Politicians are known for their ability to get a conversation rolling.
Two local Democratic legislators took that skill literally Friday by riding Eau Claire city buses for four hours to talk to Chippewa Valley residents about their concerns.
During what they called bus tour office hours, state Sen. Jeff Smith of the town of Brunswick and Rep. Jodi Emerson of Eau Claire chatted with Eau Claire Transit passengers about issues ranging from drug treatment and criminal justice reform to health care and the minimum wage.
While some passengers preferred keeping to themselves, many folks relished the opportunity to share their views with the lawmakers, who wore legislative pins or shirts so they would by easily identifiable to other bus riders.
“This is amazing,” said Brooke Whiterabbit, 29, who recently moved to Eau Claire from Barron County. “I never would have gone to anything like this if it were anywhere else. I never would have reached out to a legislator on my own.”
Whiterabbit, who is enrolled in a drug treatment program at the Fahrman Center in Eau Claire, appreciated the chance to advocate for criminal justice reform as she rode the bus.
“Everything is about punishing drug addicts instead of giving them help. We don’t ask for this to happen to us,” she said. “It’s a disease. You don’t punish people for being diabetic.”
Whiterabbit told Smith making more treatment available would lower crime rates and lead to less overcrowding in state prisons.
Smith was supportive and advised Whiterabbit that people like her willing to tell their stories could help end the stigma associated with drug addiction and rally public support for reform.
Emerson assured passengers criminal justice reform and affordable housing are two of her top legislative priorities, adding, “I’d love to see more people get treatment instead of prison.”
Alexis Vian, 23, of Eau Claire, agreed that more resources should be directed toward treatment and advised the legislators that more halfway houses are needed for women in the city.
Vian, who was taking the bus to her part-time job at Dollar Tree, also took advantage of her access to call for an increase in the minimum wage.
“I love my job, but I hate the pay,” she said, noting that she makes $8.50 an hour.
That comment was echoed by passenger Austin Wojcik, 25, of Eau Claire, who lobbied for a minimum wage of at least $10 an hour as he hopped a ride to Walmart.
“I feel like business is pretty good in this town and there is enough to go around for everyone,” said Wojcik, who enjoyed the unexpected chance to talk directly to lawmakers.
“That’s a good approach to go where the people are,” he said.
Republican state Sen. Kathy Bernier of Lake Hallie called holding office hours on a city bus a unique and creative way to reach constituents.
While Bernier has never tried that approach, she said appearing at major public events gives her similar access to residents from all walks of life. On Thursday, for instance, Bernier said she spent about four hours at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair in Chippewa Falls.
“I had a ton of people come up and talk to me,” she said.
In an effort to make a meeting accessible to as many people as possible, Bernier also recalled once setting up a joint Saturday morning listening session with Department of Natural Resources and Chippewa County conservation officials to talk about environmental issues.
Emerson and Smith, who spent two hours Friday riding buses on south side routes and two hours on north side routes, said their intent was to reach people with disabilities, the elderly, those without drivers’ licenses and others who might be unlikely to attend a traditional town hall meeting or listening session.
“We normally hold office hours in certain places, but people have to know about it and it has to fit with their schedule,” Emerson said. “This way it’s just part of their day and they don’t have to make time for it. We thought it was important to meet people where they’re at.”
Unlike structured public sessions where legislators tend to show up with prepared remarks, Smith said, the mobile office hours are intended to let people talk about whatever is on their minds, which can make lawmakers aware of issues that haven’t gotten much attention.
On Friday morning, Smith also heard from residents who expressed concern about bullying, racism and health care affordability as he rode around the city, hopping from seat to seat.
“It’s a continuing learning experience,” Smith said, adding that he considers his office to be a classroom where people are always teaching him new things. “It’s amazing what people will open up about when they realize someone is listening and may be able to do something about it.”
Smith views the bus conversations as an extension of the “stop and talk” sessions he holds while parking his pickup truck, equipped with a large promotional sign, around the 31st Senate District. While some people assume the sessions were just a campaign gimmick, Smith said he finds them valuable and has continued the practice since taking office in January.
“I’m actually out there to listen to people. I’m not looking for their vote right now,” Smith said, noting that he isn’t up for re-election for more than three years.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Friday’s experience, Emerson said, is that it enabled the legislators “to learn about issues not on a theoretical basis, but on a real-person basis.”