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ECHO holiday dinner brings out believers

JANESVILLE

In a recent poll of Christmas Day diners, Santa did very well.

Jesus did as well or even better, and we weren’t even asking about him.

On Monday, more than 400 people partook in ECHO’s community Christmas meal at St. William Catholic School in Janesville. More than 100 volunteers served as waiters, bus boys and girls, beverage servers, home delivery drivers, pie cutters, and food servers. About 10 current or former Blackhawk Technical College culinary arts students prepared the food.

The meal seemed like a good place to judge the status of old St. Nick (aka Santa, the big Claus, Father Christmas or other aliases). Did people—even old ones—still believe?

Bill Stevens has been playing guitar at the ECHO Christmas dinner for “20-some” years.

Does he believe in Santa?

“What kind of question is that?” Stevens wanted to know. “I believe in the Santa who comes here. I play music for him all the time.”

Then he added, “But I believe that Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Bonnie Stevens seconded that thought.

The Stevenses opened their set with “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a song that got the volunteers scooping out stuffing, veggies and mashed potatoes to dance behind their chafing dishes.

Later, diners would hear more traditional holiday favorites featuring the Christ child.

Sean Meicher, 8, spoke eloquently about his belief in Santa.

When asked why he believes, Meicher said, “Because he brings us presents.”

Meicher understood Christmas wasn’t just about presents.

“It’s Jesus’ birthday!” Meicher exclaimed.

Margaret Mannion, 3, was volunteering with her mother, Theresa Mannion.

Margaret, who was sporting mouse shoes and a dress with a super puffy skirt, was helping her mother deliver cartons of milk to guests.

This was Margaret’s first year volunteering. She would have been too young to stay on task, her mother said.

Before coming to help at the meal, she was allowed to open one—and only one—present.

It was a baby doll that performs life-like functions when you give her water to drink (we’ll just leave it at that).

Margaret certainly believes in Santa, and although she didn’t specifically address any other beliefs, she seemed to understand it is important to help others.

In the end, The Gazette’s wildly unscientific pool showed 9 out of 10 people believed in Santa, with the 10th unwilling to publicly share her beliefs.

Most surveyed mentioned the true meaning of Christmas, and still others ignored the question altogether and talked instead about their family, their friends and their faith.


Dark, desperate life without power in Puerto Rico
Dark, desperate life without power in Puerto Rico

MOROVIS, Puerto Rico

Three days before Christmas, Doris Martinez and daughter Miriam Narvaez joined their neighbors in a line outside city hall in Morovis, a town of 30,000 people still living without electricity in the mountains of central Puerto Rico more than three months after Hurricane Maria battered the U.S. island.

They waited two hours under the searing sun for their twice-a-week handout—24 bottles of water and a cardboard box filled with basic foods such as tortillas, canned vegetables and cereal.

Martinez, a 73-year-old cancer survivor, balanced the water atop the food and picked her way up a steep hill to the home where she lives alone, washing and wringing out her clothes by hand and locking herself in at night, afraid of robbers. Her 53-year-old daughter loaded her food and water into her car and drove off to the public housing complex where she would then have to wait with dozens of other neighbors in another line to cook on one of six gas burners in the administrator’s office.

“Things are not good,” Narvaez said as she headed toward home.

This is life in Puerto Rico more than three months after Maria destroyed the island’s electrical grid. Gov. Ricardo Rossello promised in mid-October to restore 95 percent of electricity delivery by Dec. 15, but normality remains far off. Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority says its system is generating at 70 percent of normal; but it has no way of knowing how widely electricity is being distributed because the system that measures that isn’t working.

A study conducted Dec. 11 by a group of local engineers estimated roughly 50 percent of the island’s 3.3 million people remained without power. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said it likely won’t be until May that all of Puerto Rico is electrified.

Local and federal officials blame the rough terrain and extensive damage for delaying restoration of a power infrastructure that was in dire need of maintenance due to Puerto Rico’s 11-year-old recession. A growing number of Puerto Ricans say officials didn’t prepare for the hurricane and didn’t activate a mutual aid agreement with power companies on the U.S. mainland quickly enough.

Government crews reconnected a handful of areas in Morovis over the weekend for the first time since the storm, but in the hundreds of neighborhoods and towns without power this holiday season, people are alternately despairing, furious, resigned and sometimes in disbelief that the United States remains unable to help restore power to its citizens more than 90 days after a natural disaster.

A little after noon, Arelis Navarro steps out of her nail salon to restart her car. The hood is open, and Navarro, 38 weeks pregnant, has connected an inverter to the battery and plugged in a cluster of extension cords, lights and a fan for her salon.

“You have to make the effort because as you can imagine, I have debts to pay, a daughter to maintain and another one on the way,” she says as she taps some powder on a woman’s nails to prepare them for an acrylic artificial set.

Down the hill, past the town’s plaza and up another hill, Maria Rivera, 50, watches her husband and two friends remove broken furniture and soggy sheets from their home, which was destroyed by the storm. It is 2 p.m., and the three men toss the debris into a truck one of them owns. City officials never showed up to clear the debris, and crews with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency did not come until this month to assess the damage.

Tears moisten Rivera’s eyes as she gazes at what remains of the home where she lived for 19 years with her husband and three children.

“I haven’t been able to assimilate everything that has happened,” she says, adding that she spends most of the day bracing for darkness. “When night falls, you start growing anxious, depressed. Everything has changed. Sometimes I go to places that have power and I tell my husband, ‘I don’t want to go back.’”

By 4 p.m., some generators in Rivera’s neighborhood start rumbling as darkness approaches on the shortest day of the year. A teenager bounces a basketball and takes a couple of shots on a court before heading home, while several men wrap up reconstruction efforts at a roofless home that federal crews fitted with a blue tarp just two weeks ago.

Nearly 1,000 homes across Morovis lost their roofs and 90 percent of residents have not received federal assistance, Mayor Carmen Maldonado says. She expects it will be several more months before power returns to the entire town. Overall, more than 200,000 homes were damaged by the storm, whose destruction will cost an estimated $95 billion to repair.

Darkness creeps across Morovis, and Jose Luis Gonzalez, 56, wipes sweat from his brow as he finishes helping rebuild a home in the Barrio Patron neighborhood, where people spent two months without water after Hurricane Maria hit with winds of up to 154 mph. They relied on a nearby creek for bathing and washing clothes. Men visited the creek at 5:30 p.m. every day, and women took their place a half hour later. One person was designated to guard the entrance as people disrobed. Water service finally returned in November.

“Don’t think I haven’t felt like crying,” Gonzalez says, adding that he has flashbacks to the day of the storm. “Every time I close my eyes I see chaos. I still hear the screams in my head.”

Every night he takes six pills for depression and back pain. He says a relative who lived across from him took his own life three weeks after the hurricane. No note was left, but government officials say they are counting some suicides as part of the official death toll because people across the island have become so desperate amid the destruction left by the storm. The governor also recently ordered a review of all deaths reported since Maria amid accusations that the official death toll of 64 undercounts the true toll.

At 6 p.m. it is nearly dark in Barrio Patron. The mother of the man who killed himself appears on a darkened balcony surrounded by tiny, solar-powered Christmas lights and a Puerto Rico flag fluttering lightly in the breeze. Neighbors around her strike matches and start lighting candles they placed in bedrooms and bathrooms, a warm if flickering glow filling their homes. Those with generators walk over to extension cords where multiple cellphones are plugged and check on the batteries’ status. Not that they use them often; cellphone service in Morovis remains spotty.

Nearby, Wilmary Gonzalez, 29, ushers her three young children into their darkened home. The light blue glow cast by a tarp donated by a church to cover half their roof has already dissipated. The other half of the roof is slabs of recycled zinc that Jose Luis Gonzalez pieced together for the family, along with broken pieces of wood to create makeshift rafters with jagged edges that jut out at random angles. FEMA has not given them any assistance.

“You always have to have a smile on your face because if not, the kids get sad,” Wilmary Gonzalez says, tears welling in her eyes.

She waits with her kids and a tiny lantern for her husband, Carlos Oliveras, to close his barber shop and return to a home with only a table, four chairs and a couple of mattresses. The rest was lost in the storm.


Wisconsin Legislature not expected to do much in 2018
Wisconsin Legislature not expected to do much in 2018

MADISON

There appears to be little appetite among Wisconsin Republican leaders to take up some of the most divisive proposals pending when the Legislature returns next month for a brief, final push before the session ends in the spring and the focus shifts to the fall election.

Democrats will continue to play defense and make arguments for why Republicans should be ousted in November when majority control of the Legislature will be determined. Democrats are buoyed by victories in other states, but it would take a massive swing for them to wrest control away from Republicans in Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker, who is up for re-election in November, will deliver his eighth State of the State address, likely in late January, where he will spell out his priorities for the coming year.

He has already announced plans for a marketing campaign to attract young workers from nearby states, a move that comes as Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group moves ahead with its $10 billion electronics manufacturing complex that could employ up to 13,000 people.

Republicans seem generally supportive of Walker’s call to spend $6.8 million on the marketing campaign focused on trying to lure workers from Chicago, the Twin Cities and Detroit. Democrats see it as a waste of money, arguing that more fundamental policy changes are needed to make Wisconsin more attractive to millennials.

Other issues that could be taken up include changes to the state’s foster care system stemming from a special task force called by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos; making it easier for developers to build on wetlands, a measure that divides the business community and environmentalists; and limiting the public’s access to police body camera footage, a move advocates say will increase the use of cams but that open records advocates say could make too much of what is collected secret.

A host of other hot-button issues seem unlikely to get much traction. Vos emphasized that it shouldn’t be a surprise that not as much will get done in 2018 as the Legislature did in 2017.

Those accomplishments included passing the $3 billion Foxconn incentive package, legalizing industrial hemp, lifting a ban on gold and silver mining, and passing a state budget that includes an extension of the UW tuition freeze, a property tax cut and more money for K-12 schools.

“We had kind of a hyperactive 2017 getting a lot of our priorities enacted,” Vos said.

Next year is not lining up to be nearly as active.

Vos said a number of pending measures are likely going nowhere due to lack of support. Those include a proposal banning medical research on fetal tissue from abortions, allowing the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit, removing the so-called “dark stores” loophole to force mega-retailers like Menards to pay more in local property taxes and instituting a fee schedule for workers’ compensation claims.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald declined comment, posting on Twitter that year-end interviews that Vos and Democratic leaders gave amounted to “fake news.”

Democrats are honing their message leading up to the election, pushing bills unlikely to gain traction among Republicans but that will serve as talking points on the campaign trail.

That includes allowing college students to refinance student loan debt, increasing child care tax credits and shutting down the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile prison as part of a criminal justice overhaul.

The Legislature in 2018 will be taking a closer look at how to deal with the state’s overcrowded prisons. Vos has said he doesn’t see any way around building a new prison. Democrats are pushing for criminal justice reforms that include reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Also hovering over the Legislature’s work in 2018 is what the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the case brought by Democrats challenging Republican-drawn political boundary lines.

A ruling ordering new maps to be drawn could force the Legislature to act before the fall election and affect Democrats’ chances of picking up seats.

Republicans currently enjoy a 19-13 advantage in the Senate, with one open seat previously held by a Republican up for a special election on Jan. 16. Republicans have a 63-34 majority in the Assembly, with two vacant seats also to be filled following the special election.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling wouldn’t predict when she thought Democrats could overtake majority control.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said. “It just depends on the political winds.”


glance

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