Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Larson (D). credit: Natasha Vargas-Cooper
GURNEE, ILL. -- Five miles from the state border, in a small Illinois town located between long stretches of frozen rivers and ramshackle gas stations, Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Larson emerged from a seven-hour meeting with his fellow exiled Democrats feeling as though the standoff with Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Republicans over public employee collective bargaining rights had reached a "watershed."*
"We sent the governor a completely earnest request to come meet with us about the budget repair bill," Larson told me during an interview at a Denny's in Gurnee late Monday night, where the 14 Democrats had gathered for a lengthy caucus after leaving Wisconsin more than two weeks ago in a bid to prevent the bill's passage. "Instead of talking to us he went on T.V. and just waved the letter around like a prop."
Walker dismissed a Monday request by the 14 state senators to meet along the Illinois-Wisconsin border as "ridiculous." Add that to what Larson called Walker's earlier "white knuckle power grabs"--locking down the Capitol, holding Democrats in contempt of court, issuing arrest warrants for them--and moderate Republican senators looking for a break in the impasse over Walker's bill may well be pushed into breaking ranks with Walker, Larson predicted.
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"We've had a lot of victories over the last few weeks," he noted, adding he felt Democrats could be poised for another.
Though none of the 14 state senators who are scattered over Northern Illinois -- they would not reveal where they were staying after the Gurnee meeting--are packing their bags for a return to Madison quite yet, three scenarios have emerged that could bring them back to the Capitol building this week.
One scenario would involve a guaranteed amendment to the budget repair bill protecting collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. "We believe collective bargaining is a civil right," said Larson. Getting rid of the mechanism that "has helped build the middle class for over fifty years is like saying, 'Seat belts have done such a great job at saving lives that we don't need to wear them any more.'"
Another event that could bring the Democrats home would be if proposed changes covered by the budget repair bill were moved into an official state budget, which would allow for a roughly three-month debate period before a vote, as opposed to the three-day period originally imposed by Walker and senate Republicans. This option would likely be the most palatable for Republicans, allowing them the greatest face-saving opportunity while Democrats took advantage of the tsunami of opposition to the bill that's emerged over the past three weeks.
The third and ultimately most dramatic scenario that would bring the Democrats back would be if three -- and there's speculation that there could even be five, at the rate things are going -- Republican senators were to reverse their positions and join the Democrats in voting down the entire bill.
Larson did not disclose which of the three scenarios was most likely to materialize in the coming days but said he did feel confident that when the Democrats return to the Capitol they will come back victorious. "When we left Madison we wanted to accomplish two things," Larson said, "bring attention to what was in the bill to and slow down the attempt to railroad it through."
In that, the 14 already have succeeded. While the senators may have stumbled sideways into the national spotlight, their success at igniting public engagement and even outrage over Walker's legislation is undeniable.
At the seven-hour caucus on Monday, Larson did a presentation for the other senators of various YouTube videos people who have uploaded in support of the 14 (many of whom don't even own laptops). Spirits were bolstered, as many of the Democrats have started to feel cut off from their constituents given their nearly-three week clandestine life style.
When I asked the 30-year-old senator -- who had spent less than two months in office before he was swept up in unprecedented standoff -- if he felt disconnected from his job, he replied: "No, but it doesn't feel like a job. It feels like something much greater."
*The original version of the article said Gurnee, Illinois is 100 miles from the state border. We regret the error.