Voicing his own needs in hopes of paving the way for others, Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchberg, speaks about his career adversities and being forced to value party alignment over his accommodations.Image By: Will Cioci
The sound of rustling papers, bits of conversation and movement on the Assembly floor began to settle as a voice spoke into the microphone, thanking his audience for their attention.
“I depend upon the kindness of strangers to live my life. I depend upon you all to live my life, to do my work,” Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said to a hushed room of Wisconsin lawmakers in mid-October.
On a chilly November morning, Anderson sat in his office, tucked into the north section of the Wisconsin Capitol and recounted that day.
“I was so emotionally fraught. It was kind of surreal,” Anderson said. “It was my only opportunity to tell them what had happened.”
After three years of hurtling obstacles in order to attend legislative affairs, Anderson wanted to explain why he made repeated requests for rule changes in the Assembly. He wanted to tell them the story of his disability.
Nine years earlier, while visiting his hometown in California, Anderson was driving with his mother, father and 14-year-old brother to celebrate his birthday.
A moment later, the car was tumbling end-over-end. Anderson came to his senses hanging upside down from the branches of a tree.
A drunk driver ran a stop sign at 60 miles per hour and slammed into their car. Anderson looked around at the terrifying scene and stared into the unresponsive eyes of his younger brother.
“I begged him to tell me that he was still alive. I begged him over and over to tell me he was okay,” Anderson said as he recounted the story to the group of lawmakers.
Anderson lost his entire family that day and suffered a complete spinal fracture, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
Three days later, Anderson drifted back to consciousness from a medically induced coma. The doctors leaned over him to ask for him to consent to a spinal fusion surgery. Intubated and only able to make a small nod, Anderson said he thought, “What am I going to say, no?”
While he was in the hospital, Anderson got a letter from his insurance company explaining he was nearing his lifetime maximums.
“I was freaking out because I had months of rehabilitation left and my wheelchair costs tens of thousands of dollars,” Anderson said. “I didn't know what I was going to do. I had paid my premiums, I had done everything right. Now I was about to lose everything because a drunk driver killed my family and paralyzed me? It felt insanely unfair.”
Due to a small moment of “dumb luck,” as Anderson calls it, the provisions of the Affordable Care Act kicked in days later. His insurance company sent a follow-up letter in the mail saying he no longer had to worry about his lifetime maximum. A piece of federal legislation made the difference, preventing Anderson from losing everything.
After the accident, Anderson’s life was thrust in a new direction. Reluctantly, he returned to Wisconsin, where he was attending law school — in part to satisfy requirements from his insurance company.
He graduated from UW-Madison law school in 2012 and started Drive Clear, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting victims of drunk driving and preventing people from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
“I realized helping people makes me feel a different way than I’ve ever felt before,” Anderson said. “Before, work was a means to an end. The work I was doing through the nonprofit actually made me excited to get out of bed and get started.”
Anderson then decided to run for the State Assembly — an attempt to use his life story to fight for vulnerable constituents like himself.
His campaign promised to “fight every day to protect...and ensure that no matter who you are, who you love, or how much you make, that you will have the same opportunity to succeed,” according to his campaign website.
However, after his win in 2016, Anderson felt conflicted.
“It was a weird night because Donald Trump won,” Anderson said. “I was happy, but I would have traded my win for a Donald Trump loss.”
Trump-era politics strike a particularly personal chord for Anderson, a first-generation college student who grew up in a working class family. His mother immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before he was born.
“Seeing the level of vitriol and ugliness that came from the Trump campaign directed at people who looked like my mother was very hurtful,” Anderson said.
Anderson views hyper-partisan politics as becoming increasingly inhibitive of productive dialogue across the aisle, something he believes is what kept him from getting accommodations for legislative affairs this year.
“I feel like a lot of the issues that I suffered from when being denied my disability accommodations is reflective of the fact that a lot of my Republican colleagues no longer see Democrats as a legitimate institution,” Anderson explained. “It felt like because I was a Democrat asking for these things it made it very easy to deny them.”
His appeal for procedural adjustments came after an overnight session in his first term, in which he suffered from health complications caused by sitting for hours in his wheelchair. Anderson knew he needed accommodations in order to do his job to the best of his ability.
“I often say that my district elected me, wheelchair and all,” Anderson said. “They deserve representation. Every time I’m not there and not able to do my job its denying my constituents the representation they deserve under state constitution.”
Assembly procedure rules are subject to negotiation at the beginning of each new term. Anderson made a request for three accommodations: the ability to call into committee hearings, end overnight sessions and be provided reasonable notice for committee meetings which are to be held during reasonable hours.
“When I made the request, I heard that Republican leadership said no to all of my accommodations,” Anderson said. “Months went by, and the Republicans refused to do anything.”
Majority Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, initially denied the request and said it would be disrespectful for committee members not to attend in person.
Anderson said this wasn’t the first time he’s had to defend himself and prove his ability to do his job. When the story broke he was seeking accommodations, he received emails from people who said, “If you can’t do your job, don’t do it,” despite priding himself on having a better attendance record than some of his colleagues.
Continuing to fight for his rights, Anderson wrote a letter to his fellow lawmakers explaining exactly why he needed accommodations. After no Republicans signed the letter in support of his request, he decided to talk directly and openly on the assembly floor.
“You're at the very least going to sit down and listen to what I have to say,” Anderson began his address, believing support of American with Disabilities Act requirements is nonpartisan.
However, during the session to vote on the accommodations, the GOP put forward a package of rule changes appeasing his requests, but also including resolutions that limit Democratic power.
“If it gets included in all these other rule changes, it’s going to force me to vote against my accommodation request,” Anderson said. “Essentially they shrugged their shoulders and said we don't care. And they forced me to vote against it.”
After a vote of 35 to 61, Anderson was granted one out of the three accommodations he requested. He can call into assembly meetings, but overnight sessions are still allowed and majority leaders are not required to give reasonable notice of meeting start and end times.
Despite voting against his own proposal, in the end, Anderson is grateful for the progress and is still working to get his other needs met.
“It’s a genuine question that I think people have to answer for themselves as to whether or not we want a country in which we change the physical landscape and the rules and procedures of the way our world operates in order to make sure that folks with disabilities have full and complete access to the American life,” Anderson said.