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In Wisconsin, Vote To Aid Disabled Lawmaker Turns Partisan

Maayan Silver
The Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday approved accommodations for a disabled Democratic lawmaker, despite his objections that Republicans had tied the changes to unrelated provisions aimed at expanding GOP power.

The Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday approved accommodations for a disabled Democratic lawmaker, despite his objections that Republicans had tied the changes to unrelated provisions aimed at expanding GOP power.

Majority Republicans pushed the bill through after hearing emotional testimony from Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who opened up about his paralysis from an accident, caused by a drunken driver, that killed his parents and brother. Anderson voted against the new rules, including the ones that would allow him to do his job.

"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.

Credit Office of Representative Jimmy Anderson
Democratic state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, says it is "offensive," "disappointing" and "frustrating" that Republicans did not consult with him before proposing ways to accommodate his needs.

Republicans attempted to appease Anderson by moving some proposals into a separate resolution, but it wasn't enough to win Democratic support. The resolution including the accommodations contained a provision that will make it more difficult for Democrats to force debate on their bills.

It passed on a 61-35 party line vote, with all Republicans in support and all Democrats against. The second resolution, which contained more items not related to the disability accommodations, passed 60-36, with Republican state Rep. Scott Allen joining all Democrats against. Three lawmakers did not vote.

Since they are internal legislative rules, both resolutions took effect immediately upon passage and neither needed the backing of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Under the changes, Anderson will be able to call into meetings he can't attend in person. Other changes are aimed at preventing all-night sessions, which Anderson said are difficult for him to attend because of his condition.

The argument over Anderson's accommodation request, first made in January, turned into yet another partisan fight in Wisconsin, 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 in which 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 that the recovery required months of bed rest.

"It literally puts my life at risk," he told lawmakers, who listened to him in silence. "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."

Democrats objected most strenuously to one Republican rule change that would allow multiple veto override votes. The Republicans' 63-36 majority in the Assembly is just three votes shy of what 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.

Evers' spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said Republicans were "still so sour about losing an election that happened almost a year ago" that they exploited Anderson's request so they could "have more opportunities override and ignore the will of the people."

Majority Leader Jim Steineke said Democrats' concerns are overblown. "They're seeing black helicopters and boogeymen around every corner," he said.

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.

Anderson, 33, told the 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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