URBANA, Ill. – State Rep. David Niezgodski plopped down in an armchair next to his colleague, Rep. Charlie Brown, and read from a crumpled piece of notebook paper hed found on his windshield.
I am a future educator, Niezgodski, D-South Bend, read. People like you are my heroes, and I thank you for your dedication to educators and to the every-day working person ... Thank you very much. Illinois welcomes you.
The note demonstrated why Indianas House Democrats traded the limestone walls of the Statehouse for the brick-faced Comfort Suites of Urbana, where Niezgodski shared his note in the lobby Wednesday afternoon. They were driven there, they say, by what they consider a radical conservative agenda being pushed at the GOP-dominated Statehouse.
Contained in Niezgodskis note was an offer for a free pie at Gumbys Pizza of Champaign, Ill. Niezgodski said he didnt plan to cash in, but he would call the notes author to say thanks.
The hotels lobby Wednesday became an office for reporters and meeting hall for interviews and news conferences, all to the soft background of piped-in pop music and a phone at the front desk that never seemed to stop ringing.
A computer-generated sign on the door of an adjoining conference room announced a private meeting was in progress. House Democrats want the public to know they dont consider this expedition a vacation.
We do this with great seriousness, said Rep. Win Moses, D-Fort Wayne. We think its the best way to serve our constituents.
The exile on Lincoln Avenue – yes, the hotel is on a street named for a Republican president – began Tuesday afternoon, when most members arrived about 2 or 3 p.m.
After settling in Tuesday, Moses said members went into caucus and did work into the night on dozens of budget-related amendments, many of which were sent to the Statehouse on Wednesday.
The work continued throughout the day Wednesday, and really, Moses said, the mounting commotion in the hotel lobby wasnt much different from the constant activity of the Statehouse.
To Moses and his colleagues, crossing the state line was a necessity. He said Gov. Mitch Daniels assurance Tuesday afternoon he wouldnt send state police after the rogue lawmakers came as a surprise.
We were 100 percent certain that he would send the state police, Moses said. We didnt want to take that chance. If were going to talk about these things, we ought to do it without the fear of the state police bursting through the doors.
Many of the lawmakers even turned off their cell phones during the drive from Indianapolis to Urbana for fear they could be tracked by GPS, Moses said. Of course, the secrecy didnt last long, and by Wednesday afternoon, several giant satellite trucks sent by TV news stations were camped outside the hotel.
Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said the decision to cross the state line was not taken lightly – and the decision on when to return will be given the same weight.
Our goal is to go back, of course, but we want to make sure that we have some input on these bills, he said Wednesday evening.
There was no sign of return Wednesday, only settling in. GiaQuinta already has come to refer to one room as the minority leaders office – a quiet, dimly lit spot at the end of a corridor, removed from the bustle of the lobby.
Inside, the exhausted House majority leader, B. Patrick Bauer, leaned his head back against a sofa and watched fellow legislators and staffers shuffle in and out, only perking up when a reporter mentioned that the governors tone seemed harsher Wednesday.
Maybe he had one of those Red Bulls, said Bauer, D-South Bend.
The adrenaline high may have waned, but Bauer said his members are unified in their resolve. He would not speculate how long their exile will last.
This is a timeout, he said. When you have some children breaking things up or acting too radically, you just gotta have a timeout.