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Democrats try to explain boycott in Web meetings, calls

March 6, 2011

As pressure mounts for Indiana Democrats to end their Statehouse boycott and get back to work, some members of the exiled caucus are holding town hall meetings to explain to their constituents why they are holed up in an Illinois hotel. The longer the Statehouse standoff drags on, it seems, the more work Democrats are doing to explain their side of the ongoing impasse.

Republicans who control the House say they're also getting more pressure from their constituents to do something to bring back minority Democrats, who left the state Feb. 22 to protest what they call a "radical" GOP agenda and deny the House the quorum it needs to conduct business.

Republicans say they refuse to be bullied into killing bills outright and have vowed not to hash out a back room compromise. Democrats will be fined starting Monday if they do not return when GOP leaders again try to convene the House, but Democrats said it's doubtful they'll be back.

As the standoff drags on, many voters want a resolution soon.

"The longer it goes on, the more heat there is, not just for Democrats to come back, but for the Republicans to negotiate," said Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington. "The public temperament for these kinds of things ... there is a finite end to it."

Both Republicans and Democrats feel they are in the right, of course. And when they hear from their individual constituents back home, they are often validated because they're hearing from some of the same people who elected them in the first place — people who share their views on politics.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said residents he talks to are growing more annoyed at Democrats.

"We are getting inundated by members of the public who want us to deal very harshly with and take immediate action against the Democrats," Bosma said. "My e-mail box is completely packed. We're getting calls constantly. Taxpayers are frustrated."

Democrats, meanwhile, say more people are backing them as they learn about Republican proposals.

"We're getting increasing support," said House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend. "People have had time to know what these bills do."

Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said people in his pro-union district rally behind him when they hear Democrats say they are fighting for the working class.

"Those things resonate in my area," Brown said.

When making their cases to voters, Republicans have an easier message as they explain their side of the story: They simply want Democrats to come back and do their work.

Democrats, on the other hand, started the boycott after Republicans pushed a contentious "right-to-work" bill that would have prohibited union membership from being a condition of employment. That bill is now dead. Democrats are also concerned about other bills they consider an attack on labor unions and education, but they don't have a clear list of demands they want before they return to the Statehouse.

"The Democrats have a very tough message," said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at IUPUI. "They started with right-to-work. Now they're down into much more policy details."

So it makes sense that Democrats are making extra efforts to connect with constituents.

Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, held a virtual meeting last weekend with constituents gathering at Vincennes University. He said Democrats are answering e-mails, calling into constituent meetings and talking to reporters to help explain the boycott.

"We are in constant contact," he said.

Thursday, Democratic representatives from Indianapolis held a town hall meeting using the online video-calling Web site Skype. House members sat in their Urbana, Ill., hotel, while constituents gathered at a Baptist church in Indianapolis watched them on a large screen behind the altar.

While not everyone at the church was supportive — one man told the Democrats they should get back to work — most people thanked boycotting Democrats for standing up for working families.

Leatrice Webb Parks of Indianapolis said most people she knows support the Democrats and want them to stay strong in their boycott.

"The longer they hold out, the more serious the Republicans know the Democrats are," she said.

Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, D-Indianapolis, told those at the church that Democrats appreciate the Facebook messages, e-mails and phone calls.

"It's so important for us to hear from you," she said. "You are our strength."

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