MADISON, Wis. – A state Capitol thrown into political chaos swelled for a fifth day with nearly 70,000 protesters, as supporters of Republican efforts to scrap the union rights of state workers challenged pro-labor protesters face-to-face for the first time and GOP leaders insisted again Saturday there was no room for compromise.
A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who surrounded them. The protest was peaceful as both sides exchanged chants of “Pass the bill! Pass the bill!” and “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!”
“Go home!” union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read “If you don’t like it, quit” on one side, and “If you don’t like that, try you’re fired” on the other.
The Wisconsin governor, elected in November’s GOP wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans, set off the protests earlier this week by pushing ahead with a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and largely eliminate their collective bargaining rights.
He says the concessions are needed to deal with the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs of government workers.
“We did have an election and Scott Walker won,” said Deborah Arndt, 53, of Sheboygan Falls. “I think our governor will stand strong. I have faith in him.”
At a rally organized by Tea Party Patriots, the movement’s largest umbrella group, and Americans for Prosperity, supporters of Walker carried signs with a fresh set of messages: “Your Gravy Train Is Over . . . Welcome to the Recession” and “Sorry, we’re late Scott. We work for a living.”
“We pay the bills!” tea party favorite Herman Cain yelled to cheers from the pro-Walker crowd. “This is why you elected Scott Walker. and he’s doing his job. . . . Wisconsin is broke. My question for the other side is, `What part of broke don’t you understand?'”
Nearby, nearly two dozen cabs blocked a major intersection near the Capitol. The driver of the lead cab leaned out of the window and played a trumpet, while others attempted to honk their car horns in sync with a chant from pro-labor protesters: “This is what democracy looks like.”
“One of the reasons the company decided to support the protesters is because the members of this company started off striking their employer for better wages and that employer . . . refused to allow them to bargain collectively,” said John McNamara, the marketing director of Union Cab.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald reaffirmed Saturday that Republicans have not been swayed by the pro-labor protesters who since Tuesday have filled the Capitol with chanting, drum-beats and anti-Walker slogans.
“The bill is not negotiable,” Fitzgerald said inside a heavily guarded Senate parlor at the Capitol. “The bill will pass as is.”
Fitzgerald said Republicans have the votes needed to pass the so-called “budget repair” bill just as soon as 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state on Thursday and remain in hiding return to the Statehouse. Without them, there isn’t the required quorum to vote on legislation.
The missing Democrats have threatened to stay away for weeks and remain more resolved than ever to stay away “as long as it takes” until Walker agrees to negotiate, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Saturday.
“I don’t think he’s really thought it through, to be honest,” Erpenbach said.
Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker’s proposal that would double workers’ health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions, so long as workers retained their rights to negotiate with the state as a union.
Fitzgerald said he was unimpressed given that the offer was something the GOP has rejected for months. The restrictions on collective bargaining rights are needed so local governments and the state will have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.
Walker, who was spending time with his family Saturday and wasn’t expected to make an appearance at the tea party-organized rally, also rejected the Democrats offer. His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said the fastest way to end the stalemate was for Democrats to return and “do their jobs.”
Sen. Tim Cullen, a Democrat from Janesville, refused to say where he was Saturday but said he didn’t expect the Senate to meet again until Tuesday. Cullen said he was watching Saturday’s rallies on television with some friends.
“I’m hoping to see no violence, that’s what I’m hoping most to see,” Cullen said. “This has been a very peaceful, respectful thing all week given the size of the crowds.”
Madison police estimated 60,000 or more people were outside the Capitol with up to 8,000 more inside. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney had planned to add 60 deputies to the 100 who patrolled during the week. But Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said there had been no arrests or problems by midafternoon.
“We’ve seen and shown the world that in Madison, Wis., we can bring people together who disagree strongly on a bill in a peaceful way,” DeSpain said.
Steve Boss, 26, a refrigerator technician from Oostburg, carried a sign that read “The Protesters Are All `Sick’ — Wash your Hands,” a reference to the teacher sick-outs that swelled crowds at the Capitol to 40,000 people Friday and raised the noise in its rotunda to earsplitting levels. Boss said the cuts Walker has proposed were painful but needed to fix the state’s financial problems.
“It’s time to address the issue. They (public workers) got to take the same cuts as everyone else,” he said. “It’s a fairness thing.”
Doctors from numerous hospitals set up a station near the Capitol to provide notes covering public employees’ absences. Family physician Lou Sanner, 59, of Madison, said he had given out hundreds of notes. Many of the people he spoke with seemed to be suffering from stress, he said.
“What employers have a right to know is if the patient was assessed by a duly licensed physician about time off of work,” Sanner said. “Employers don’t have a right to know the nature of that conversation or the nature of that illness. So it’s as valid as every other work note that I’ve written for the last 30 years.”
John Black, 46, of Madison, said he came out to the rallies in order to help bridge the gap between the pro-labor protesters and tea party members. He carried signs that asked for a compromise on the budget bill while a friend’s son handed out purple flowers.
“We liked Scott Walker as a change agent, but he moved too quickly and because of that there’s always room for compromise,” Black said.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Jason Smathers contributed to this report.