The Capitol was relatively quiet today, but that does not mean things have gone back to normal, or that they will anytime soon.
Most of the building's entrances were closed, except the two where everyone who enters must pass through a metal detector. When I got inside just before 2 p.m., the Rotunda was mostly empty, save for a dozen or so people.
I spoke to two of them: Darla Colvard of Chetek, near Rice Lake, and her daughter Joleen. Colvard is a retired school employee and former union member. Today was the first time she made the four-hour trek to be at the Capitol, protest sign in hand.
"I came because I've very upset about what Gov. Walker is doing with this bill, kind of ramming it down our throats," says Colvard. "It's not right."
Colvard says she was prevented from joining a union for about half of her 21-year career at Roselawn Elementary in Chetek, for various reasons, including that she worked in the same office as administrators. When she finally qualified for union membership, her pay increased by $2.50 an hour: "That's how much I got gypped before I joined the union."
She also doesn't like that the budget repair bill allows the governor to sell off state property, like power plants: "He's not the king, he's the governor."
Joleen, the daughter, lives in Reedsburg and works for the state. This is the second time she's come to the Capitol to protest. The first time the building was packed with many thousands of people.
"I don't like what he's done to us," says Joleen. "No one mentions that we took two years of furloughs. I'm tired of him making it seem like we're the bad guys in this."
Just then a large group of people began flooding into the Capitol from both working entrances. It was about 400 members of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, who came from all over the state and met up this morning at Bethel Lutheran in Madison. They were here to meet with their actual state senators and representatives, if possible.
I linked up with a subset of the group from the 15th Senate District, around Janesville. It included Lanny Knickerbacker of Janesville, Cathy Manthie of Clinton, Cathy Thompson of Janesville, the Rev. Eric Jones of Orfordville, as well as another minister, a retired teacher and a Council member who filmed the whole thing.
The group headed off to the office of their senator, Tim Cullen. At first they were told the senator was busy returning phone calls and would not have time to meet with them. So they met instead with his aide, Kelley Flury, in an anteroom outside his office.
They each explained who they were and why they came. Some were worried about the impact Walker's budget cuts will have on poor children in their communities. Others were upset that Walker has delivered tax breaks to the rich while demanding sacrifices of those who aren't. Some spoke about relatives and other loved ones who are in dire need of human services.
After about 15 minutes, Sen. Cullen appeared, and spoke with the group for at least that long. He said that, as people of faith, they could "play a big role" in what he called "such a frozen place in partisanship." Cullen ruefully admitted that the events of the last few days have cause deep wounds.
"My district is divided. Families are divided, husbands and wives," said Cullen, mentioning a family so torn over the issue it could not manage a get-together. "I think you should [help] break the partisanship, the rancor, the harsh words."
Cullen was notably circumspect. He says his district is probably about evenly divided on its assessment of Walker, but thinks a majority oppose Cullen's having left the state to block a vote on the initial budget bill. "I'm glad we did it, I'm proud we did it," said Cullen. "I'm not apologizing for what we did."
But Cullen does worry about the precedent it might set for future conflicts, which is why he's drafting a state constitutional amendment to prevent any future exodus of this sort, saying "Democrats have some responsibility for what's happening to this institution." He urged the church people to reach out in a positive way to Republican lawmakers, to ask "Are we still okay?" and have a conversation.
Cullen agreed with the visitors when they spoke about the economic inequities that seem exacerbated by Walker's agenda. "I have no desire for class warfare," he said, "but people who have all the breaks don't need our help."
The meeting ended with a prayer. And then the group split up to visit with their Assembly reps, all Republican. The Rev. Jones was told his rep, Evan Wynn, was not in. But I was able to briefly join the largest group, which met with Rep. Joe Knilens of Janesville, a freshman Republican.
Knilens, unlike Cullen, came out right away. He quickly established that he knew the churches people in the group attended, and some of the parishioners. He said he couldn't answer questions about the budget bill because "we're just getting the highlights of it."
The group members voiced their concerns, and Knilens did his best to make it seem as though he shared them. When people spoke about loved ones who need endangered services, he spoke about the people he hears from who say they cannot possibly continue to live in their homes if property taxes rise any higher.
When asked if he would hold a listening session in his district, Knilens said he hoped this could be arranged, but maybe not right away. "I don't want a shout-fest, and I'm afraid that would happen right now."
There was no shouting that I heard at the Capitol today. Just people trying to have their voices heard, and be a voice for those who can't. It's still unclear whether anyone was listening.