Portland state rep's solidarity road trip to Wisconsin generates national buzz

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PORTLAND — Somewhere between New Hampshire and Illinois, state Rep. Diane Russell become the political talk of the nation.

While traveling through New Hampshire, the Munjoy Hill Democrat was interviewed by a reporter for the Huffington Post, a liberal blog.

By the time she was “in the middle of nowhere” in Illinois, Russell said, she found herself prepping for a radio interview with Sean Hannity, a conservative who also has a show on Fox News.

“(Hannity) kept trying to talk over me,” Russell, who hadn’t slept since 8 a.m. on Sunday, said on Monday afternoon. “But I kept talking over him.”

It seems everyone wants to know why Russell, who described herself as anything but impulsive, would suddenly decide to put her life on hold and travel to Madison, Wis., to show solidarity with union workers protesting at the state capital.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans are attempting to strip many of the state’s unions of their collective bargaining rights, saying the measure is necessary to balance the state’s budget.

Since Republicans have enough votes to pass the measure, many of the state’s Democrats have left town in an effort to block the vote until Walker agrees to negotiate with unions.

Russell said her life is firmly rooted in the working class (her father is a long-haul truck driver). She believes the Wisconsin’s governor’s attempt to strip collective bargaining rights from employees is “class warfare,” rather than a simple budget move.

Russell said it is one example of how newly elected Republican governors are submitting a slew of bills and proposals that, taken together, will amount to a sea change in those states.

Russell, who sits on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said Maine Gov. Paul LePage is taking a similar tactic, with three phases of “reform.”

One phase she said is environmental reform, where one proposal would allow baby bottle manufacturers to begin using what is believed to be a toxic chemical, BPA.

Other phases include an attack on health care reform and labor, she said.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Russell said, suggesting Wisconsin is a watershed moment for the county. “If the levy breaks in Madison, we will all get flooded.”

Russell said unions have historically fought for rights, such as the 40-hour work week, weekends off and the minimum wage, which have been extended to all workers.

To undermine the union is to undermine all workers, she said.

Russell said she looked into flying to Wisconsin over the weekend, but quickly realized she couldn’t afford the airfare.

Then her friend, Buffy Morrissette, of Poland, posted on Facebook that she was driving to Wisconsin to join the rally. So Russell hitched a ride in the Chrysler Minivan with Morrissette, Morrissette’s 3-year-old daughter, Kayle, and her mother, Jeanne, a long-time union member.

Buffy Morrissette said she decided to make the two-day trek after watching the protests that have toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia, and are threatening several others, including Libya.

“I was absolutely astounded they could pull that off and remain dedicated through the violence,” Morrissette said. “My thought was I don’t think we could ever do that in America.”

Then, Morrissette saw images of protesters filling the Capitol Rotunda in Wisconsin, and didn’t want to miss an opportunity to effect change.

“The fact they stood up for what was rightfully theirs was just inspiring to me,” she said.

Russell has started a blog, SolidarityWisconsin.wordpress.com, and is Tweeting (@MissWrite) about her trip. She also set up a PayPal account in response to repeated offers from people who wanted to donate to the cause.

By Sunday evening, she had raised $1,000. By Monday afternoon, that total had increased to $2,500, $150 of which was raised during her conversation with Hannity, she said.

Russell, who expected to reach Madison at around 6 p.m. Monday, said some of the money will be used to pay for gas, while the rest will be used to buy hot chocolate, hand-warmers and coffee for the protesters.

“We’re just going to bring them some warmth,” she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

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