Capitol Workers: In Their Own Words: July/August 2011
Workers in the Wisconsin Capitol found their lives turned upside down by the protests that started in February after Governor Scott Walker introduced legislation removing the collective bargaining rights of most public workers.
Cathy Friedl first worked for Representative Peter Barca from 1986 to 1993 when he was elected to Congress in 1993. She rejoined his staff when he returned to Wisconsin's Capitol in 2009. Barca is now the Assembly minority leader.
“Nothing prepared us for the unexpected events unleashed by the workers’ rights debate in Wisconsin,” Friedl says. “Security tightened at our famously open Capitol. This meant new daily routes to enter, key fobs disabled, IDs required, TSA-like screening for the public, our West Wing office cordoned off with yellow police tape and heavily guarded by the State Patrol.
“We spent a lot of time escorting interns, visitors and constituents back and forth from the security checkpoints—when we could get them in.”
She said every day “brought a new twist.”
- Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren in our office debating the implications this held for the 2012 presidential race.
- Former Congressman Dave Obey being denied entrance to the Capitol.
- Legislators hauling desks outside in the snow to hold office hours.
- United Assembly Democrats taking the floor in orange T-shirts that read, Assembly Democrats, Fighting for Working Families.
- Conducting 3:30 a.m. press conferences.
- A 60-plus hour session and a public hearing that stretched for 140 hours straight.
“After the action moved from the Legislature to the courts we cleaned out the empty pizza boxes and finally made it home for some rest. But we still keep a couple sleeping bags and air mattresses in the office closet because you never know what’ll happen in Wisconsin these days.”
Tara Baxter is an aide to Republican Senator Luther Olsen, one of six Republican senators who may face summer recall elections because of his March 9 vote to limit collective bargaining by most public employees. Protesters at times prevented Olsen and other Republican senators from going to their Capitol offices.
“The most striking difference in the Wisconsin Capitol after the introduction of the budget-repair bill was the noise,” she says. “Before introduction, the normal sounds in the building consisted of muffled voices bouncing off the marble walls, heels clicking on the stone floors, and occasional echoes of doors closing down long hallways.”
Once the protests started, however, “there was nowhere to hide from the chanting, pounding, and ringing. Within the Capitol dome, the chanting seemed to actually fill the space and a person’s psyche. “All of the phone lines stayed full for entire days at the same time, while a half-dozen constituents or more stood in the doorway asking questions.”
It’s an ordeal Baxter will not forget any time soon. “The experience was so profound I had a difficult time falling asleep at night, because I could still hear the pulsing of ‘Recall Walker’ after I closed my eyes in my own home.”
Steven B. Mael
Capitol Police Officer Steven B. Mael was pictured on the front page of the New York Times and in newspapers across the United States and Europe struggling to hold Capitol doors closed to protesters on the evening the Senate voted to approve Governor Scott Walker’s bill limiting the ability of public employees to bargain collectively. Mael has been a Capitol police officer for 22 years.
“My days were long, with more work and less sleep,” Mael says. “I was frustrated by the lack of direction resulting from the moment-to-moment changing dynamics of responsibly because of the titanic influx of protestors.”
MaryJo Bambrough has quietly done her job cleaning Wisconsin’s Capitol for 22 years. She had never seen anything like the protests, however.
“Protesters were very helpful. They picked up after themselves and kept the floor cleared,” she says. “It was very interesting working during this, for as many years as I have been here.”
The protests did, however, complicate her daily tasks. “It made it hard to get from floor to floor when the elevators were shut off during the protest,” she says. “We were denied to go in special areas during the protesting. They were completely shut off.”