My husband and I went to a town hall meeting with our representatives this evening at the Wauwatosa (WI) City Hall and Public Library, hosted by Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R, WI) with newly-elected Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir. Some other youngster elected official was there - didn’t catch his name; not my district.
I spent yesterday and today researching and writing 5 questions from which I would choose should I be lucky enough to get the microphone. We left the house and arrived at the library one hour early to ensure good seats. We were met by a line of protestors outside the library with the usual array of anti-Walker signs. Lots of love for the Fab 14 and unions, even within this conservative Milwaukee suburb - Sensenbrenner's had a hold on this district forever. Ugh.
We went inside, and filled out little slips of paper with our name, address, and a box to indicate our desire to ask a question. At this table we were invited to pick up a copy of the Wisconsin Blue Book, and we then filed into the Firefly Room. This room was set up for an audience of about 70, with a table at the front, Poppa Jim already presiding with his gavel, but without a microphone. The youngster official chatted with the growing crowd, Leah Vukmir was nowhere to be seen, and more people crammed the room, until at 6:45 when Vukmir arrived and Poppa Jim banged his gavel to call the meeting to order.
[A quick aside here; several weeks ago, my husband attended a similar event in this same room, hosted by our democratic State Representative David Cullen. He had mics at the table and halfway down the center aisle of this same room, and discourse was polite, with honest discussion. Clearly discourse was tonight's goal from the git-go.]
A library staff person went to a microphone at a podium off to the side and informed us that library patrons were using the library above us and requested we use our library voices, while Poppa Jim silently sorted the question request sheets into two piles. At this point, I could hear the constant chant of “Kill the Bill” and “Recall Walker” from the protestors outdoors; a look around the room showed me that every seat was filled and people were standing all along the walls, in rows at the back, into the foyer of the library and beyond into the hallway connecting the library to City Hall. I would estimate there were about 200 people in attendance although they did not all fit into the room. There were likely many more if you count the protestors outside, but I couldn’t see them.
Poppa Jim opened the meeting after the library staffer left, and informed us that he would call people from his sheets for questions, and he had put the slips with Wauwatosa addresses into the priority pile; if time allowed, non-Tosa slips would then be called. During his opening statements, people at the back of the crowded room asked it he would use the microphone because they could not hear his un-amplified voice in the crowded space. He refused, banging his gavel and informing us that if we did not use our library voices he would close the meeting right then. This became his constant refrain.
The first questioner was called, and she went to the front of the room to use the microphone. Leah Vukmir’s response was inaudible to the back of the room. Again there were requests for the Representatives to use the microphone. Again, Poppa Jim refused. Several questioners in, the library staffer returned, and invited the Representatives to use the microphone in their responses as the questioners had used it for their questions. Perhaps someone sought her out in the hopes that she could coax our elected officials into using the microphone; in any event, it was the only "people's" success of the evening, forcing our elected officials to use a microphone which they clearly did not want to do.
So Poppa Jim and Leah Vukmir had to stand up to respond to questions each in their turn. The youngster did not answer any questions, nor were any directed to him. I am not sure anyone knew who he was. Any audience reaction to a question or its response was met with the pounding gavel and Poppa Jim’s reminder that he would close down the meeting if we misbehaved.
Meanwhile, the chanting outside grew, and the people inside became more restless and angry as each question was answered by the same talking points, or not answered at all. Suddenly my husband was called to the podium, and he asked the following question of Poppa Jim:
Firstly I want to thank you for your vote in the House to ban drilling for oil and gas in the Great Lakes. However, I have some questions about your relationship with oil companies as they relate to other votes you have cast.
Your personal stock portfolio has significant investments in BP and Exxon Mobil, and you receive thousands of dollars in support from oil and gas companies. You
consistently vote against drilling moratoria, against curbing carbon emissions and against alternative energy initiatives. You regularly vote to spend tax dollars on subsidies for oil and gas companies.
Fortune Magazine and other similar publications rank global oil companies among the most profitable corporations in the world.
Right now, Republicans in Congress are vowing to cut the budget deficit. Yet you voted NO on a bill that would have stopped $40 billion taxpayer dollars from going to subsidize the richest, most profitable companies on the planet, the big oil companies.
Last summer, the polling firm Rasmussen found that 70 percent of Americans believe members of Congress would be willing to sell their vote for cash or campaign contributions.
In light of those polling results, and your overall voting record, how am I to believe that you are not selling your vote for the support of these powerful industries? Why do you support spending taxpayer dollars to subsidize the most profitable corporations in the world, particularly at a time when everyone is asked to tighten their belts?
Poppa Jim came to the microphone, delivered a speech on the evils of selling votes and how his BP stock wasn’t worth much anymore (boo hoo), then launched on a tirade against “cap and tax” - as he likes to call it - and how it would kill the midwest and cause our energy prices to soar! He did not, however, answer why cutting subsidies to big oil was off the table.
Then Poppa Jim called my name. I came to the mike, and said that while I had a series of questions I was eager to ask, I felt I had to follow up on the last response, because the congressman had not actually answered the question. Why did he feel it was an appropriate use of our tax dollars to give $40 billion to the richest, most profitable corporations on earth?
His response was that he felt that we got a good return on those dollars, and that without subsidies our gas prices would be through the roof.
After about 4 or 5 more questions, we were hearing the same old talking points, dishonesty and glad-handing of the issues. I don’t think anyone expected honest answers or even a conversation, but Poppa Jim anticipated the room’s anger, and made it his job to be the authoritarian and shut down any dialog or rebuttal. As Vukmir mouthed another talking chestnut such as "It is precisely because we care about our children and grandchildren that we have to do the heavy-lifting in order to get this deficit under control now..." one man, under his breath (but close to Poppa Jim) said, "why not just raise taxes?"
Poppa Jim, quite stern and authoritarian shouted, "Who said that?" as he looked towards the man. "I did!" the man shouted back. Poppa Jim, putting on his best baseball umpire voice, yelled "You're outta here!" The man shouted back, as he was leaving, "This is a DEMOCRACY, and we are sick of the way you people are conducting yourselves..." He was very articulate, and very, very angry. No one was using their library voice.
More questions were asked, more and more audible responses were aimed at the same old talking points, the needle dropping into the worn groove of a well-rehearsed script. Outside, the chants continued. Poppa Jim kept pounding his gavel like a mad carpenter, saying repeatedly "If I have to pound this gavel again, it will be to adjourn the meeting!".
He had to pound it at least a dozen more times, and finally did adjourn the meeting amidst cries of anger. Everyone jumped up and the room erupted in the "SHAME, SHAME, SHAME" chant. One man stepped up to the mic and began saying "see, this is what our democracy is coming to, this is the respect they have for the people..." and a tense and ropy wingnut commando ran up and pushed the man away, turning off the mic. A slight wrestling match ensued, though it fortunately didn't escalate beyond stupidity.
Poppa Jim and Leah Vukmir quickly and silently slipped from the room and left under police security. An impromptu rush to sign "recall Vukmir" database lists on sheets hastily torn from a legal pad began in the Library lobby. Her constituents were truly disgusted by her sing-song smily-faced dishonesty. The inside crowd joined the outside rally. Chants and honking horns rose into the night in our little Tosa Village City Hall and Public Library.
We went home strangely unsettled, feeling witness to the tense and intense immersive theatrics of performed discourse at these town hall meetings. In our post-Walker world, however, the politics of division which he has seeded have amplified the palpable anger of a waking and massive movement.