By now we're all familiar with the scene in Madison on the night of March 9, 2011. That's when Republican state senators -- with their Democratic colleagues still in hiding in Illinois -- approved Gov. Scott Walker's plan to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees.
As Republican senators made quick work on the bill, word spread like wildfire and angry protesters streamed to the Capitol Square.
The senators voted and headed out, taking care to avoid the crowd.
Tensions were high, along with concern for lawmakers’ safety. In the weeks leading up to the vote -- and on that evening -- there were reports of death threats emailed to lawmakers (one woman has been charged) and other concerns, from protests at the homes of GOP lawmakers to reports of nails strewn in their driveways.
A damaged windshield soon joined that list -- and quickly drew national attention.
It came to light a week later when state Sen. Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse) and an aide told several news outlets, including the Journal Sentinel, he was scaling back public appearances in his district out of concerns for his safety. In doing so, they cited vandalism to his car while it was parked at the Capitol.
Did protesters damage the windshield of his car?
In the wake of a newly released police report on the incident let’s rewind the tape.
On the night of March 9, Kapanke’s car was parked in the Martin Luther King Jr. circle near an entrance of the Capitol, an area reserved for lawmakers. After the vote, police told Kapanke not to go to his car because the area was teeming with protesters, he said in an interview. An officer fetched the silver 2001 Honda Accord and delivered it to him at a nearby state office building.
Kapanke headed home to La Crosse.
On the road, he noticed something seemed wrong with the windshield.
"As I was driving, and it was dark, I noticed something across my windshield. I thought somebody might have used a marker" to draw on the glass, he said in an April 9, 2011, interview with PolitiFact Wisconsin.
The damage he noticed was a crack, and he decided to report it to Capitol Police. He filed the report one week later, March 16, 2011, when he was next in Madison.
Kapanke said filed the report because authorities asked lawmakers to let them know if they experienced anything unusual.
According to the report, an officer and two state troopers, including an accident reconstruction specialist, looked over the windshield that day. The Capital Times first reported April 5, 2011 on the police report.
"I informed Kapanke after looking at the chip and the crack it looked to me like a stone chip and not someone hitting the windshield," Capitol police officer Chris Weiss wrote in the report.
The troopers came to the same conclusion. The report also said police reviewed surveillance video of the parking area and saw no one damaging cars.
The report says Kapanke, one of the GOP senators facing a potential recall, was informed of the findings and the case closed on the day it was reported -- March 16.
But the public heard about the damage for the first time the following day, when the senator cited the damage while discussing plans to scale back his public schedule out of concerns for his safety.
La Crosse Tribune reporter Chris Hubbuch inquired about the schedule changes on March 16, 2011, a few days after they were mentioned in a short email to local media outlets. In response, Kapanke’s office sent a new email that mentioned the safety concerns.
Hubbuch said he followed up and Kapanke aide Rose Smyrski called him back and listed the broken windshield as among the matters that was causing concerns for the senator’s safety.
"She said his window was broken," Hubbuch said.
Hubbuch said he used the term "smashed" in his story, which he called an "unfortunate choice of words." "The implication to me was that somebody broke his windshield."
Smyrski confirmed the conversation in an interview with PolitiFact Wisconsin -- the decision to cancel the events was made "in conjunction with the threats." She cited the emails, nails "and then the broken window."
It was the first time the windshield damage was cited in connection with the senator’s changed plans. But the La Crosse Tribune wasn’t the only one to hear the connection between the windshield and the canceled appearances.
Smyrski was cited in several other spots including the Journal Sentinel on March 17, 2011 saying the damaged windshield and other intimidation led the senator to change his schedule.
Kapanke told a La Crosse TV station in a story that aired March 17 that he was concerned for his safety. He reminded viewers of the Jan. 8, 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
"In light of what happened in Arizona with the congresswoman, you know you’re a little bit more cautious and so we canceled a couple of meetings," he told the TV station. "I want to be out with the people, I will still do that. I just won’t be quite as scheduled so people know in advance where I'm going to be at a certain time, I'm just going to go unscheduled if you will."
The broken windshield story went national.
Websites including the Drudge Report and The Weekly Standard picked up on the story using headlines such as "More Leftist Violence: Senator’s Property Damaged." Fox commentator Glenn Beck also weighed in. Innumerable bloggers also linked to or rewrote the news accounts.
So let’s clear up this item.
Kapanke reported the windshield damage to Capitol police a week after noticing the damage -- the next time he was in Madison. On the day he filed the report, police blamed gravel -- not protesters -- for the damage.
Capitol Police told Kapanke their conclusion on the damaged windshield on March 16, 2011. Yet on that same day, and in the ensuring days, he and his staff publicly listed the damaged windshield -- blaming it on protesters -- as a rationale for scaling back public events in his district. Kapanke allowed the myth of the smashed windshield to run wild and uncorrected for almost three weeks after he knew it was not true.
What we do know is that we smell something like smoke -- like a smokescreen.
Pants on Fire.