— The Democratic exodus that shut down the Indiana House of Representatives this week and threw this year's legislative session into jeopardy was weeks in the making.  

Many of the lawmakers who are holed up this weekend in a Comfort Suites hotel in Illinois, refusing to come back until there are signs of compromise on about a dozen issues, identified two key moments that nudged them toward deciding to flee the state.  

The first came Feb. 7, as the Republican-led House was considering amendments to a bill that would rapidly grow the state's list of 60 charter schools. 

Though 39 of the chamber's 40 Democrats oppose the bill, one — Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, D-Indianapolis — is signed on as a co-author. 

Sullivan said she was on board with most of the measure. But she wanted to make two tweaks, and offered both as amendments. On party-line votes, both were defeated. 

"That gave me a real wake-up call," said Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville. "They didn't need to do that, and that really was a slap in the face to her. And that's when I started thinking, 'If they would do that, my gosh, what else would they do?'" 

House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said the Republican rejection of Sullivan's amendments got to him, too. 

"It just got to be unbelievable," he said. "And then, after that, all the barrage of ugly — I can't call them just partisan bills, but attacks on the middle class, attacks on education — it was one after the other."

The second key moment came Feb. 18. Shortly before gaveling the chamber out for the weekend, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced a committee hearing on the so-called "right to work" bill that would allow workers to opt out of union dues. 

Rep. Linda Lawson of Hammond, the No. 2-ranking House Democrat, said that was when talk of a boycott kicked into a higher gear among the party's members. 

"That was something we had hopefully prevented from going on the calendar, and that didn't happen," she said. 

On Monday — the same day the Indiana State AFL-CIO-organized union protests began at the Statehouse — the House Labor Committee approved the right-to-work bill on a party-line vote. 

That night, House Democrats caucused in Room 101, in the building's basement, for several hours. Members decided not to return, and Bosma adjourned for the day. 

Later that night, Bauer and his leadership team — aware that a walk-out was possible — called members to say they would caucus at 9 a.m. Tuesday away from the Statehouse so that police couldn't force them into the chamber. They gathered in what Bauer says was "an undisclosed location" in Indianapolis. 

Fleeing to Illinois, Lawson said, "was decided between Monday night and Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning we pretty much knew there was no going back." 

Things moved quickly on Tuesday. Some members arrived with nothing packed and no extra clothes.

"If I'd known we were definitely going to leave, I would have brought my phone," said Riecken, who is now using a cell borrowed from the Marion County Democratic Party. 

Others had duffel bags and what they'd need to stay away for a day or two. And some lawmakers had suitcases packed and prepared for an extended stay.

By 10:30 a.m., the caucus had decided to bolt. There was no vote, Bauer and Lawson said, but the decision had nearly unanimous support. One member — Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville — decided not to take part in the boycott. 

The other lawmakers returned to their homes or to the apartments in which they stay during session to gather their things. 

Members piled into cars and headed west on Interstate 74. They said they had a general direction — they knew they were going to the Champaign-Urbana area in Illinois — but they did not know the exact location of their hotel. 

House Democratic staffers and the Indiana Democratic Party initially tried to book a University of Illinois hotel, but the university said it did not want the publicity and said it only had 30 rooms — 10 shy of what Democrats wanted. 

The university referred them to the Comfort Suites — something desk staffers there said is not unusual. Democrats began arriving about 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The 86-room hotel let Democrats book 40 rooms, and also gave them access to their 800-square-foot breakfast lounge starting at 9 a.m. each day. 

By Tuesday evening, the Democrats were cranking out dozens of amendments to the Republican-proposed budget bill and to Gov. Mitch Daniels' education reform initiatives, and sending those back with staffers who were shuttling to and from Indianapolis. 

"I thought it was very important that we leave. I thought it then, and I think it now. And I think we need to stay here until we really do make some kind of a difference," Riecken said. 

What it means

The political implications of the Democrats' decision are not yet entirely clear. 

The party lost 12 seats in the 100-member House in November's elections, turning a 52-48 majority into a 40-60 minority. Most of the seats Democrats still hold are in relatively safe districts, but not all of them. Rep. Scott Reske, D-Pendleton, said he knew the moment he left Indianapolis that the move might mean the end of his political career. 

Back in Indianapolis, Republicans have kept up a barrage of attacks. Daniels and Bosma have continually lambasted Democrats, saying they're willing to negotiate, but first those who have fled need to get back to the Statehouse. 

"Refusing to show up is not the adult way to handle the situation and hurts Hoosiers all across the state. It is very difficult for me to represent my constituents and vote on bills when the Democrats are not here to do the business they were elected to do," said Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville. 

On the other hand, the Democrats in Illinois said politically, they do not have much to lose. Their absence blocks the 60 House Republicans from having the 67-member quorum required to conduct business. 

If Republicans knew Democrats would show up for work, they'd have no need to court their votes. Now, Democrats say, they hope Republicans will get the message that bipartisan cooperation is necessary, no matter the size of the majority. 

"I'm not interested in being window dressing," said Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes. "I don't want to just sit quietly in my chair and press a button. I represent 61,000 people, like everyone else, and they deserve a voice."

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