Activists showed up; lawmakers did not

Handful of protesters urged lawmakers and Evers to postpone election for public health, democracy

Standing apart to observe social distancing guidelines, a group of protesters at the state Capitol on Saturday, April 4, urge lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers to postpone the April 7 election to ensure the safety of voters from COVID-19 infection. They are, from left, James O’Donnell, Rich McGowan, Charlie Ryan and Ron Rosenberry Chase. (Photo courtesy of Laura Valderrama)

For several weeks, Laura Valderrama has been watching the growing alarm over whether Wisconsin lawmakers would really try to force state residents to vote on April 7, exposing themselves to the spreading novel coronavirus.

A week ago, she and friends decided to try to do something about it. On Saturday, five of them traveled to the state Capitol to call on the state Legislature to act. They sat up in the Senate gallery as the Senate gaveled in and out in seconds.

“It was pretty disappointing,” Valderrama says. On Monday they returned to the gallery. Again they watched the gavel-in, gavel-out routine as the Senate chief clerk, Jeff Renk, spoke from a script to open and close the session.

At least on Saturday, a phalanx of reporters had been there to watch, along with the only two senators president, Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) and Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee).

“Their response was, ‘The Republicans didn’t show up’” Saturday, she says. “It was very frustrating.”

With the body still officially in session, Valderrama and two others in her group returned Monday morning. “It was the same experience — but worse,” Valderrama says. She saw no sign of reporters on the scene and no questioning.

At the closing gavel, she called down from the gallery to Renk: “Where is everybody? Why don’t you take our lives seriously, and our democracy seriously?”

There was only silence. She tried again: “I appreciate you showing up but you need to get your colleagues here and do the right thing.”

No one answered.

Frustrated, Valderrama and her companions went outside the building, where they recorded a video imploring Evers and Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to declare a public health emergency and postpone the election.

“It’s a grave risk to public health. It is also undermining our democratic right to vote,” Rich McGowan, a doctor who took part with Valderrama in the protest, says on the video they recorded.

Executive order

The news at midday Monday that Evers had signed an executive order delaying the election cheered Valderrama. “We very much appreciate his leadership. He made the right call,” she tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “Exercising our right to vote is very important for the American people.”

That order has since been overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the election is sure to be the subject of further litigation.

Laura Valderrama at the Capitol April 4
Laura Valderrama at the state Capitol on April 4, where she and friends protested the state Legislature’s failure to act on changes that would extend in-person and absentee voting to avoid risking the health of voters in the April 7 election. (Photo courtesy of Laura Valderrama)

Valderrama’s two trips to the Capitol were just her latest forays into speaking up to power. In January, a protest for peace at President Donald Trump’s Milwaukee rally led to her being ejected and mocked in Trump’s speech.

At the time and since then, she’s been an active volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President. “Now more than ever we need all the things that his platform stands for,” Valderrama says.

When the COVID-19 epidemic surfaced, her friend McGowan started an online petition urging the state to postpone the election. The petition didn’t take off the way they had hoped. “So we decided, let’s be more direct with our action, and go to the Capitol when the Legislature was supposedly meeting.

Knowing the social distancing guidelines they arrived in separate cars and took care to stand at least six feet apart. They wore masks and gloves to further minimize infection.

When they spoke with the two Democratic senators on Saturday, “in their view the Republicans weren’t taking it at all seriously,” she says of the risk of going ahead with in-person voting in the middle of the pandemic. “We 100% agree with that,” she adds. “But we also felt compelled to urge Gov. Evers to take more executive action.”

The senators told her they believed that state laws blocked Evers from acting, but she and her compatriots question that. So the news that Evers had indeed decided to follow through with an order was particularly heartening.

It also isn’t enough, she believes.

“What needs to happen is that every voter should be sent a ballot in the mail, as [Evers] originally proposed,” Valderrama says. She wants problems that people have had receiving ballots, including elderly people who haven’t been able to upload photo identification information to register, addressed.

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Evers’ declaration of a moratorium on evictions and on mortgage foreclosures during the pandemic are “a step in the right direction,” but she would like to see moratoriums on rent and mortgage payments themselves for people who lose their incomes in the economic lockdown that has accompanied the pandemic.

Valderrama has also entered politics herself, running for Shorewood Hills village board this spring.

Interviewed at mid-afternoon on Monday, April 6, Valderrama was hopeful for what lay ahead: that the vote could go forward safely in the future, when everyone could participate.

Reached again later, after the state Supreme Court’s action, she was blunt in her assessment.

“Striking down the Governor’s executive order is immoral and irrational,” she said. “lt is critical that Department of Health Secretary Palm immediately suspend the election on the basis of the existing public health emergency. We urge all Wisconsin voters to contact Secretary Palm and insist that she act now to use the power of her office to postpone the election in the interest of public health.

“All voters in Wisconsin should immediately be issued absentee ballots and given more time to get their ballots in,” she added. “The State Supreme Court has proven that it cares nothing about the lives of the people of Wisconsin. State leaders had every possibility to fight harder for our health, safety and the right to vote and chose not to.”