The story of the Wisconsin State Assembly debate on Thursday around a quadriplegic lawmaker’s request for reasonable accommodations began before dawn.
It started when the state’s long-time political outlet of record, The Wheeler Report, laid out a list of 10 Assembly rules changes that Republicans planned to lump together and pass in a single vote. Only one of the rules changes was needed to allow Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) to phone into meetings when he was not able to attend them.
Democrats would repeatedly describe that list throughout Thursday morning as a “power grab” and a “poison pill” used by the “drunk with power” Republicans to ram through provisions that would benefit the majority party at the expense of the minority party.
Republicans sought to expand the number of times they can vote to overturn Gov. Tony Evers’ vetoes (currently only one veto override vote is allowed). Democratic absences might make it easier for Republicans to get to the two-thirds majority vote needed. They also sought to limit Democrats’ ability to meet and debate, among other things.
When Democrats raised their concerns, Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) mocked them as being “crazy” and blowing things out of proportion.
Thursday morning also began before dawn for Anderson and his caregiver. She had to get up and wake her young child around 4:30 a.m., so she could arrive before 6 am to assist Anderson in the arduous routine that he must go through to take care of his basic needs and medical necessities in order to be able to be at the Assembly for the start of session at 10 a.m.
Republicans, said Anderson, never talked to him about what he needed, nor did their measure address all of his concerns, even before they tied it in with measures to suppress minority participation.
So when it came time for Anderson to give his floor speech on the rules changes, to ensure his fellow legislators who were wandering around actually paid attention, Anderson asked for a “Call of the Assembly,” a rare procedural measure where the doors are closed and every member has to sit down and respond to a roll call to show they are present.
‘Let’s get real honest’
Once he started telling his story — one he said upfront was deeply personal and embarrassing to share — the large chamber was so silent the sound of air blowing in a vent was audible.
The video of his speech was captured on Wisconsin Eye, the state version of C-SPAN, but below is also a large portion of his message.
I want to give everyone the totality of my circumstances … I want people to understand how small and petty it is that the majority is forcing me to vote against my own disability accommodations. So let’s talk about my disability so you understand why I need that accommodation … let’s get real honest…
The reason I am in this wheelchair is because a drunk driver ran a stop sign at 60-miles-an-hour while I was on the way to celebrate my birthday with my family. It was me, my mother, my father and my 14-year-old brother.
I came to, hanging upside down in that car. And I was staring into the lifeless eyes of my little brother, his body broken and bent, bleeding, and I begged him to tell me that he was still alive. I begged him over and over to tell me he was okay. All I could do was stare because I couldn’t move. I started begging my mom and my dad to tell me they were okay and all I could hear was the ticking of the engine until I bled out. On that day, my entire family was taken from me and I suffered a complete spinal fracture. … I will never walk, I will never use my hands, I will never be able to enjoy my life as I once did.
I depend upon the kindness of strangers to live my life. I depend on you to live my life, to do my work … but I can only do this job if you’ll accommodate me.
During this ordeal I’ve been told many times that, ‘Jimmy, you live in Dane County, you live just 30 minutes away, you can come and do this job no problem.’ Mr. Speaker, that’s not true. If you threw me from this wheelchair and asked me to crawl across this room, it would take me a lifetime.
Anderson then detailed how his lengthy, excruciating morning routine “takes hours and hours and it is painful, it is embarrassing. … I don’t want to talk to you about these things, but you don’t give me these accommodations, so I have to sit here and debase myself and talk to you about these things in public because you don’t understand otherwise.”
He added, his voice catching, that not a single Republican came to speak to him or ask what he needed with “the simple decency and respect that I would hope you would show to someone you care about.”
The lame duck session
The request Anderson made to be accommodated was not something he did lightly. Thursday he revealed that the all-night lame-duck session in December 2018, where Republicans stripped incoming Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul of powers, created a physical strain that led to severe wounds and pressure ulcers that got “infected down to the bone” from being in his chair for too long.
“That meant I had to go in for an emergency surgery,” Anderson continued. “They had to cut out literally pounds of flesh. They had to dig out bone that my surgeon said looked like chalk. I had to spend months on bed rest. That is why I made that request that we don’t have overnight sessions. It literally puts my life at risk.
“I don’t want to talk to you about my personal healthcare needs. But you disregard my accommodation request with a wave of the hand as if what I’m asking for is too much. Because you refuse to have the simple decency to provide the accommodation request, we have to have these uncomfortable discussions. I am asking to be included in the legislative process to the best of my ability.”
Anderson began asking for the accommodation in February. He waited through March and April and said nothing publicly. When he finally went to the press, he also sent a letter asking legislators to be supportive of accommodating him, noting the Americans with Disabilities Act was a model of bipartisan cooperation.
“Not one of my Republican colleagues signed on. Not one of my Republican colleagues came to my office and asked if I was okay … silence from the other side and that hurt. I have been nothing but kind to you.
“Now we are here and the great irony of this is that it is a political stunt that is being pulled,” said Anderson.
He explained to Republicans that he needed to provide insight and he needed the opportunity to vote on this as its own piece of legislation. He said they left him in the dark as to what they were doing until a couple of days before.
I was told no. Why? For what purpose are we not providing me the opportunity for the thing I’ve been fighting for, to vote on it as its own resolution?
There is no reason other than to be spiteful, to be cruel, to be petty. It would take a very small man to not be willing to provide me even that simple kindness and decency.
So here we are. I need 15 of my members on the other side of the aisle to recognize that this is not the right way to do this. That you can find another way to do this. I want to find a way to vote on this … on my own disability resolution … If you have any respect for me as a fellow colleague, if you respect me as a human being…turn this down and let’s find another way. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Democrats burst into applause, Republicans had troubled looks on their faces. It was not clear how Republican legislators would vote against Anderson’s request.
But Republicans were spared that quandary. Rather than call for an immediate vote, two more Democrats stood up and began to speak, breaking the stunned silence. The momentum that Anderson had built to a possible tipping point faded. Republicans went into a brief recess and then shifted to a pre-planned program honoring first responders.
When it came time for a vote on accommodations and other rules changes, more than an hour later, Republicans had split the rules changes into two packages, further mudding the story line. They put what Democrats identified as the most egregious piece — the ability to do multiple veto override attempts — in one package. And the disability accommodations into another, although it was still in a group with other measures that took away the minority’s right to debate and offer bills.
The rules changes passed on party-line votes, giving Republicans their expanded majority powers, giving Anderson some of the accommodations he requested, but denying him what he said was so important to him — the ability to vote for his own accommodations without having to also vote to stifle minority speech.