By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — I got in my car Friday and drove 100 miles to Appleton for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin state convention, just three days after the Dems lost their bid to unseat Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.
The potential for a great story was too compelling. I didn't want to miss a party that had been recast as a wake.
The woman identified herself as a former Racine Journal Times reporter and walked me toward the party’s war room. About six or so people sat around the table. I recognized two of them — Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski and party chairman Mike Tate.
“This is Ryan from Wisconsin Reporter. He wants to check in,” the volunteer announced.
That’s an introduction that generates some powerful feelings at a Wisconsin Dem function. The quick hit responses from Dem leadership included:
Zielinski jumped to his feet and told me to leave the hotel or he’d call security.
By the look on her face, I could tell my new friend, the ex-Journal Times reporter, was stunned. I was, too. I knew from my previous reporting that to a state Democrat the name “Wisconsin Reporter” is as welcome as a Christmas fruitcake. But this response was something altogether more panicked and outraged.
I didn't expect it. I’ve conversed with Tammy Baldwin, Kathleen Falk, Peter Barca, Tom Barrett and other high-ranking Wisconsin Democrats before. They’ve never yelled at me or threatened to call the authorities.
“That’s fine if you don’t want to let me in your convention,” I told Zielinski. “But you don’t have this entire hotel rented out, do you? I just want to know where I can set up to talk to people.”
“It’s not my job to tell you that. Now leave,” Zielinski ordered.
Starting to attract attention, Zielinski led me over toward the entrance of the hotel. He told a hotel employee he wanted me gone. I restated my case. At this point, another reporter, Jack Craver from the Capital Times, a progressive newspaper in Madison, stopped to find out about the commotion.
“I don’t want to cause any problems. I just want to find out where I can go, where I can talk to people,” I said to the hotel employee.
“That’s exactly what you’re here to do is cause problems,” Zielinski jumped in, looking at the employee. “That’s exactly what Wisconsin Reporter does. We have a history with that organization.”
Unable to resolve the conflict, the employee and Zielinski went to find the hotel security manager.
And then hotel security found me.
I spoke with the manager of hotel security, telling him again that I didn’t mind being barred from the actual convention, but that my question was really a different one: Could I set up in the spacious hotel lobby to interview convention-goers?
“He’s saying he doesn’t want you talking with anybody,” the security manager told me, indicating Zielinski.
“He can say whatever he wants, but he can’t dictate to people who they can and cannot talk to. He can’t forbid all of these people to talk to me,” I said.
The security manager agreed. Zielinski came back, still insisting I leave the hotel. I left my video camera running.
“We don’t want him here. We don’t want his news organization — it’s not a news organization — we don’t want them here. They are bought and paid for by the same people that bought and paid for Scott Walker,” Zielinski said, looking into my camera.
“And please don’t film me,” Zielinski added, half a second later.
I pointed my camera to the floor. Zielinski told me I wasn’t a reporter and that my camera was not a recorder. Then his attitude suddenly changed.
“Come over here, and I’ll talk to you,” Zielinski said, leading me out of the hotel. I walked with him, naively expecting a fresh start for a chance at civil discourse. “Now stay out here,” Zielinski said, abandoning me while he walked back into the building.
It was pretty clever.
I followed Zielinski, but was stopped by security — trapped in literal and figurative hotel limbo.
I asked the security guard again where I could set up. Finally, the hotel security manager said, “I know you’re just trying to do your job.” He told me I could set up in the lobby as long as I wasn’t causing problems with hotel guests. I assured him I had no intention of doing so. I even offered to ask folks to come outside to talk with me on camera. We talked for five or six minutes and I thanked the manager for his patience and told him I’d go outside to cool down for a minute.
Craver joined me outside shortly after. As we were talking, he noticed former Dem chair Joe Wineke walking toward the hotel. Craver stopped him and the three of us chatted for 10 minutes or so. While chatting, I noticed Zielinski walk outside of the hotel with a man holding a camera. Zielinski walked back inside, and the man sat outside the front of the hotel with his camera pointed in our direction.
After a few more minutes, Wineke, Craver and the man with the camera went back inside to join the convention. I walked across the street to a restaurant to recharge my equipment.
Inside the restaurant, I talked with several Democratic delegates.
“What’s the atmosphere like in there?” I asked delegate David Sartori.
He told me people were naturally disappointed, but he felt confident about the November elections. He asked me what I thought about the convention, and so I told him.
Sartori, who is also an elections commissioner and just a really reasonable guy, spoke with me for a good half hour — about recall politics, the troubles in Racine County on recall night and the outlook for Wisconsin Democrats.
It was the story I drove 100 miles to Appleton to hear, the experience of the people who so passionately organized and campaigned for 18 months to oust Walker only to fail.
But on my way back to Madison, I had another story to tell.