I am a lapsed Catholic, but all that going to church as a child has served me well in forming a sense of awe and reverence for the blind faith it takes to believe in American democracy and self-governance, especially after eight years of Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature in Wisconsin. We have no kings. Power is fallible and fraught. But still, I believe. And good believers go to church. On Monday, I put on my best clothes and went to the last cathedral I feel awe within: the Wisconsin Capitol.
It was a day for celebration and ceremony. It was a sight that was timeless and yet incredibly human in its drama. While school and community choirs sang, their voices booming to every corner of the rotunda, echoing off the soaring dome, the place had the feel of a combined wedding and funeral. Our recent past was being buried and we were collectively taking a new vow for the future of the people of the state along with the executives being sworn in.
Friends and foes all in one room, participating in the transfer of power. At one point, before the ceremony began, I saw the ghost of a bipartisanship that is rarely actually seen in politics: Scott Walker and Jim Doyle laughing and talking; former Gov. Tommy Thompson landing a kiss on his gubernatorial predecessor, Democrat Marty Schreiber, while the two hugged. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin walking in together, and having a thorough conversation a few seats over. I privately hoped they were hammering out a bipartisan solution to the government shutdown.
Justice Shirley Abrahamson arrived to much attention from those assembled, petite and seated in a wheelchair, smiling and animated nonetheless, shown to her seat amongst her colleagues in their formal judges’ robes. I wistfully thought back to being seated next to her at a dinner and the insightful life advice she gave me about relationships and having children, while across the room Milwaukee Rep. Danny Reimer was standing up, showing off his baby son to his colleagues.
Decades of very real, human, fraught relationships of power and ambition, sacrifice, success and failure were playing out. It really is a small group of people who serve as our representatives to democracy. After tough elections with winners and losers and many hurt feelings, these same people come together and participate in ensuring our citizens have a government for the people, by the people. It is certainly worth celebrating and taking time out of our day to honor the amazing act of the peaceful transition of power. Arguably, it’s a lot easier to do when your side wins, and a lot harder when you lose — just ask the people with the “Thank You Governor Walker” signs who showed up.
And for all of the past that was in that room, so was our future. Certainly Mandela Barnes, Josh Kaul and Sarah Godlewski are forging the path for a new generation of state leaders. One of them may be our future governor, and their stories are just beginning to be written. They need us to be there to support them in what comes next, and we need to continue to build the bench for fresh leadership for the next decade ahead.
So while the usual political gossip swirled about the day and exhaustion set in from smug happy hour genuflecting (“The look on Walker’s face as his security detail walked away for good and he just stood there was worth everything I went through,” “Did you see Fred Risser trying to take photos on his smartphone?” “Oh, what are you doing now?”), Monday truly was a day to be a reverent participant and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going as a state.
Shakespeare had it right: We all have parts to play, with our exits and entrances over a lifetime, and as such the stories and relationships of the people that shape our state are decades long. One day, the new faces in the room on Monday will all have gray hair and battle scars that are earned through the noble, tough, heartbreaking work of successful self-governance to this great state. I’ll continue to believe in and support this communion of people and ideas — no holy water or wafers required.
Bridget Maniaci served two terms as Madison's District 2 alderperson, 2009-2013. She relocated to Washington, D.C., in September 2018.
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