An Interview with State Senator Spencer Coggs
The Wisconsin 14 Returns
|State Senator Spencer Coggs returned to his State
Capitol office March 16 after returning from Illinois and
making sure all contempt citations issued by the
Republicans had been withdrawn.
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
Ever since the November 2010 election when Wisconsin went from a Blue
State — Democratically controlled — to a Red State — Republican controlled —
overnight with Republicans securing strong majorities in the state Senate and
the Assembly and Scott Walker taking the governorship, people expected that
some kind of change would occur, especially in light of Wisconsin’s projected
budget deficit of $3.1 billion in the upcoming biennial budget. As the Republicans
took office in January, there were rumblings of change as different policy
possibilities were trotted out before the public.
But then on February 11, a political blitzkrieg began when Governor Walker
introduced his budget repair bill that in addition to making state employees pay a
greater percentage of their health insurance and pension costs, also stripped
public workers in the state of Wisconsin of most of their collective bargaining
rights and concentrated eligibility and other program policies for the Medicaid
program in the hands of the secretary of the Dept. of Health Services.
With solid majorities in both houses backing him, Walker’s bill was all but
guaranteed to be approved through without amendment or close scrutiny. The Democrats, who opposed many of the non-fiscal policy
portions of the bill, were powerless to impact the legislation. Or were they?
“I got a call from the majority leader, Mark Miller, and he said ‘Can you meet us in Madison and bring a change of clothes,’” said State
Senator Spencer Coggs from Milwaukee. “’We’re going to do something kind of radical.’ And I would think that most people didn’t know
what he was talking about, but I had a hint because I remember in Texas about 2003, the Democrats stepped away for several months out of
protest of the Republicans trying to do redistricting. So instead of a change of clothes, I brought two just in case. I think most people were
anticipating 3-4 days at the most and we would be back. It turned out to be a little bit more than 3-4 days. It was more like three and a half
The Wisconsin 14, as the 14 Democrats became known as, were preventing the Republicans from passing a bill with fiscal implications
by denying them a quorum. And they had to “hide out” in Illinois as the Republicans and Tea Partiers tried to pressure them through the
media and through threats from the Republican Senate leadership to return to Wisconsin so that the budget repair bill could be passed.
It was a unique experience for Coggs and the others.
“I think we went to Rockford, Aurora, Freeport, Woodstock, Harvard, Glenview, Hoffman Estates and Chicago,” Coggs said. “We were
treated very well by the people in Illinois, to be honest with you. But I have to be completely candid also. In Northern Illinois, they don’t have
too many African Americans. So I stuck out like a sore thumb. A couple of times, we were trying to evade Tea Party people who were trying
to expose where we were so that we would get angry mail and phone calls. I would walk in some place like Woodstock and they had more
Latinos than they had African Americans. So people would see me and I would be dressed fairly decently. I was trying to pose as a traveling
businessman coming through the town. I was at one place and one lady looked at me and said, ‘Are you one of those 14?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’
am.’ She looked around and said, ‘Thank you for what you are doing. Keep up the good work.’ That was such a cute thing. I went to Gurney
Mills because we would hide in plain sight. In Gurney Mills, which is kind of like a resort area — they have this big shopping center and
Great America — and they have a ton of little hotels. We all broke up and went to different hotels. After a few days, I decided I would go
through Gurney Mills on a heavy day like a Saturday and I was like, ‘There are a lot of people here and I can just hide myself in the crowd.’ I
wasn’t there 10 steps and a guy said, ‘Hey, Senator Coggs, how are you doing?’”
The Wisconsin 14 weren’t in Illinois on vacation. They met constantly to figure out their joint strategy and how to deal with the political
and legal issues that were presenting themselves. While many of the senators were from “safe” Democratic districts, others had to struggle
to get re-elected and the budget repair bill controversy could lose them their seats. And the Republicans were getting increasingly frustrated
with the Democrats.
“They were just shocked that we used that constitutional parliamentary procedure,” Coggs said. “We’re not the only people who have
used constitutional parliamentary procedures. In the federal government, Republicans are not just using the filibuster, but just threatening to
use the filibuster to get their way. We denied the majority a quorum and they wanted to act as if we had done something illegal, which was
not true at all. It is very much a part of the constitution. But because we had outsmarted them, they were extremely mad at us. And look at
some of the punitive things that they decided to do while we were gone. They wanted to fine us each time we didn’t come to session. They
held us in contempt.”
Next Issue: The return to Wisconsin and future strategies