Heeding warnings from the FBI to prepare for armed protestors around the Jan. 20 Presidential Inauguration, Wisconsin and other states have tightened security and, according to two lawmakers representing Waunakee and DeForest, urged staff to work remotely if they are able.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach’s office noted that the Wisconsin Department of Administration has boarded up windows around the capitol building in Madison.
A memo from the Department of Administration Secretary states that more law enforcement personnel will be stationed in and around the building for next couple of weeks.
The memo sent to legislators Jan. 11 states, “Over the last several weeks and escalating in recent days, law enforcement agencies have identified numerous credible threats to state Capitols across the country, including Wisconsin.”
Asked what the mood is among state legislators and their colleagues, state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein said, “nervous.”
The Democrat from Middleton called the Jan. 6 rioters at the U.S. Capitol “scary.”
“We were called into session the next day,” Hesselbein said, adding that Republican leaders have been holding sessions in person. Several legislators have taken off their masks while speaking, she added.
As Hesselbein has requested virtual meetings for committee meetings and hearings, she’s been asked what she’s afraid of: COVID-19 or rioters?
She said both are concerning.
Hesselbein, who serves on the Assembly Committee on Sporting Heritage issued a press release Jan. 13 regarding a joint hearing hosted with the Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Small Business and Rural issues that day.
She said she and other committee members had requested a virtual option for those who still wished to participate but were concerned for health and safety.
They were denied, and so Assembly members and citizens who wished to ask questions were unable to. Hesselbein resorted to watching the hearing on Wisconsin Eye, she said.
“We have the capability and the technology to do it; the Republicans just don’t have the will to do it,” Hesselbein said, noting in April, when the state health department’s Safer at Home Order was in place, lawmakers passed legislation remotely.
Hesselbein’s concerns for the Jan. 13 Sporting Heritage Committee meeting were related to COVID, not the potential of insurrectionists, she said.
With increased security at the capital, Hesselbein said she has been impressed with the number of police officers and different law enforcement agencies present.
But in the days before the Presidential Inauguration, no special protocols are in place for legislators and staff. Hesselbein said they have been advised not to park on the Capitol Square the weekend before.
“With different social media sites being shut down I don’t know how people, if they’re communicating, if they might be planning to protest,” Hesselbein added.
Law enforcement agencies have taken FBI warnings seriously, but no accommodations have been made for legislative session to be held remotely to respond to health and safety concerns, Hesselbein said.
“It’s not just about the legislators, it’s about the support staff that work with us as well,” she added.
Support agencies, such as the Legislative Reference Bureau, the Legislative Technical Service Bureau, must be present for legislative sessions.
“The idea is if we could do this virtually, [staff] could be there virtually, too, so that they’re safe. It’s not just about our safety; it’s about the safety of our entire community and the people that do those jobs for us,” Hesselbein added.
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has “made it clear he does not want any virtual sessions at all. He wants them all in person, even for the State of State last week,” she added.
Vos, the Republican from Rochester, told the Up North News in a statement that people “all across Wisconsin go to work every day and members of the Assembly are capable of doing so as well.”
Concern over social media comments have been unsettling for Hesselbein and other Democrats.
She has been in touch with Middleton Police for extra patrol during the days surrounding the inauguration, she said.
“There have been some unfortunate tweeting which raises people’s worry, but they’re anonymous tweets,” Hesselbein said. “Certainly, the First Amendment is important, and freedom of expression is important. But you’ve kind of got to watch everything to make sure. There’s a big difference between someone saying something bad about you and getting out your address.”
She urged others to report any suspicious behavior.
“If you see something, say something. It’s important that we’re all watching out for one another in our neighborhoods and communities,” Hesselbein added.