Indiana House Democrats are no-shows Tuesday

Union Workers lined up to protest at the Indiana statehouse Monday
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Kevin Rader/Eyewitness News

Indianapolis - Where are the Democrats? That's the question being asked at the Statehouse Tuesday as hundreds of union members demonstrated their opposition to labor bills backed by Republicans.

At 10:00 am when the House gaveled in, it seemed like a normal day with one exception. There were only a couple of Democrats in the House - about 38 less than the day before.

"Roll call shows 58 present. For the first time I can recall the House is unable to conduct its business today for failure of a quorum at the outset of the session day," said House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis).

Rep. Terri Austin (D-Madison County), one of two Democrats in attendance, tried to explain the mass exodus.

"What we are trying to do is figure out a way to save the state from this radical agenda that has been forced upon us," said Austin.

When the speaker tried again at noon, it was with the same results. There were not enough Democrats to conduct business. The gallery, packed with union workers from around the state, erupted upon announcement that House business had ground to a halt.

Just below, even more pressed their faces against the window in symbolic fashion. Those on the outside were actually finally being heard. They finally felt as though they had a voice.

"They are out-voted 60 to 40. It's strictly party line vote yesterday. I testified in committee; eight Republicans, they voted for it. Five Democrats voted against it. That is wrong. They need to do what is right for people in this state. Not for a few like the Chamber of Commerce which is wrong," said Rick Vitatoe.

Throughout the day, if it was our way or the highway, Democrats chose the highway, leaving the unions to fend for themselves. The word is even more workers will be converging on the state capital as the week progresses.

Rep. Charlie Brown of Gary tells The Associated Press that he and Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis are on Interstate 74 in Illinois. He won't say where their destination is.

Rep. Peggy Welch of Bloomington also tells the AP that she's "traveling" but she won't say where she is. She says House Democrats are "standing up for the middle class and for our kids."

"I don't think there is anything we can call this other than a walkout. They have taken a page out of the Wisconsin Senate playbook," said Bosma. "I can't recall a time when we've come in to take attendance in the morning and the minority party has not even shown up for that."

Austin, meantime, would not spill the beans on the Democrats' whereabouts. Eyewitness News partners at The Indianapolis Star reported that they were out of state.

"I am not going to tell you where they are but I can assure you that all the Democrats are working very hard. There are 27 bills and one bill alone had 44 amendments. We are reviewing those very carefully," Austin said.

On Monday, thousands of union workers protested labor legislation at a noisy Statehouse rally.  They continued their protest Tuesday at a "sit-in" Tuesday morning and the AFL-CIO planned a midday "Stand Up for Hoosiers" rally, a day after a Republican-led Indiana House committee voted along party lines to advance to the full House so-called right-to-work legislation. The bill prohibits union membership and fees from being a condition of employment.

The workers say the reforms are aimed at weakening unions and will drive down wages. Backers argue a right-to-work law would remove an impediment to attracting business expansions to the state.

See a map showing "right to work" states.

Wisconsin's Senate hasn't been able to take up a measure to strip nearly all public employees' bargaining rights since that body's Democrats left the state last Thursday.

Quiet Tuesday night

By evening, the chanting that echoed through the Indiana Statehouse had subsided and the calls for action had given way to inaction. A few thousand union workers came to the statehouse to make their voices heard, but oddly enough, their champions had already left in hopes of trying to find a way to accomplish just that.

"Our goal is to protect the state from this radical agenda," said Austin.

So House Democrats left, leaving only three members in the minority, leaving the House without a quorum to do business, leaving the majority frustrated.

"What we do makes a difference and I want to be that difference, but I can't do that this evening, because the Democrat caucus is not here," said Wendy McNamara (R-Evansville).

That is because a majority of the minority traveled to Urbana, Illinois, in hopes of finding a way to stem the tidal wave of legislation that was about to engulf them.

"We have 23 committee reports. If they are not adopted this evening, those bills are dead without a revision to our rules. Our rules cannot be revised without a quorum being present," said Bosma.

In their three-page statement issued Tuesday evening, House Democrats say they will stay in Illinois "until we get assurances from the governor and the speaker that these bills will not be called down any time this session."

The list includes Right to Work, school vouchers, charter schools, unemployment insurance and the budget.

"We have no representation as to whether the minority party will be present for the conduct of business tomorrow," said Bosma.

The state's Democratic party says they are paying for the caucus in Illinois.