On the day Joe Knilans stood to address his Republican colleagues in a closed-door meeting, he was celebrating his sixty-day anniversary as a Wisconsin assemblyman. It was March 10, the day the assembly was set to take its final vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial bill to limit collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin.
But as the words fell out of Knilans’ mouth, it was clear he was not up for celebrating.
“I just want to say that taking this vote today will probably cost me my job,” he began. “But that’s why I came to Madison — to take votes like this. I never wanted to be a career politician — it’s about doing the right thing.”
Knilans, 46, is an old union hand who used to assemble cars at the recently mothballed General Motors plant in Janesville. In November, he won a shocking victory over the sitting speaker of the assembly, Mike Sheridan, who had been caught having an affair with a registered lobbyist. It was the first time since 1938 a sitting Wisconsin assembly speaker had lost. After such a historic election, “how can I not vote with the people who voted for me?” Knilans told me.
When Knilans finished speaking, his colleagues gave him a standing ovation. Many that watched him speak remember feeling a jolt of electricity pass through the room. They were numb from the passion Knilans exuded in his speech. Soon, more vulnerable representatives stood and expressed their resolve in voting for the collective-bargaining bill.
Rep. Scott Krug was the next to stand, echoing Knilans’s sentiments about the bill being the right thing for Wisconsin. (In November, Krug beat the longest-serving assemblyman in state history, cantankerous Democrat Marlin Schneider.) Rep. Kathleen Bernier, who had served in local government in Chippewa Falls, cried as she told tales of how the bill had affected her friendships and family relationships.
Sixty-nine-year-old Rep. Ed Brooks talked about how he had been alive for World War II and the Kennedy assassination, and said he would always remember the vote they were going to take that day. One representative stood to explain why he couldn’t vote for the bill, but his opinions were treated respectfully.
At the end of the caucus meeting, they all held hands and prayed.
On election night in November, Assembly Speaker-to-be Jeff Fitzgerald confided to friends that the Republican electoral wave had been so tremendous, he didn’t even know the names of some of the people that would be joining his new majority caucus. Knilans had to be one of the names Fitzgerald never could have imagined would be joining him in Madison. In switching from Democratic to Republican control, the assembly had picked up 25 new GOP members. Forty-four percent of Fitzgerald’s members were now first-termers with no legislative experience. Call them the “Obamacare Babies.”
It was these freshman legislators who stood on the assembly floor following Knilans’ speech that day, while their orange-T-shirt-clad Democratic colleagues shouted “SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!” in their faces. They could feel the ambient rumble of the thousands of pro-union protesters that stood mere feet outside the assembly chamber. Newly elected representative Michelle Litjens had earlier been the target of a threat from a Democratic assemblyman, who pointed at her and said, “You’re f***ing dead.”
Knilans himself felt the intimidation. In his capitol office one day, he heard a group outside his door say, “We know where you live.” Picketers showed up at his house. He said he didn’t personally feel threatened, but he was anxious about the safety of his wife and two small children at home. One day, his five-year-old son asked him, “Do they hate you, Dad?”
Yet they stood together, endured the insults, and passed the bill on to Walker, who signed it the next day.
Voters always say they want politicians who vote without their reelection in mind; they favor elected officials whose conscience is their guide. Yet the GOP assembly freshman class of 2010 has been rewarded for the leadership with verbal abuse, death threats, demonstrations at their homes, and promises they will be yanked out of office via recall. Certainly, some of them know they will not keep their jobs in 2012 as a result of their vote last week.
But on Thursday, March 10, amid attempts to intimidate them, they held hands, closed their eyes, and made the leap together. Some will not survive.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.