Melanie Conklin

Assembly Democrats Elevate New Generation

Youth, diversity on the rise. But Rep. Anderson offers protest on workplace disability issue.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Dec 21st, 2021 12:42 pm
Rep. Greta Neubauer (center) with supporters unveiling a package of bills around one of her signature issues: climate change. Photo by Isiah Holmes/Wisconsin Examiner.

Rep. Greta Neubauer (center) with supporters unveiling a package of bills around one of her signature issues: climate change. Photo by Isiah Holmes/Wisconsin Examiner.

The Assembly Democratic Caucus got two new incoming leaders on Monday — Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) as the minority leader and Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee) as the new assistant minority leader.

Both break the Legislature’s mold. Neubauer is a woman who is bisexual and hails from Racine — the same community as Speaker Robin Vos. She’s 30, Haywood is 22. (With credit to the Associated Press article for pointing it out — their ages combined are less than the age of Vos, who is 53.)

Both are relatively new to the Legislature having been elected in 2018. (About half of the Assembly Democrats have been elected in the past two terms). Haywood, who is Black, joined Neubauer in stressing the strength in the caucus’ diversity. Neubauer, who will replace Rep. Gordon Hintz as leader in January, will head a caucus that for the first time is made up predominantly of women. (Of the 38 Democrats in the Assembly, 20 are women. In contrast, out of 61 Republicans, only 10 are women.)

“I’m seeking this position because in the face of Republican efforts to divide and conquer, the next year will be critical in building a stronger, more equitable Wisconsin,” Neubauer told her fellow Democrats in asking for their vote and pointing out that she came to her work in the Legislature as an organizer around climate action. “While I come to this work hoping to build connections and find common ground, I am also prepared to face our state’s challenges head on.

“The GOP knows that they are losing ground with the people of Wisconsin and that the only way they can win is to sow division and double down on the worst that President Trump brought out of the Republican Party,” said Neubauer, vowing that  she will put “everything I have into this role,” and adding, “In the face of division, culture wars and hyper partisanship, we will continue to show up for the people … recognizing the real and growing threat to our system of governance.”

She said that Democrats recognize — but must also convey — that government can be a force for good that can look out for everyone in the state. As nominations for the assistant Democratic leader moved forward what began as a four-way competition, there were speeches on functioning as a team, electing more Democrats, fighting against the “divisive” Republicans.

One speech departed from those themes and was far more personal.

Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), who is quadriplegic due to spinal cord injuries he received in a car accident in 2010 that killed the rest of his family, told the legislators and staff that when he decided to run for assistant Democratic leader, he began the usual process of calling around to his colleagues to win their support.

What happened next, he said, hurt him deeply.

“Many of you broke my heart this weekend,” he began in a quiet yet emotion-ladened tone. “After about the twelfth call of people asking me, ‘Can you even do this? Is your health even OK to do this job?’ it dawned on me that you all don’t really understand what it is to live my life. And I began to think, ‘why don’t you want to talk about my ideas or my hopes for the caucus or what I could offer?’ Instead, I got the kind of doubt that holds back people with disabilities from getting opportunities in the workplace or leadership or any variety of things.”

Getting such responses caused Anderson to believe he needed to draw attention to how people with disabilities are often treated in the workplace and the obstacles they face.

“I realized I needed to do more to take a stand — to change the way we operate in this Legislature so that … other people with disabilities would be able to feel they, too, could also serve,” said Anderson. “Those of us with disabilities often feel we need to change ourselves to meet the world as it is currently built, when in reality it is actually that you all need to change to accommodate us.”

Anderson reminded his colleagues of the political acumen it took for him to beat Vos when it came to providing needed accommodations for his disability during legislative sessions and committee meetings.

“It brought me back to my fight with Speaker Vos over disability accommodations, remembering every email I would get telling me to resign, that if I can’t do the job to get the hell out,” said Anderson. “And it hurt so much more coming from people who were supposed to be my ally, who supposedly care about me, are supposed to be fighting for individuals with disabilities.”

“So,” he told them, “let’s talk about my health.” He went on to recount how in his first term he missed zero session days, zero meetings. “Hell, I probably was here for meetings that some of you all missed.”

Then, as a result of an extremely long lame duck session in 2018 that lasted late into the night to take away power from Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, he ended up with a pressure ulcer from sitting in one place too long. It led to a bone infection and several surgeries after that. Anderson noted that during his recovery time he did not ask for top committee or leadership spots because he knew his own capabilities.

Anderson went back through his heated battle with Vos in 2019, where he felt that to win the accommodations he needed he had to go into deeply personal life stories down to minute details of his daily bathroom routine. After waging the public battle in the media, sharing details he never wanted to be public, he effectively became one of the only people among the Democrats present who could say they had “gotten Robin Vos to do something that he did not want to do.”

This provoked some quiet laughs in agreement. Then he reminded them of how Vos loaded up the vote on providing accommodations for disabilities with all kinds of poison pills so Democrats felt they could not vote against the package of rules changes. Anderson reminded them that he wanted “so badly” to vote in favor of his accommodations but chose not to because leaders told him it would be “bad optics” if he voted for it and the rest of them voted against it.

That, Anderson said, was a sacrifice he made for the caucus — who he now feels did not trust him to know his own limitations despite having seen him decide to pull back when he knew he was not in a place to do that.

“During these calls that I was having with you all, there were insinuations that I was putting my own hubris, my own desires ahead of what I was capable of doing,” said Anderson. “Instead of trusting me to know what my limitations were —  despite proving in the past that I wouldn’t do that to this caucus. And again, instead of being asked about my accomplishments, about my ability to wield power in a way … to effect change in a positive way that forced Robin Vos to do something he didn’t want to do, I get no benefit of the doubt. I get all these insinuations about my health.”

That pushed him to speak out during the caucus elections, he said, not just for himself but to make a broader point about the way people with disabilities are too often treated in the workplace or when seeking employment. He labeled the questions he got from other Assembly Democrats when making those calls as “coded language of ‘we worried about your’ health.”

He didn’t mince words in advising his colleagues — in a caucus meeting open to the public with media present — to keep this in mind when working with people with disabilities:

“We are not less-than, we do things differently, we work twice as hard and many of us feel struggles and pain that you could not fathom,” Anderson said. “We know what that means. We’re not stupid. With that I would like to withdraw my name from consideration. Thank you.”

Assembly Democrats break mold in new leaders Neubauer, Haywood was originally published by the Wisconsin Examiner.

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