Steven Walters
The State Of Politics

Ten Years After Act 10

Most of those who voted for it are gone. How has the Capitol changed?

By - Jul 27th, 2020 11:02 am
Act 10 protest. Photo by Richard Hurd. (CC BY 2.0).

Act 10 protest. Photo by Richard Hurd. (CC BY 2.0).

Winter will mark the 10th anniversary of the Act 10 firestorm: Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators dismantled collective bargaining by most public employees and made them pay much more for health care and pensions.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters stormed the Capitol and stayed there for days. Police led Republican senators who voted for Act 10 through an underground tunnel to a bus that took them to a National Guard post. One Democrat and one Republican Assembly member helped each other climb through a Capitol window to get to work, prompting a joke, it was the only bipartisan act that day.

Today, the Capitol has a mostly different cast of characters. Most legislators likely to return in 2021 were not around for the ugly Act 10 power struggle, which prompted several who lived through it to decide to leave the Legislature. Consider:

-Of the 18 Senate Republicans who passed Act 10, only three will be left next year, if Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald wins his Fifth Congressional District campaign to replace retiring Congressman James Sensenbrenner on Nov. 3.

The only Republican senators who voted for Act 10 on March 9, 2011, and who are expected to be back next year, are Sens. Alberta Darling, Robert Cowles and Van Wanggaard, who was recalled after he voted for Act 10 but won his Senate back.

That turnover — 75 percent of Republicans senators who voted for Act 10 will be gone next year — is unusual in the 33-member Senate. Senators often serve for 20 or more years and seniority is rewarded.

However, eight Republican Assembly members who voted for Act 10 are now senators.

-Of the 14 Senate Democrats, who fled to Illinois to try and defeat Act 10, only five will still be in the Senate next year: Sens. Lena Taylor, Tim Carpenter, Chris Larson, Jon Erpenbach and Bob Wirch. In 2011, the 14 Senate Democrats’ Illinois campout prompted outrage from Republican senators, who accused them of refusing to do their jobs.

Last week, the 2011 leader of Senate Democrats, Sen. Mark Miller, of Monona, who will retire after this year, said the Democrats went to Illinois after they were told it would take 20 votes to pass Act 10, since it appropriated money. Republicans controlled the Senate, 19-14.

After negotiations to get the Democrats to return failed, angry Republicans stripped Act 10 of its spending provisions and passed it, 18-1, on March 9. The only Republican against it was Sen. Dale Schultz, a former majority leader who did not seek re-election.

Walker immediately signed Act 10, freeing the 14 Senate Democrats to return to an adoring crowd.

“People were crying,” Miller recalled of the 14 Democrats’ march to the Capitol that was led by wailing bagpipes. “They just wanted to touch me.”

Just enough Assembly Republicans — 51 — voted to pass Act 10, even though that party had 60 seats in the 99-member Assembly. Only 17 of the 60 Assembly Republicans — including Speaker Robin Vos — will be back next year, if all are re-elected Nov. 3.

-Only four of the 38 Assembly Democrats — Reps. Gordon Hintz, Sondy Pope, Chris Sinicki and Steve Doyle — who fought Act 10 will return next year, if they are re-elected. Two Assembly Democrats who voted against Act 10 — Janet Bewley and Janis Ringhand — are now senators.

One Assembly member, Rep. Robert Ziegelbauer, was an independent.

What if Act 10-like controversy arose today, would the fight be more violent?

The February 2011 fight left the Capitol with relatively minor damage, even though parts of it were turned into a food pantry and child-care center and sleeping bags and litter were everywhere. Protesters filled every space, shouted, cheered speakers, held signs and pounded on doors.

This year’s June protests responding to the killing of George Floyd and other police violence were much more violent; public and private buildings were damaged and looted. The Capitol, closed since mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, suffered broken windows and door handles and was adorned with graffiti.

In June, two statues who survived Act 10 protests – Forward and Union Army officer, and abolitionist, Hans Christian Heg – were toppled and dragged through the streets. Heg’s head has not been found.

Why restore the two statues, Republican Rep. Mark Born asked last week, only to “nine months later, watch them dragged down the road again”?

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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