Illness allowed Grigsby to see 'humanity'

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Steven Walters
Monday, March 19, 2012
The cancer hadn’t killed her. But on Dec. 18, her liver and kidneys failed, and she hovered on the thin line between life and death. Medical specialists candidly told Rep. Tamara Grigsby that her odds of surviving the shutdown of those vital organs were “between slim and none.” Between the haze of the life-saving drugs, and the exhaustion, she struggled to focus: I’m only 37. So much to do. So much to fight for. Gotta. Get. Better.

There were hospital vigils for the Milwaukee Democrat. Blizzards of cards, fields of flowers and hundreds of other expressions of sympathy showered Grigsby and her family. She was in intensive care for so long that her office issued a statement when she left that critical-care unit, and it issued a second statement when she was released from the hospital. No visitors, though.

Fast forward to last Tuesday in the Assembly, when Grigsby gingerly walked to her seat, thanked everybody for showing her two things missing in the Capitol in the last year—empathy and respect—and got rounds of loud applause. She didn’t tell her doctors she was going to work.

Later Tuesday, in her third-floor Capitol office, a weary but hopeful Grigsby was asked why it was so important to come back to the Capitol on the first day of the final week of the divisive 2011-12 legislative session.

She wanted to send this message: “I’m still here. I’ll still kicking. I’m coming back.”

And, yes, she plans on running for a fifth term in November.

Grigsby was asked why she told the Assembly one lesson learned in her medical journey was this: “There are some things that are bigger than partisanship.”

The outpouring of love and best wishes from her fellow elected officials—Democrats and Republicans—and the Assembly bringing her parents to the Capitol to accept a resolution in her honor touched her deeply, Grigsby said.

“It comes down to people showing their humanity,” she said. “I don’t have to agree with you. I still appreciate you, and we can still connect and have a relationship—without having to hate each other.”

For example, Grigsby said, there is no one she disagrees with—“130 percent”—more than Republican Gov. Scott Walker. And, yes, had she been well enough, she would have signed a recall petition to throw him out of office.

But Walker sent Grigsby two get-well cards. On one, Grigsby said, the governor wrote: “The best Christmas gift would be for me to get better.”

“I was touched by that,” Grigsby said. “He was able to show his human side.”

If Walker can reach out to someone like her, who she called his “polar opposite” on issues, there has to be hope that legislators from both parties can work together in the future, Grigsby added.

“I’ve never seen anything so ugly as the environment that we’re in right now,” Grigsby said of the 2011-12 session, which led to scheduled summer recall elections for Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four GOP senators. Rules were broken, there was lawmaking by steamroller and too many personal insults, and “lies were told by both sides.”

“I think we’ve hit bottom,” Grigsby added. “Both sides lose when you don’t have participation and buy-in from folks on the other side of the aisle.”

If she’s back next session, Grigsby’s top priority will be jobs.

The Jan. 24 study by UW-Milwaukee that found that only 44 percent of black males in metro Milwaukee ages 16 to 64 were employed in 2010 documents a “crime,” Grigsby said, her voice rising in anger. The same report said 77 percent of white males that age had jobs.

“It’s more difficult for an African-American man with an advance degree to get a job than it is for a white male who didn’t graduate from high school,” added Grigsby, who worked as a social worker before her 2004 election to the Assembly.

“It cripples communities when I walk into wards and 70 percent of the men are unemployed,” she said of her 18th Assembly District. “It cripples families.”

Grigsby was worn out by 5:10 p.m. Tuesday. She eased herself into a car; someone else would drive her home. She didn’t know when she would be strong enough to come back.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

Last updated: 7:55 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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