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Kelly Vinehout and Douglas Smith: Open letter to the people of Wisconsin

To the People of Wisconsin:

There are times when life happens so powerfully and unexpectedly that all you can do is embrace it fully and play the role you are given to the best of your ability. Sometimes that role is to lead, sometimes to support or protect, and sometimes that role is as a witness.

Way past bedtime on a Thursday night, February 17, 2011, we found ourselves unexpectedly sitting at a table in a fast-food restaurant with a group of people who had sacrificed their own comfort so that the people of Wisconsin would have a chance to learn the contents of the Governor’s “Budget Repair” bill. They had no extra clothes, no food, only the small amount of cash they typically carried with them, and no place to go. Some did not even have essential medication with them. Despite this, their conversation focused on remaining in contact with their constituents and being able to negotiate with their Republican colleagues.

The comment “Why don’t you come to my house?” was spontaneous, genuine, and one we would repeat. That night and the next day, we escorted Wisconsin Democratic Senators to our home where they slept, ate, and constantly worked for the next week, before moving on to another “undisclosed location.”

It was a pleasure to host this group of dedicated and loyal people. We were repeatedly amazed at how hard they worked. They were awake by 4:30 or 5:00 AM and kept working until well past midnight. Each of them made many personal sacrifices and agonized that they were missing events at home, such as birthdays of their children and spouses, children’s school events, funerals, family reunions planned long ago, wedding anniversaries, and many other days that we cherish as families. Their spouses scrambled to take out loans to pay bills at home when their paychecks were withheld. They risked debt and sacrificed time with their own families so that they could represent those they were elected to serve. They spent endless hours returning telephone calls to the people in their districts. Contrary to the contents of some of the newspaper articles we have since read, they attempted daily to negotiate with their Republican colleagues and their Governor, and spent endless hours attempting to contact these legislators. We watched them write these letters at our kitchen table. We watched their disappointment as their pleas for negotiation were steadfastly refused. We, common citizens who previously knew very little about politics, were then amazed to read news releases stating it was the Democratic Senators who were refusing to negotiate.

Although we are very private people, we decided to write this letter because, just as you had a right to learn the contents of your Governor’s proposed bill, you have a right to know the truth of what happened during the three weeks your Senators worked in Illinois. We witnessed first-hand how these Senators never stopped working from the moment they made the heart-breaking decision to leave the state they love. They made many personal sacrifices because every week they received tens of thousands of messages from their constituents pleading with them to not return.

We thank the great state of Wisconsin for the honor of participating in your effort to ensure a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are proud to be your neighbors as you move forward in the long days ahead, using the democratic process to ensure justice for all.

-- Kelly Vinehout and Douglas Smith
Woodstock, Illinois

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