August 21, 2019
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
At first glance, Wisconsin State Representative Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) appears to be a heroic figure—a living embodiment of the distinctively American idea that anyone, regardless of circumstance, can succeed through intelligence, effort, and sheer force of will.
Paralyzed from the chest down in a horrific car crash in California that killed his parents and brother nine years ago, Anderson could have given up. He was in his third year at the University of Wisconsin Law School and suddenly his entire family was gone. He was confined to a wheelchair and condemned to a life of hardship. Simple tasks that he had taken for granted were now impossible.
It would have been easy for him to submit to self-pity, to resign himself to despair over his new reality. Really, who would blame him? His was suddenly a life that no one deserves and few are emotionally equipped to handle.
Yet Anderson didn’t just handle his new reality; he accepted it, embraced it, and made it his own. After graduation from law school, he went to work in the Wisconsin Department of Justice and founded Drive Clear, a non-profit aimed at preventing the sorts of drunk driving crashes that had taken his family from him.
“I wanted to do something to honor the memory of my family. If my story could save someone from being killed by a drunk driver, then I owed it to them to get my story out there,” he told the Daily Mail in 2016.
That year, he ran for and won a seat in the Wisconsin Assembly, where he has been a tireless advocate for tougher drunk driving laws.
Jimmy Anderson’s story has been one of overcoming adversity, triumphing over unimaginable tragedy, and refusing to let disability define him…until, sadly, now. He has written for himself an unfortunate new chapter in which partisan gamesmanship and vindictive score-settling have replaced resolute optimism in the face of tragedy, as he has in effect weaponized his disability against his political enemies.
Setting his sights on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Anderson has for weeks embarked on a disingenuous smear campaign cynically designed to garner public sympathy for himself and public scorn for anyone who dares to question him.
In January, after Republicans in the State Legislature held an extraordinary session to pass new laws aimed at reining in the power of the Executive branch, Anderson filed a complaint with the Dane County District Attorney’s office alleging that he was excluded from the meetings because of his disability.
“I’m done holding my tongue and pretending like everything’s OK when I’m being denied what’s rightfully mine,” he said at a news conference announcing his complaint. “Because I’ve learned if I don’t demand equality of justice and fairness and dignity and respect, that the people that run this building will not just deny it to me but they will deny it to every person with a disability who might one day dream to run for office and to represent their communities.”
It was a bold accusation that was also completely without merit. The Republicans who have controlled the Assembly since Anderson was first sworn in have bent over backwards to accommodate his disability.
“When Representative Anderson was elected, one of the first things that I did was to sit down with him and the Chief Clerk and say, ‘What do we need to do to make sure that you have every right to fulfill your constitutional duty to your constituents?’” Vos told News/Talk 1130 WISN’s Jay Weber. “We got him a new computer, we got him a microphone, [and] we made sure paid for travel for his aide to go with him back and forth. He lives six miles from the Capitol so it’s not a long trip, but I wanted to make sure he had every right.
“We reconfigured the floor [of the Assembly]; we did all kinds of things to make sure that he got what he needed.”
Anderson, it seems, had everything he needed to do his job. For nearly a full session, which included lengthy floor debates on the 2017-2019 biennial budget, he didn’t complain—either publicly or privately—about a lack of access or accommodation.
Only when Democrats across the country howled with outrage over the timing of December’s extraordinary session and Wisconsin Democrats filed lawsuits did Anderson first allege that Republicans were mistreating him.
And, crucially, he went to the DA’s Office and the media before ever going to Assembly leadership.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukana) said after Anderson filed his complaint that Anderson had never once raised any concerns about being unable to attend a marathon legislative session. Had he, Steineke said, leadership would have certainly accommodated him.
Anderson never asked. He went public first.
“If he had come to me and said, ‘You know what? I’ve got times where my aide is sick or I’ve got something else,’ I think we could have worked something out,” Vos said.
Anderson, though, had no interest in working with Republicans. He instead wanted to punish and publicly humiliate them.
Nearly eight months after his initial complaint with the Dane County DA’s Office failed to sufficiently embarrass Vos, Anderson went to the media again.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had to ask for simple dignities, right?” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelin late July. “It’s a frustrating thing to have to ask just to be included in the process.”
In demanding that he be allowed to phone in to committee hearings and that the Assembly end marathon legislative sessions altogether, Anderson glossed over the fact that Vos has included him in the rule-making process every step of the way.
At the outset of the 2017-2019 legislative session, the Assembly passed new rules prohibiting anyone from phoning in to a committee hearing because of the inevitable technical difficulties that make phone communication in such a setting all but impossible.
The rules passed unanimously, garnering even the vote of Anderson himself.
Moreover, Republican leaders have been willing to even compromise with Anderson to find a way for him to attend meetings that he might not ordinarily be able to, but Anderson has refused to even try.
“Rather than doing that, he sent out a press release and spent the last month trying to mischaracterize, first of all, the fact that I can’t change the rules by myself, second of all, we unanimously said we don’t want this, and thirdly, if he had been reasonable and actually acted like a colleague instead of a partisan, we could have figured out a way to work this out.”
Anderson may have at one point wanted to work with Vos, but no longer. Instead, he has been using allies in the media to wage a public war against them.
Last week, he released to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a letter he sent to his Assembly colleagues asking for their signature on what he called “a final request ‘before moving forward with legal action.’”
Naturally, the Journal Sentinel’s subsequent headline screamed, “No Republicans sign letter urging Assembly speaker to allow paralyzed lawmaker to call in to meetings.”
“Republican colleagues of a paralyzed lawmaker haven’t signed a letter urging the state Assembly’s leader to allow the Democrat to call in to meetings when he’s unable to attend in person,” read the accompanying article’s lead sentence. “All 36 Democratic members of the Assembly signed a letter dated Aug. 8 asking the house’s Republican leaders to provide accommodations for Rep. Jimmy Anderson, which they say are reasonable and fall under requirements of the American Disabilities Act. None of the 63 Republicans attached their names to the letter.”
This, of course, gives the reader the impression that Assembly Republicans are cold, hateful creatures who are trying their best to exclude a disabled colleague. And this is exactly the impression Anderson wants to give.
Even though the same Assembly leadership accommodated Anderson’s disability with new equipment and even a new floor layout at the outset of his term, he is deliberately fomenting the malicious lie that his Republican colleagues are actively discriminating against him.
Even though he had no problem attending lengthy floor sessions during the 2017 budget debate and even voted to prohibit teleconferencing, he now claims that marathon floor sessions and a ban on teleconferencing are discriminatory.
They’re not, and neither are the Republicans who have tried at every juncture of Anderson’s legislative career to accommodate his disability and ensure that he can serve as an equal.
Anderson seems to have forgotten all of this and, in a jaded attempt at using a supposed fight for equality as a political bludgeon; he has cast himself not as the inspiring hero, but as something of a manipulative villain.
He knows that his personal tragedy makes him an inherently sympathetic figure and he has been trying to exploit that sympathy and weaponized it against Republicans in general and Vos in particular.
In so doing, Anderson seems to have succumbed to the anger and bitterness that he refused to let consume him in the wake of his accident. For eight years, he overcame his personal tragedy and became a heroic figure, but for the past eight months he has weaponized that tragedy to score cheap political points and castigate his political enemies.
He has, in other words, become something worse than a villain. He’s become just another typical politician.