Urbana, Ill. — At 7 a.m. on day five of the House Democrats’ self-imposed exile to Illinois, the only noise in the Comfort Suites hotel is Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb.”
“And I, I gotta be strong, just keep pushing on...”
The lobby and breakfast room are empty.
The biscuits and gravy, advertised on a dry-erase board outside the door, sit untouched next to stacks of single-serving Raisin Bran boxes and apples.
“SportsCenter” plays on mute on the flat-screen TV.
The parking lot is full of cars with Indiana plates, but the hotel lobby is dead.
It’s finally Sunday, and the Democratic representatives who have been camping out here all week are taking a few moments to breathe.
The only sign of guests at the hotel is stashed in a corner: a stack of “Vote Democrat” signs.
On any other Sunday morning at home, Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington, would be at Wee Willie’s by now, taking her first bites of her usual Sunday breakfast — bacon, two eggs over easy and grits.
She and her husband would have just left the 9:30 a.m. service at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church.
Other churchgoers would, as always, be approaching her with policy critiques and pleas. She’d thank hem politely and urge them to call her later in the week to have a longer talk.
Instead, she’s grabbing only a cup of coffee before going back to her hotel room to answer some e-mails.
She came and went from a church service Saturday night without being noticed. She walked the few blocks back to the hotel, checked her e-mail and went to sleep.
Her party made the decision to leave the state Tuesday to deny the Republican-controlled House of Representatives a quorum.
Only three of the 40 Democratic representatives showed up to vote this week, which put the total count of legislators under the two-thirds threshold required to do business.
Last Monday, a “right-to-work” bill, which would prohibit companies from requiring new employees to join unions as a condition of their job, came up for debate.
However, the Republican majority only allotted two hours for discussion of the bill, despite the bill’s controversy.
Democrats felt it wasn’t enough time for the public to learn about the potential
So, on Tuesday morning, rather than show up for a vote on the bill, the Democrats fled to Urbana. They knew it was an easy city to get to from Indianapolis, just a straight shot on Interstate 74.
Even better, a Democratic governor would help protect them from extradition.
However, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has promised he won’t send state troopers to collect the legislators.
They’ve promised to stay in Illinois until the right-to-work bill and 10 others, including education bills on vouchers and charter schools, are killed.
“We can’t necessarily defeat all the bills,” she said, “but we’ve given the public the opportunity to learn about them, and they’re rallying.”
As their holdout continues, they’ve commandeered the breakfast room as their caucus room, even though it perpetually smells like waffles from the griddle in the back corner.
Though most representatives are here alone, care packages from home come in the form of meals cooked and delivered by their families.
In any moment of downtime, Welch is responding to e-mails from people all across the state. Most of the ones from Bloomington and her district are positive.
It’s the e-mails from everywhere else that call her a coward, demanding to know, “Would you pay me to walk out?”
“I hope to God I never get you as a nurse because you’ll walk off the job.”
Welch said that one stung the most — she works as a nurse when the legislature isn’t in session, and she says she’d never leave a patient’s side.
“It’s hurtful, but I get why they do it — they’re just reacting to what they hear,” she said. “I don’t want to develop a thick skin, though. I try to think of myself as a duck — I just shake my feathers and let it roll right off.”
She considers everything she does as a calling, not work. And when your calling tells you to go to Urbana, you go to Urbana.
“I don’t feel like I’m not doing my job,” she said.
Just like at home, she is always in politician mode, ready to discuss policy decisions at a moment’s notice (with the help of several trips to the Circle K across the street for a Mountain Dew Polar Pop). And she has mystery novels on her Kindle any time she wants to unwind.
Along with the rest of her party, she’s ready to camp out as long as she needs to.
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