Great leaders are forged by a fight. They are tried by fire.
And never has there been a battle like the one now playing out in Wisconsin.
So it should come as no surprise that legislative leaders have emerged during the fight to avert Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of their collective bargaining rights.
Inside the Capitol, legislators such as state Reps. Mark Pocan, Terese Berceau and Brett Hulsey, all Democrats from Madison, and Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, gave the best speeches of their political careers. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, had a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment when he challenged the move by Republican legislators to rush a reworked version of Walker’s anti-union proposal through the Assembly-Senate Conference Committee.
Outside the Capitol, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach. D-Middleton, became a media star with his sharp, good-humored explanations of the struggle. He even got a bigger laugh than host Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”
But Erpenbach was far from the only star. Milwaukee Democrats Lena Taylor and Chris Larson (just weeks into his first term) shined in radio and television interviews. And Madison’s Fred Risser was spot on, as he provided remarkably steady and thoughtful commentary that drew on the history of Wisconsin and on his personal history as the nation’s longest-serving legislator. Calm and dignified, as ever, Risser never shouted, never became fevered in his remarks; this made his anger all the more evident and powerful, especially when he described Walker’s actions as “dictatorial” and suggested that Walker and his allies were assaulting not just public sector unions but the core values and ideals of Wisconsin.
There were even some Republicans who fared reasonably well over the four-week ordeal that marked the first stage of what’s likely to be a very long fight. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, got reasonably good marks for his accessibility early on, even if he eventually blew it by referring to grandmothers, teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters as “slobs.”
State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, maintained his dignity and even a measure of his humor through the process. And Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, stayed calm and relatively respectful of his colleagues, avoiding much of the hyperbole and heavy-handed behavior that tripped up his brother, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
With so many legislators rising to the new demands of what history will record as one of the great transitional moments in Wisconsin politics, there is no need to suggest that any one member of the Assembly or the Senate was the winner of a competition.
It is worth noting, however, that at least one Democratic member of the Legislature made his mark not just as an ardent battler with the Republicans -- on the floor of the Assembly in the early stages of the fight and then in a number of pointed and passionate interviews on MSNBC -- but as a startlingly effective, statesmanlike speaker in the final doomed battle to prevent passage of the reworked legislation by the lower house.
State Rep. Cory Mason delivered a last address to the Assembly that was strikingly powerful and effective -- if not in convincing his Republican colleagues then at the very least in speaking to the whole of Wisconsin about why the rush to enact Walker’s assault on unions has been such a shameful chapter in the state’s history.
Mason’s speech was thoughtful, deliberate and calmly delivered. Yet it packed a rhetorical and emotional power that distinguished it from most of what was said by his angry and exhausted colleagues.
“Think seriously about what you are doing here. You’re talking about taking away people’s rights. You can’t take away people’s rights because you don’t like what they do in November elections. It’s just so fundamentally wrong,” Mason told the Assembly near the end of his address.
“I am worried about the rights that are being denied here to our workers in the workplace. I am worried about the tactics that are being used in this chamber and this building. I have never seen this building so closed off to the public. Not after 9/11 were the restrictions in this building so severe. Our governor likes to talk, Mr. Speaker, about his fondness for Mr. Reagan. I remember being a kid when Mr. Reagan famously said: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down these walls!’ Well, I’d like to ask Mr. Walker to open these doors and let the public in. People have a right to be heard.”
Mason picked up a copy of the epic remarks of former state Supreme Court Justice Edward Ryan from the 1873 speech that Robert M. La Follette often said inspired his decades of crusading for economic democracy.
Mason read the words to a hushed chamber: “There is looming up a dark new power. ... The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marking, not for economic conquest only, but for political power. For the first time in our politics, money is taking the field of organized power. The question will arise, and arise in your day though perhaps not fully in mine: Which shall rule -- wealth or man? Which shall lead -- money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations -- educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate wealth?”
Then the young legislator declared: “Never has this warning been more appropriate in my lifetime than here today. Now, you may win this vote today. But I promise you, I promise you, that the citizens whose rights are being deprived of them, and the public who believes they should have those rights, and the members of this chamber who oppose this body, we will fight you in this Capitol and we will fight you at home in our districts, we will fight you in hearing rooms, we will fight you in labor halls. We will fight you in the smallest town and the biggest city. Until these rights are restored, we will not surrender and we will not give up on restoring people’s rights in the great state of Wisconsin!”
At that, the galleries erupted with thunderous applause. And rightly so.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org