One day this past February, Indiana state Rep. Peggy Welchmade one of the most unusual and difficult decisions of her political career: She didn’t report for work at the state capitol.
Not only did Welch and a group of fellow Democratic legislators not show up at the statehouse, they left the state entirely, bolting to neighboring Illinois to prevent Republicans from having enough senators present to move forward on controversial legislation, including a proposal affecting unions.
While Wisconsin lawmakers staged the most celebrated walkout of the past year’s legislative sessions, Indiana Democrats’ actions—which resulted in a five-week standoff—were a prime example of the partisan disruption that pervaded state capitols across the country, much of it focused on questions about the powers of teachers’ unions and education issues.
The echoes of that battle continue to reverberate for Welch, in her 13th year in the legislature, who recalled the reaction she received during a recent appearance at a county fair in her district.
“I had numerous people—Republicans—say, ‘Thank you, that was the right thing to do,’” she said. Others, she said, would walk past and sarcastically say, “‘Hey, back from Illinois?’ ”
I asked Welch about her experiences in the months since Indiana Democrats’ public protest this week, at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual summit, being held in San Antonio, Texas. The lawmaker appeared on a panel with legislators from other states, from both parties, who reflected on the tumultuous recent legislative sessions and what might lie ahead next year.
One of the questions facing state lawmakers is whether the coming year’s sessions will bring the same kind of partisan turmoil that dominated legislative sessions in many states, most notably Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. The rancor on display in Congress over the past month was a recurring, if grim, punchline at many NCSL sessions throughout the week, but a number of lawmakers suggested they were uncertain whether their legislatures would succumb to it, too.
In Indiana, Democrats believed they were being shut out of discussions on several GOP-sponsored pieces of sweeping legislation, including the labor measure, which was withdrawn.
Indiana Republicans were successful, however, in approving a number of far-reaching changesin law, including limits on collective bargaining for teachers and a major expansion of vouchers.
During the Indiana showdown, Welch recalled that she and other lawmakers held strategy sessions in Illinois and waited for a resolution, with much of that time spent in an Urbana, Ill., hotel.
Afterward, she sought to explain the rationale behind the Democrats’ move to constituents, with mixed results.
“What was frustrating to me was that people were saying, ‘You need to be here, you need to be debating it,’ ” Welch said. “But I’ve said it to some, if it was an issue really important to you, [the reaction would be, you had] better get out of here, you need to stand up for what I believe in.”
Welch is up for re-election in 2012. Her district in the Bloomington area, by her estimation, has a substantial proportion of Republican voters. She says she’s ready for a fight.
“I know it’ll be difficult,” she said, “but I’ll give it my best.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.