It is small as protests go these days in Madison. A line of advocates, activists, and people with disabilities, some in wheelchairs, maneuvers its way through the slush Thursday, past honking horns and over puddles, from Capitol Square to a squat, nondescript office building at 149 E. Johnson. "Our homes, not nursing homes!" the protesters shout. Bringing up the rear on crutches, his right leg amputated below his knee, is John Nousaine. He has driven down from Superior to join this mission.
The line of 25 or so protesters closes in on its target: the state Republican Party headquarters. While an advocate holds the door open, a stream of motorized wheelchairs twists, turns, bumps and backs its way through the building's narrow halls until it comes to a halt in a small lobby right outside the office of the party's startled executive director, Mark Jefferson. A few protesters and a service dog roll right on in to Jefferson's office, past several glass and brass elephants and an autographed Badgers football, and up to his desk.
"What's this about?" he asks.
"It is about our lives!" says Dane County Board Supervisor Barbara Vedder, who was paralyzed in a car crash years ago and gets around in a wheelchair.
It is around noon Thursday, the start to what will be a two-hour occupation of the state GOP headquarters, the latest salvo in a battle by advocacy groups to get word out about Medicaid provisions buried in Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill that would, they say, allow his administration to gut the public health programs many of them depend on.
It is also a kind of protest that Madison has not yet seen. Over the past two weeks there have been all kinds of demonstrations in the Capitol. Firefighters have marched with bagpipes. Family doctors have written medical excuses from street corners. Break dancers have slammed the marble in the Rotunda. Yoga instructors have greeted dawn with chants. Children have brought their stuffed animals and sleeping bags to the statehouse for sleepovers. But nobody had ever just marched right into the GOP headquarters and tried to take over, Jefferson says.
Activists tell him they are there because they are desperate.
They believe that changes to Medicaid programs in the bill, including provisions that will hand unprededented powers to the Walker administration to circumvent state laws and normal legislative processes in revamping the public health plans, could lead to cuts in their benefits that will force many of them back into the institutions that once housed most people with disabilities. And they don't intend to let that happen without a fight.
"Are you even aware of the MA provisions in the bill?" Vedder asks. "We are able to be in our home with jobs and be productive members of society because of Medicaid. We don't want to be put into nursing homes. This budget bill is not repairing us. It is destroying us!"
Jefferson asks what that has to do with him. "I'm just an operative," he says. Protesters explain they won't leave until he arranges a face-to-face meeting with Walker. Jefferson says that the Governor is too busy. "It's a very trying time up there," he explains to the crowd. "He's in the middle of a budget crisis."
"We're in the middle of a life crisis!" Vedder replies.
Organizers working for Wisconsin ADAPT and Southeastern Wisconsin ADAPT, twin activist organizations devoted to keeping people with disabilities out of institutions, had been secretly plotting the surprise takeover for several days in hopes that their action could finally grab the spotlight for people with disabilities and on Medicaid, whose plight has been largely overshadowed by debate over labor issues. "We're not leaving until we get something!" several in the group shout.
"What you've got is an ear," Jefferson says. "We haven't allowed folks to just come in and take over before without an appointment."
"Thank you. That's real sweet," mutters Roxan Perez of Milwaukee, who needs to use a motorized scooter to get around because she has multiple sclerosis.
Over the next hour or so, the two sides try to listen to each other. Several of the protesters tell Jefferson why they think cuts in Medicaid would hurt them. His response is to say that the bill, by getting rid of collective bargaining, would "free up local governments to prevent some of these cuts from happening." The crowd doesn't buy it. "Why are you pitting people against each other! That's crazy! That's bull----" says Jerome Holzbauer, a Milwaukee retired school teacher who has earned a Ph.D in rehab psychology and has cerebral palsy. "You're going after the most vulnerable!"
A woman asks how Jefferson and the Republicans and others with wealth are "sharing the pain."
"This has a lot of people on the public dime," he says, gesturing to the crowd in his office. On the other hand, he works in the private sector, he says, which is also hurt by the economy because "we have to rely on fundraising to keep our doors open."
Jackie Turner asks how he justifies policy changes in the bill that would hand the Walker administration the power to make unilateral decisions about Medicaid programs, eliminating lawmakers and people like her from the process. "How could you support something that doesn't require legislative and public input?" asks Turner, who lives in Monroe in Green County and has been a paraplegic since a car accident left her in a wheelchair decades ago. "How can you support that? Please answer that!"
Jefferson replies that he understands that "department bureaucrats making cuts gets people upset," but that the provision has precedent: the Department of Natural Resources has initiated similar rule changes. "DNR is animals, fish, squirrels. We are humans! Do you understand the difference? Yes or no?" says Joe Kunz of Madison, who has muscular dystrophy, from his wheelchair.
The protesters are determined to speak, though for several speech is difficult. John Donnelly has cerebral palsy, and his face twists with effort as he tells a reporter why he has come in his wheelchair to the protest. He depends on Medicaid benefits, his friends help explain, to participate in community based programs and to live in his own apartment, with home aides who help. It takes several seconds for Donnelly to get each word out, but he does not give up. "I'll ... die ... before... I go... into one of those facilities!" he finally says.
Framed portraits of Governors Walter Kohler, Sr., and Walker Kohler, Jr. gaze at the proceedings from the wall, and during one rare moment of levity the demonstrators tease Jefferson about another dynasty they think now orchestrates state politics. After the demonstrators say they won't leave until Jefferson calls the governor, he picks up the phone to try, getting a busy signal. "I can't get through to him," Jefferson says.
"Just say you're a Koch brother and you'll get a hold of him," shouts Jason Glozier, one of the organizers, referring to the billionaire Koch brothers who contributed to Walker's campaign and generously back a group running ads in support of Walker's plan to end collective bargaining rights for state employees. "You don't even have to really be one!"
The dig, of course, also refers to how quickly a liberal New York blogger calling himself David Koch was put through to the governor the previous day for a 20-minute conversation that the blogger taped and posted to the Internet.
Jefferson is unfailingly polite, even allowing his uninvited guests to make copies of their press release on the office copy machine.
And when he tries to get back to work, at around 1 p.m., he does so politely. "Well, now I am going to go about my business," he says, pointedly turning to his computer and typing away. The protesters, for their part, remain planted in their wheelchairs in front of his desk. The service dog sits back on its haunches and patiently waits.
Around twenty minutes later, though, a cheer goes through the room that "reinforcements have arrived!" Union protesters, including a nurses aide and a steamfitter, join the group fresh from the Capitol rotunda, where news that people with disabilities had stormed the GOP headquarters prompted applause. Jefferson's patience is starting to fray. "I cannot sit here and have a fire hazard all afternoon!" he says.
"We are not a fire hazard," Steve Verriden says, politely, without budging his wheelchair. Verriden has been a disability rights advocate for close to 20 years now, since a car accident turned him into a quadriplegic when he was 22.
"I cannot have the place choked off anymore," Jefferson insists. "I'm asking you politely to leave the building. I've appreciated the civil discourse, but with more people streaming down it's not a good situation."
One of the reinforcements from the Rotunda, a young man wearing a Green Bay Packer helmet and red sneakers, hands out oranges to the protesters, who peel them and pop sections into the mouths of a few people who can't feed themselves. Jefferson continues to try to concentrate on his computer screen. "Can we borrow your trash can?" Turner asks Jefferson, tossing a bunch of orange peels into the proffered basket.
It takes the arrival of two, then three, and finally five police officers at around 2:00 to broker an end to what has become an impasse. The police officers persuade organizers to agree to negotiate in a smaller, private group with Jefferson behind closed doors while the rest of the crowd slowly heads outside to wait.
Verriden says he won't leave without some sort of letter to Walker. "Folks are here from Milwaukee, from Superior, from all around the state," says Verriden. "We need to give them something. It may sound trite to you, but if these people go home with a letter saying they were part of getting a meeting with the government officials who affect their lives, they will feel good."
"You have to leave anyway, let's get that clear," Jefferson says, a new edge to his voice.
"The issue is whether it is in handcuffs," Verriden agrees. The two men stare at each for a long moment.
"That wouldn't be good for anybody," a police officer says.
Jefferson turns to his computer and starts to type a letter. It asks the governor's office to arrange for a staff member to meet with the advocates, but that is not good enough for Verriden. "See, you're backing off already," he says in his soft voice.
Jefferson turns back to his screen and keyboard. "You would like to speak to the Secretary of Health, is that right?" he asks.
Verriden nods. "And what is his name?" Jefferson asks, typing.
"Dennis Smith," Verriden says.
At the end, protesters get copies of the letter from Jefferson to Walker saying that the group wants to meet with Walker and Smith. And they get a promise from Jefferson that he will hand-deliver the letter along with a packet of their demands and materials. There is no commitment that the letter will actually reach Walker, no time set for the meeting, and no guarantee, of course, that Walker or Smith will ever agree to talk with them.
But the demonstrators say it's the best they can do, and finally even the last negotiators leave the building. "We'll be back," Verriden says on his way out.
Outside, camera crews from Milwaukee and CNN are filming fellow activists. "Kill the bill!" some chant. A woman sings to herself. Verriden surveys the scene and shakes his head. "Walker is taking us backwards," he says, his voice down to almost a whisper. He starts pushing his wheelchair through the slush back to the Capitol. The others fall into a scraggly line with him, and one more protest is over.