Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has plumbed the depths of cynical gamesmanship and partisan chicanery throughout his miserable career. But the Rochester Republican hit a new low last week when he attacked state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who uses a wheelchair, for asking if he might be able to phone into some committee meetings.
The speaker’s disparaging of a colleague represents the latest in his many breaks with the traditions of civil discourse that once characterized statehouse interactions. But that is not the worst of it. Vos is sending an ominous signal to people with disabilities who speak up for themselves on the job. The speaker is rejecting the legal and moral intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As such, he must either change course or face a legal challenge that could be extremely costly to the state.
However this fiasco is resolved, it has raised serious questions about Vos' fitness to continue as speaker. It is embarrassing to the Legislature and to the state to have the Assembly being led by a vindictive charlatan who is deliberately rejecting a modest request from a colleague who seeks only to do the job he was elected to do.
Anderson, one of hardest working and most engaged members of the Assembly, has asked to be able to phone into some committee meetings because it can be physically difficult for him to get to sessions that begin early in the day. The Democratic state representative from Fitchburg has also explained that it is not healthy for him to remain in his wheelchair for long periods of time.
What Anderson is proposing is reasonable and necessary. It is, as well, accepted practice in other legislative bodies — including the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate. Notably, members of the Assembly who serve on joint committees with senators are allowed to call into joint meetings of members of the two legislative chambers.
So what is Vos thinking? The answer is that he is not thinking. He is letting his irrational partisanship get the better of him.
Remarkably, Vos has accused Anderson of "political grandstanding.”
After making that absurd assertion, the speaker engaged in some actual political grandstanding by trying to present himself as the victim in a dispute with a man who has been paralyzed from the chest down since 2010, when a drunken driver smashed into the vehicle he was in. That accident killed Anderson's parents and brother.
Anderson’s story of rebuilding his life, graduating from law school, starting the nonprofit group Drive Clear (which helps victims of drunken driving and works with groups like the Madison/Dane County Tavern League to “empower people to make smart decisions before getting behind the wheel”) and getting elected to the state Legislature is an inspiring record of perseverance and achievement. Yet Vos had the audacity to criticize Anderson’s public statements about the need to make accommodations for Americans with disabilities. "This is an unfortunate way to communicate,” wrote the speaker in a letter to his colleague. “It calls into question your seriousness.”
Anderson is serious. And he is right.
If Vos was serving as the speaker of the whole Assembly — rather than a crude partisan who seems always to want to pick fights with Democrats — he would have quietly and quickly worked with Anderson and other legislators to adjust the rules and set up phone connections like those utilized by state senators.
Anderson should not be forced to press this matter. Vos should have acted affirmatively to make the workings of the Assembly fair and functional for all members. That is the speaker’s job. Unfortunately, Robin Vos is failing at his job.
That failure harms Wisconsin, as do the lies that Vos is telling in an effort to smear Anderson.
1. Vos claimed that Anderson did not tell him or human resources officials about his concerns. Yet Anderson said those concerns were communicated to Vos early this year when party leaders considered Assembly rules. State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, the Beloit legislator who serves as the Assembly Democratic caucus chair for the 2019-2020 legislative session, said Anderson is right.
2. Vos is trying to suggest that videotaping committee sessions would be a proper accommodation. But that’s absurd. Anderson would not be able to make comments, ask questions or otherwise participate in hearings. He would be reduced to the role of a spectator.
3. Vos claimed that letting Anderson, or any other lawmaker, to call into a meeting would disrespect citizens who attend meetings. Really? A legislator who wants to hear what people have to say is disrespectful? Any reasonable person would reach the opposite conclusion.
4. Vos said that letting a member call in would “lend itself to disruptive, ineffective meetings." But doesn’t the private-sector — which the speaker so frequently hails — rely heavily on conference calls and videoconferencing? Are the meetings of high-powered executives, marketing teams and corporate sales forces ineffective? Of course not. Vos is simply trying to find excuses for saying “no” to Jimmy Anderson.
"It seems like Speaker Vos is going to take every opportunity to denigrate me and act as if I'm acting inappropriately when I'm simply asking for accommodations related to my disability,” said Anderson. “And so at this point I can't trust him to do the right thing and that's really frustrating. It really feels like we're moving toward having to file a lawsuit."
It does not have to come to that.
But if it does, the evidence will show that Robin Vos has been a colossal jerk.
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