MADISON — In 2011, Melissa Sargent was among the most diehard demonstrators at the Capitol. For 50 days straight, Sargent, often accompanied by some or all of her four children, protested the policies of Gov. Scott Walker and the new Republican majority in the Legislature, whose moves to gut collective bargaining for public employees sparked mass demonstrations.
When officials locked the Capitol, Sargent said she and the kids, including the baby, Trystan, marched outside in the cold. And when the Capitol police ordered her three older boys — Devin, Bailey and Keanan — to take down their protest sign declaring "Solidarity," they refused, earning a ticket that was later dismissed.
Come January, the 43-year-old small-business owner will occupy the Capitol in a radically different way. Sargent is the newly elected representative to Madison's 48th Assembly District, whose redrawn boundaries include the city's East and North sides.
She will be joined by another protester-turned-lawmaker, Katrina Shankland, 25, who will represent the 71st Assembly District including Stevens Point and Plover.
Shankland also credits the protests that rocked the Capitol with catapulting her into politics. She left her job with a renewable energy company to work "90-plus hours a week" as an organizer for the Democratic Party collecting recall signatures against Walker. Shankland testified in the middle of the night at the Assembly Democrats' 61-hour marathon hearing to oppose Walker's efforts to strip bargaining rights from most government employees.
"I actually became a protester right out of the gate," Shankland said. "I was there every weekend. (And) when Act 10 came down (on March 9, 2011), I was in the Capitol."
Sargent and Shankland follow a long line of politicians whose careers are rooted in times of turmoil. The Vietnam War protests launched the political careers of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Former state Democratic lawmaker Mordecai Lee was another. In the early 1970s, Lee, a UW-Madison student, marched on the Capitol to protest the war. He testified against a bill that sought to outlaw Students for a Democratic Society, which had organized the protests. Four years later, when a seat came open in his Milwaukee neighborhood, Lee ran for it, eventually serving three terms in the Assembly and two in the Senate.
Serving in the state Assembly "gives you a platform — plus you can make a living at it," said Lee, now a political science professor at UW-Milwaukee.
Loading up the plate
Sargent was no ordinary protester. She was serving on the Dane County Board's liberal majority. Her husband, Justin Sargent, works for Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, the Senate's incoming minority leader.
"I always assumed he was the one with political aspirations and I was the one that was holding down the fort," said Sargent, who owns a company that makes lithographs of original artwork.
This was also not Sargent's first improbable run for office. Two years ago, Sargent's North Side neighbors persuaded her to run for the Dane County Board after longtime supervisor Dorothy Wheeler announced her retirement.
"At that point, I owned my own business," she said. "I had three kids, and I just found out I was pregnant with my fourth. And I was 40 years old and feeling like one more thing on my plate would cause me to topple over."
But then her children came home from school complaining about having to do a community service project, and she told them to tough it out. Then Sargent decided she needed to do the same.
"Sometimes things aren't easy and we just need to step up and do things for the betterment of our neighbors," she said.
Finding common ground
When they take office early next month, Sargent and Shankland will be underdogs among underdogs. They are freshman members of the Democratic caucus in the Assembly, which will be vastly outnumbered, 59-39, by Republicans. Former Rep. Marlin Schneider once likened being in the minority party in the Wisconsin Legislature to being a house plant.
Nevertheless, Sargent hopes she can find common ground with the people she once picketed. She wants to help small businesses and ensure that workers have the skills employers need — the same things the governor and the GOP's leadership say they want to do.
But she's not afraid to mix it up with the opposition. Earlier this month Sargent issued a news release blasting the GOP for proposing elimination of same-day voter registration, calling the party "out of touch" with Wisconsin residents.
Shankland said she has no plans to back down either.
"My vote may not make a difference in the Legislature," Shankland said, "but I can still use my voice there. Even if they choose not to listen — we will still be there."
Messages left with the incoming Republican Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, R-Rochester, were not returned.