Wisconsin lawmaker’s fight for accommodations turns partisan

Jimmy Anderson

MADISON — A paralyzed Wisconsin Democratic state lawmaker urged his Republican colleagues Thursday to show him “simple dignity and respect” with an up-or-down vote on accommodations for his disability, rather than tying them to other changes that Democrats think could give Republicans more power.

In an emotional speech during debate in the Assembly, Rep. Jimmy Anderson said that he could be forced to vote against accommodations that he’s sought for months. Among other things, Anderson wants to be able to call into meetings he can’t attend in person and wants assurances that meetings don’t go overnight.

“If you respect me as a human being, if you think I deserve the simple decency of being able to vote for my own disability accommodation resolution, turn this down,” Anderson said to a hushed chamber, as all other lawmakers turned in their seats to listen.

Jimmy Anderson

The argument over Anderson’s accommodation request, first made in January, has turned into yet another partisan fight in Wisconsin, a state where Republicans hold control of the Legislature after Democrats won all statewide offices in 2018.

Anderson first made the request following a Republican-called lame-duck session in December where the GOP voted to take away powers from the incoming Democratic governor just before he took office.

That session went all night, which Anderson said resulted in him developing pressure ulcers because he was sitting in his wheelchair for too long. Anderson said he underwent surgery to “cut out pounds of flesh” and the recovery required months of bed rest.

“It literally puts my life at risk,” he said of all-night sessions. “I don’t want to have to talk with you about my personal health care needs, but you disregard my personal accommodation request as if what I’m talking about is too much.”

The rule changes would allow a Republican-controlled committee to set time limits on debate. They also would allow anyone designated as being permanently disabled to call into meetings.

Democrats object to other provisions that Republicans have included. Chief among those is one that would allow multiple veto override votes, which Democrats say would make it easier for the GOP to blunt the power of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Republicans have a massive 63-36 majority in the Assembly.

Following Anderson’s emotional speech, Majority Leader Jim Steineke said Republicans were looking at breaking the rule changes into separate resolutions.

Before debate began, the Democratic leader of the Assembly accused Republican Speaker Robin Vos of being “clearly drunk with power.”

“This is just another black eye on Wisconsin,” Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said ahead of debate.

Republicans unveiled the rule changes after Anderson hired an attorney who sent a letter last month renewing the demands and giving Republicans an Oct. 1 deadline to respond.

Steineke said he met with Anderson on Wednesday and offered to vote separately on the veto override provision. Democrats declined because they also object to other rules, including one that could limit their ability to force debate on their bills that Republicans oppose.

“They can’t take yes for an answer,” Steineke said. “We’re the only ones that have moved off our original position consistently.”

Republicans are three votes shy of the 66 they would need to override an Evers veto when all 99 members are present. Democrats fear that allowing for multiple veto override votes would allow for Republicans to sneak in a vote when Democrats are absent. Other Democrats said the change could be unconstitutional and even the accommodations weren’t enough to satisfy the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Vos defended himself from Democrats’ criticism, saying Democrats are “political 24-7 and can never find a way to get to ‘yes.’ … They are hyperpartisan, always full of hyperbole and this is the latest example of how the Democrat minority chooses to operate.”

Steineke said Democrats’ concerns are overblown. “They’re seeing black helicopters and boogeymen around every corner.”

Anderson, 33, told a silenced Assembly chamber about the night he was paralyzed and the daily struggles he faces just to make it into work. Anderson was celebrating his birthday when a drunken driver blew through a stop sign and struck the car he was in. His parents and 14-year-old brother were killed.

“I was staring into the lifeless eyes of my little brother,” Anderson said. “His body broke, bent and bleeding. I begged him to tell me that he was still alive. I begged him over and over again to tell me he was OK. … Then I started begging my mom and my dad to tell me they were OK and all I could hear was the ticking of the engine.”

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