The location for the Democratic Assembly leaders' response to Gov. Scott Walker's budget address was symbolic of how little regard their Republican colleagues must have for them.
They were forced to use the office of the minority leader, Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha). It's not a small office, but with about a dozen news outlets present -- half of them setting up TV cameras -- it was extremely cramped and stuffy. Several reporters sat on the floor, and others had to listen in from the next room.
Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) apologized for the small quarters and then added, "We weren't allowed access to a larger room."
With such little power, what chance do the Democrats have in beating back against Walker's budget, which calls for severe cuts to education and human services?
"It's a very perilous time," agrees Rep. Kelda Helen Roys (D-Madison). But, she added, "Walker has managed to do in one fell swoop probably what no Democratic politician could have, which is awaken the voices of the people."
The main strategy -- or hope -- Democrats are banking on is that the already historic mobilization against Walker's agenda will continue and grow. Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) said: "This budget is so overreaching there are going to be many more citizen groups outraged. These are such deep cuts in health care and education.... This is not a Wisconsin people will recognize."
In their budget response, the Democrats tried to expand on that mobilization of real voices by bringing several people from around the state into their press conference to give their reactions to Walker's budget (the Democrats were allowed only 20 guests to his address). There were two teachers, a fireman, a police officer, a union worker and a pilot. Each roundly denounced Walker's plan.
Polly Slappey, a teacher at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Delavan, criticized Walker's proposal to allow classroom size to grow to 60 students as a way of saving money. "This is not my Wisconsin.... You can't even fit 60 desks in a classroom, let alone keep control of the class."
Maureen Look-Ainsworth, Wisconsin's 2010 teacher of the year, who teaches science in Waukesha, said the educational cuts will surely damage education. But, she said, "The teachers are going to get blamed," not Walker. And she said she was outraged that Walker would propose more funding for roads. "Are we saying things first and people second?"
Alan Hefter, state vice president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin and a member of the West Bend Fire Department, said the governor is "moving the budget to local governments, and local governments will end up doing the work he is supposed to do."
Brian Austin, with the Madison Police Department, said, "This is like trying to fix a small leak in your roof by burning your entire house down." He added the budget "Will undoubtedly have an impact on police departments' and fire departments' ability to protect people."
Barca told reporters that when he met with the governor, he asked him to "show some leadership to give an inch. There's got to be some movement. This state has never been more divided."
A few blocks away, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz held his own press conference, in a more roomy conference room. But the mayor was no less bleak about Walker's budget.
"The governor's budget is among the most divisive we've seen. It divides taxpayers and teachers, officials and their employees."
Later he added, "It's even more divisive than I expected. I didn't see the recycling mandate going away. That's absolutely senseless. This is an extreme budget offered by a very ideological governor."
Cieslewicz said it would take awhile to know the exact cuts Madison will suffer, because the three main state revenue streams are based on "complicated formulas."
"We just don't know yet," he said. But he added that the governor's plan of capping local tax levies -- unless raised by a referendum -- takes away local control.
"Let every local government and school district deal with [the cuts] in keeping with their own local values," Cieslewicz said. "The governor is saying we're going to force you to cut services. Because there's no other option."
The mayor too saw the mobilization of people as the only way out, by "energizing groups that have not worked together in the past."
Cieslewicz also said that the pressure can have an effect on the legislators. "At some point, the Legislature discovers they're an equal partner in government," he said. "Hopefully, they're not just going to rubberstamp this."