Protest turns to camp for border-crossing Indiana Democrats

February 25, 2011

The carpenters union sent a fruit basket. The local Subway shops rolled out the welcome mat. And someone, no one quite knows who, planted the Indiana state flag on the mantel in the lobby of the Comfort Suites.

These are the signposts marking Urbana, Ill., a college town 140 miles south of Chicago, as the temporary home of 37 Indiana Democratic House members. They left their state Tuesday to prevent the quorum needed to vote on a bill limiting collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Labor unrest and proximity have made the Land of Lincoln the haven of choice for out-of-state lawmakers looking to block Republican-backed bills. While Wisconsin politicians are in hiding at undisclosed locations in Chicago area, a sort of summer camp in the dead of winter has broken out for Indiana legislators in Urbana, home of the University of Illinois.

“I haven’t been worn down yet,” said House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer, 66, his mouth full of barbecue while discussing his stay with reporters on Thursday.

Back in Indianapolis, thousands of union members rallied at the Indiana Statehouse this week. The lawmakers watched via Skype.

Nobody at the hotel, including Bauer, knows how long the stay will last. That has left them plenty of time to answer questions, including one of the most common: Why Urbana?

It’s the closest out-of-state city to Indianapolis, which is just 120 miles east of Urbana along Interstate 74, said Representative Win Moses of Fort Wayne.

“It was just convenient,” said Moses, 68, noting that the legislators didn’t have to worry about trouble with the law because Illinois has a Democratic governor, Pat Quinn.

As for their choice of the Comfort Suites, the lawmakers passed on another establishment on the University of Illinois campus because it didn’t have enough rooms or a suitable meeting facility, Moses said.

“Secondly, they had a lot of bars there,” he said. “We said we didn’t want any bars. There’s no bar here, so everyone’s comfortable and we stay focused that way.”

That doesn’t mean they aren’t exploring the Champaign- Urbana area. The website of Urbana’s twin city of Champaign boasts of an “extensive park system, a world-class library, urban shopping choices and a variety of living accommodations.” Representative Jeb Bardon of Wayne Township owns several Subway sandwich franchises, so he took the time to visit local Subway locations.

For his part, Moses has had trouble finding his way around.

“I know where the Cracker Barrel is and the little food place across the road, but that’s about it,” he said.

One landmark Moses would like to see before heading back to Indiana is Blue Waters, a supercomputer being built on the University of Illinois campus. It will be one of the fastest in the world upon its completion.

Mike Frerichs, a Democratic Illinois state senator, is making arrangements for them to visit it.

“We really want to,” Moses said. “It’d be a great thing to see from a technological, economic development standpoint.”

While the lawmakers may get a look at Blue Waters, there’s little chance they’ll have the opportunity to take a dip in the waters of the Comfort Suites’s pool before returning home.

“None of us packed our swimming suits,” Moses said. “You don’t normally plan for that in Urbana in the winter.”



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