculating Machiavelli; Michael Brown of FEMA and Karl Rove.

Digressions, I’ve had a few…

[Update: 4/01/11 (and this is no April Fool’s joke!)  After filing an open records request, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discovered that the origin of the Department of Administration’s claim of the $7.5 million cost to restore the Capitol was a single handwritten piece of notebook paper.  No, seriously, that’s it, that’s all there ever was.  In other words, worthless.]

The upshot of this “he said, she said” dialogue was Judge Albert’s decision that the Capitol be returned to its standard operating procedure as it was on 1/28/2011, effective no later than 8:00 am Tuesday, March 8, 2011.  [See update above.]  “I cannot approve of or accept the rules enforced as constitutionally permissible,” the judge orated without prepared notes.  “Loud and raucous” are simply the reality of a free expression.  In extraordinary times, he invoked us to recall, the constitution does not diminish, but indeed must needs be further protected.  But the sleepovers are over.  “The Capitol was open probably beyond [its] constitutional requirements,” and that level of access cannot be returned to.  Indeed, it would have become redundant, or worse – a chic cliché – had it gone on much longer.  Our dance was live (and televised), a Bastille ballet.  The moment has moved on, matured into something else.  We’re not fazed; we’re in a new phase.  The physical occupation of the building by the common people that took place for a solid sixteen days and nights (five of which nights I personally participated in by sleeping inside) is a hallmark that we hallow, not a passing we lament.  What we accomplished was historical – and remains a living history, the song and sign of which story is still being written.  Now it’s time to occupy with our heads, to own this argument intellectually and win the hearts and minds of our fellow Wisconsin citizens throughout the state (since the Senate Republicans appear to be bereft of both).


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