People's Legislature draws over 1,000

By Laura Salinger

Expected to draw a crowd of several hundred, over 1,000 people packed the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall Jan. 4 meeting of the “People’s Legislature.” A multipartisan group of Madison-area citizens created the legislature to mobilize support for political reform and to create a place for those who currently feel shut out of the state’s political process. Their main goal, they say, is to create a space for Wisconsin’s "politically homeless."

"Those of us who are working to pull together a People’s Legislature may differ on what issues belong at the top of our state’s agenda, and we may differ on how to solve those problems; but what binds us together is the knowledge that none of us will be satisfied with what government does until we do something about how our government conducts business," a group statement says. "We share a concern that Wisconsin is not Wisconsin anymore. Our state’s reputation for clean, open, responsible, and progressive government has been badly soiled and is in danger of becoming a faded memory. Our democracy is in deep trouble."

Organizers hope to do away with a state government they say has been taken over by big money interests and lobbyists. They had expected a few hundred at the Jan. 4 meeting so were quite surprised by the 1,000-plus turnout.

The People’s Legislature will be a venue for people who feel that their voice is no longer being heard by state lawmakers. Many attendants had a common opinion of the government these days, saying that the possibility of large campaign donations is shaping legislation moreso than the needs and wants of Wisconsin’s voters.

The first meeting of the People’s Legislature, sponsored by, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and the Center for Democratic Action, was organized by a group of nearly 100 community members, including former University of Wisconsin Regent Nino Amato, Green Bay area business executive Paul Linzmeyer, Libertarian Party of Wisconsin chairman Ed Thompson, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign director Mike McCabe, Republican Party member Carol McKy, editor Ed Garvey, and LUChA (Latino’s United for Change and Advancement) President Alfonso Zepeda-Capistrán.

The Fighting website states that the goal of the People’s Legislature is simple. Organizers want to know what a government that is actually a voice for its taxpayers and voters, rather than for special interests, would look like. "The idea is simple: What would the Legislature take up if the members represented their voting constituents instead of cash constituents like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Wisconsin Realtors Association, and the 803 registered lobbyists representing the highway contractors, the utilities, the insurance industry, and the banks?" the website says.

The large crowd spent the whole day, from 11 a.m. to after 7 p.m., discussing how to create a more accountable and just government. Opening statements by Judy Adrian of the Center for Democratic Action, Nino Amato, Ed Thompson, Alfonso Zepeda-Capistrán, Paul Linzmeyer, and Mike McCabe set the tone for the day’s events.

McCabe said that it is imperative to create a "grass-roots movement to rehabilitate our government and take back our democracy." "It is a political landscape in need of change," he said. "We have 600,000 people in this state who are uninsured. We have 59 percent of African American males in the city of Milwaukee who are unemployed. [We have legislators who] are more beholden to their cash constituents than they are to their own voter constituents."

McCabe, like others at the meeting, declared a need for change. "At the end of today, it is my hope that we will say it was here where we saw the start of the resistance mobilizing."

Zepeda-Capistrán, a longtime advocate for Latinos, brought a positive note to the politically disenfranchised crowd, echoing the famous words of Cesar Chavez: "Yes, we can! Unity is necessary for the common goal," Zepeda-Capistrán said. "I hope today we have some success in breeching these common goals. It gives me hope that tomorrow will be a better day."

Former legislator Stan Gruszynski, the event’s keynote speaker, said that the days of mass mobilization for change are a thing of the past. He urged participants to once again organize and act. "We have grown to a point where we expect others to do it for us," Zepeda-Capistrán said. "Unless you decide to take some action and realize your own power, and work collaboratively with other people, you’re not going to get anywhere. Our children’s future depends on our involvement."

After an open forum, in which participants were able to air grievances and give advice, the large crowd dispersed into breakout sessions. Carol Lobes of the Center for Democratic Action facilitated "Organizing to Move the People’s Legislature Forward," while Zepeda-Capistrán facilitated a group discussing how to build an agenda for the People’s Legislature. McCabe and Amato facilitated "Ethics, conflicts, outsourcing, public financing, competitive elections, open government, and local control: Where do we go from here?"

The large group convened later to adopt resolutions for the People’s Legislature and to discuss geographic placement of meetings. The group’s resolutions include goals to implement comprehensive campaign reform, preserve local fiscal control, and implement legislative redistricting reform to create competitive elections.

While the turnout at the event was a success for the organizers — people came from all over Wisconsin — the lack of young people and people of color was noted by several audience members. Organizers encouraged audience members to help diversify the People’s Legislature by drawing more young people and people of color to future meetings.