Wisconsin Democrats in hiding: Inside the "Hotel Outside Wisconsin"

From Left to Right: Wisconsin State Democratic Sens. Fred Risser, Chris Larson, Tim Carpenter Seated, Spencer Coggs, Mark Miller Seated, Kathleen Vinehout and Dave Hansen CBS

Wisconsin state Democratic senators talk to CBS News.
CBS

It was the "Hotel Outside Wisconsin" - but it's hardly a place the Eagles would write a song about.

While the halls of Madison's capitol building were booming with chants of protest and wild with energy, the dim hallways of this hotel were filled with little more than the rattle of a vending machine, the smell of cheap pizza, and at times, fourteen of Wisconsin's state Senate Democrats.

They were shuffling in and out since last week, when they left their state in protest of Gov. Scott Walker and state Republicans who tried to pass legislation that, among other changes, would take away collective bargaining rights on benefits from public employee unions.

Walker insists cuts for state union employees are vital to balancing Wisconsin's budget, but others, like these Democrats, see it as the beginning of a slippery slope that would weaken unions and workers' rights.

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The senators crossed the border to Illinois and stayed here for days, waiting out a stalemate while national attention on Wisconsin's budget battle has swelled for the past week. (They left the hotel yesterday in search of a new hotel due to security concerns.)

They passed some of their time recycling a suitcase of outfits, and paying for their accommodations and expenses out of pocket.

Wisconsin State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D) laughs, alongside Sen. Tim Carpenter.
CBS
"We're on a budget!" said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who represents a mostly rural area in the western part of her state.

"Not a single taxpayer penny is going to this event," said Sen. Tim Carpenter, who has worn the same brown suit for days now.

His colleague, Sen. Spencer Coggs, was quick to add, "I just bought my underwear -- I bought it myself."

His fellow senators all laugh.

While it's unclear how many of the state senators actually stayed overnight, their aides booked rooms to use as a collective home base for conference calls, media interviews and a shelter for moments of privacy.

Aides to the "Wisconsin 14" as they refer to themselves have asked the media repeatedly not to report the location where they've set up camp. Some of the senators say it's out of a genuine concern for their safety. They've received threats, one of which came from someone who wanted to visit the area for "hunting season."

Back in Wisconsin, state police have showed up at their empty homes to summon them back to the capital. Since then, these Democrats have played a shell game with where they lay their heads at night and work during the day, often switching locations throughout the day.

(at left, the Wisconsin Democrats talk to CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers about the dispute)

"One of the other reasons we moved is there was talk of Tea Party buses trying to follow us," said Sen. Dave Hansen.

"We did see the Partridge Family bus," jokes Sen. Fred Risser, the eldest of the group.

Wisconsin State Sen. Tim Carpenter (D), at right
CBS
Asked whether he had brought clothes with him, the State Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said, "Not enough."

And while they cannot be in the confines of their offices, they've continued working on legislation, albeit wirelessly.

"All of us are getting a lot of emails, text messages," said Carpenter, who adds that he reads and sorts around 600 emails a night from constituents before turning out the light.

Noting the fact that being holed up in hotels reminded them of campaigning for office, an aide responded to the comparison dryly -- campaigns are better, because one knows when the end will be.

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