Joan Vennochi

Come back, runaway lawmakers

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 24, 2011

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LEAVE a window open. Just like Abraham Lincoln, someone in Wisconsin will be looking to jump out of it.

After 14 Wisconsin Democrats fled Madison for Illinois, their supporters wrapped themselves in the story of Lincoln’s leap from a window to deny opponents a quorum in the Illinois Legislature. The ploy ultimately failed because a quorum was certified before he jumped.

Republican Governor Scott Walker is trying to get history to repeat itself. The governor took a phone call from someone who called himself billionaire David Koch, but who was really an online news reporter. During the conversation with a man he believed to be one of his biggest contributors, Walker revealed his plan: to get all 14 Democrats back in Wisconsin so Republicans would have a quorum.

Let them get it.

The Democrats who ran insist it was the only way to block Walker and Republican lawmakers from approving a bill that curbs the rights of state employee unions. The walkout fever spread to Indiana, where Democratic members of the House of Representatives also decamped for Illinois to avoid voting on legislation that would allow workers in private-sector unions the right to opt out and not have to pay dues.

Skipping town to stop a vote is nothing new. Reporting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, writer Karl Kurtz recreated this Lincoln escape story:

In 1839, the Illinois House was meeting in special session and came up with a plan to vote on a Democratic bill to require the state’s central bank to make payments in gold or silver instead of paper money. The Whig Party opposed it and turned to Representative Abraham Lincoln to deny the majority Democrats a quorum.

Lincoln and another House Whig walked into the chamber to make a motion to call for a quorum. There wasn’t one. However, the next day, when Lincoln made the same attempt, the House speaker locked the doors behind them. With a quorum present, Lincoln and others jumped out of a window to try to stop the vote. They couldn’t, because the quorum was already certified.

According to some historians, it wasn’t Lincoln’s proudest moment.

Other examples of walkouts researched by the National Conference of State Legislatures included one by Texas House Democrats in 2003, who successfully derailed a Republican-sponsored redistricting bill by fleeing to Oklahoma and denying a quorum in the House. Then US House majority leader Tom DeLay used the federal Department of Homeland Security to find the missing Democrats.

Despite the precedent set by

Lincoln, what’s the larger message shaped by this procedural tactic? Are r unaway lawmakers courageously standing by principle? Or, does it look more like they are they afraid to stand up for it? Will minority party members in legislatures across the country see a walkout as a way to deal with every issue that isn’t going their way?

When it comes to the anti-union agenda pushed by Republican governors, labor and Democrats need a fresh message. The old battle cries no longer work. Democratic US Representative Michael Capuano of Massachusetts does labor no favors when he fires up a group of Boston union members by telling them sometimes it’s necessary to get out on the streets and “get a little bloody.’’

Labor needs passion, not blood.

The average citizen no longer remembers or cares about the origins of the American labor movement. Unions today are not seen as forces for workplace fairness and safety. Too many people see union leaders as thuggish advocates for lazy, selfish and overpaid public-sector employees. The unions have not figured out how to counter the headlines about cushy pensions and disability scandals. Democrats who went along with bad deals in exchange for union support are now paying the price with a cascade of negative publicity.

There is another side to the story. But take it to the people, don’t run from it. Make Walker, not the Democrats, look for the escape hatch.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at