War of words heats up as protesters march at Wis. Capitol

Tribune reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Many thousands of protesters marched around Wisconsin's Capitol while hundreds more gathered in the building's rotunda during daylong demonstrations against a new Republican-sponsored law that weakens the state's public employee unions.

While the protesters marched, legislators from both parties made it clear that they are prepared for political war.

"It is going to be a battle for the future of the state of Wisconsin," said Sen. Mark Miller, the Senate’s minority leader and one of 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to Illinois last month in an effort to block passage of the bill.

Miller and the other senators spoke during a news conference in a convention center just blocks from the Capitol, before addressing the crowds at the march.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald blasted the Democratic senators, issuing a statement in which he called them "the most shameful 14 people in the state of Wisconsin."

The Democratic senators "are going to pat themselves on the back and smile for the cameras. They're going to pretend they're heroes for taking a three week vacation," Fitzgerald said in the statement. "It is an absolute insult to the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who are struggling to find a job, much less one they can run away from and go down to Illinois -- with pay."

Democratic Sen. Kathleen Vinehout said fleeing the state was her party's only option.

"When we left, we gave everyone a chance to see what was in that bill," she said. "It was the only chance we had, and sometimes to not vote is more powerful than to vote."

Opponents of the law that would strip most public employees of nearly all their collective bargaining rights say the fight is not over even though Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law on Friday.

"I'm here because I think it's important that not only the governor but other people need to understand that this is not simply a union issue," said Bridget Stafford, 43, a teacher and union member from Stevens Point, Wis., who was watching other protesters from a balcony in the Capitol. "It's about people's rights."

Stafford said she was especially angry over the legislation because she felt Walker didn't propose it during his campaign.

"He's been lying from the get-go," she said.

The cold, breezy day started quietly, with a few dozen people gathered in clusters outside the Capitol. Groups of police officers also huddled outside the building.

As the morning went on, however, more people streamed toward the Capitol, including a few farmers driving tractors around the building. The crowd filled the streets as they march around the Capitol and by late morning, tens of thousands of protesters were marching as chants of "This is what democracy looked like!" echoed off the buildings surrounding the Capitol's square.appeared to be growing.

By the end of the day, Madison police estimated that 85,000 to 100,000 people had gathered at the Capitol and on surrounding streets Saturday, making the rally the largest since protests began about a month ago.
No arrests or citations were reported, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said. “From our perspective, it went incredibly well,” he said.

The crowds marching around the building took up the entire width of the streets. Sidewalks were clogged with people. Several stood on benches, trying to get a better look.

Hundreds of people filled the broad staircases leading to the Capitol's entrances.

Mark Oles, an IT worker from Madison, said today's protests are meant to show that opponents of the law aren't going to back down.

"It's the only way that I know how to participate in my state government at this point," said Oles, warming up in a packed coffee shop across from the Capitol. "I don't feel like I have any voice except for the one I bring out here."

Saturday's protest got a boost from a parade of more than 30 tractors driven by farmers supporting the union workers. People lining the sidewalks cheered as tractors rolled by bearing signs with messages such as "Planting the seeds for a big season of recalls." The farmers thrust their fists in the air in response.

Tod Pulvermacher, 33, of Bear Valley, drove a tractor towing a manure spreader carrying a sign that read, "Walker's bill belongs here."

"Farmers are working-class Americans," he said as the crowd around him started to cheer. "We work for a living as hard as anybody, and this is about all of us."

Pulvermacher said the fight against the law was "everybody's fight" and it was just beginning.

"If we can keep the energy high, we can change a lot of things in Wisconsin in the next year," he said.

Judy Gump, 45, who teaches English as a Madison high school, also said the fight wasn't over. She said that if the first person who got arrested during the civil rights movement had given up, the movement would have failed.

"It was illegal," she said, talking about the vote on the bill. "This is so not the end. This is what makes people more determined and makes them dig in."

The bill Walker pushed strips public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. Tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating against it for more than three weeks, and Senate Democrats fled the state to try to prevent its passage.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill this week and Walker signed it into law Friday.

Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen said at today's press conference that he’s afraid moderate politics are a thing of the past in Madison, at least for the immediate future.

"You can go to a dictatorship," Cullen said. "They get things done in 10 or 15 minutes. Now you can come to Wisconsin and get things done in 10 or 15 minutes."

Senators Lena Taylor and Jon Erpenbach said the Democrats haven’t lost, even though Walker signed the bill Friday, but acknowledged the state’s toxic political environment.

"In the state of Wisconsin, we're at each other’s throats right now," Erpenbach said.

The 14 Democratic senators began marching around the Capitol about 2:30 p.m. CST, greeted by deafening cheers and chants of "Thank you, thank you!"

The senators emerged from a hotel across the street from the Capitol, led by union firefighters playing bagpipes and carrying American and Wisconsin flags.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson marched with the senators, who reached into the crowd to shake hands and exchange high-fives with supporters.

Police officers tried to clear a path so the procession could continue.

After marching around the Capitol, the Democratic senators addressed the crowd from a stage, their voices booming through speakers set up around the building.

"It is so good to be here, Wisconsin!" said Senate minority leader Mark Miller, the first senator to address the crowd.

"Welcome home! Welcome home!" the crowd chanted in response.

Miller told the crowd that their message had been heard.

"Your fight to protect workers' rights has become a fight to protect all our rights," Miller told the protesters, many of whom were standing in mud or on top of filthy piles of snow. "It is a fight to take back our democracy. It is a fight to have those elected by the people listen to the people."

By about 5:20 p.m. most of the marchers had left the immediate area of the Capitol.

Associated Press contributed to this report.


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