'Wisconsin 14' group of Democratic senators returns, greeted by thousands at Capitol

Tens of thousands, including a group of farmers who drove tractors to the gathering, rally outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis.
Tens of thousands, including a group of farmers who drove tractors to the gathering, rally outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. (Justin Sullivan)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Democratic state senators who left Wisconsin to protest Republican legislation to weaken union rights for public workers returned Saturday to thousands of supporters who pledged to continue fighting.

"It's great to be back in Wisconsin," said state Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay, one of the 14 lawmakers who returned home after three weeks of self-imposed exile in Illinois.

A cheering crowd bundled up against temperatures in the 30s and stood on the grounds of the state Capitol to ring cowbells and chant "Thank you! Thank you!" to the lawmakers they dubbed the "Fab 14." State police estimated that 68,000 people had gathered by the start of the rally.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Hansen choked up as he talked of the stresses of life on the lam and of missing home and family.

"So people think this is a picnic for us - they're wrong," he said. "We did it for the right reasons. We stood up for our working men and women in the state."

He said it was difficult to keep all 14 senators united as pressure grew to return to Wisconsin.

"We're an independent group, but we held it together," Hansen said, noting that the decision to flee the state helped draw national attention and spur a countrywide debate about collective-bargaining rights.

The absence of the 14 lawmakers was designed to leave the Senate one vote short of the number needed to pass fiscal measures, including a budget proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The budget included a provision to significantly reduce the bargaining powers of about 175,000 public employees at the state, county and municipal levels. State police officers and firefighters were exempted.

Republicans maneuvered around that obstacle by segregating the collective-bargaining provisions of the legislation, which could be passed with fewer members present.

Walker signed that bill into law Friday, saying the changes were necessary to resolve a budget deficit that is projected to grow to $3.6 billion over two years. But the division over the measure, which spawned a month of protests at the state Capitol by organized labor and Democratic allies, is likely to continue.

"We're on a high," Hansen said. "We lost the battle, but we're going to win the war. I think we've got the momentum on our side. Every poll I've seen, the people believe in what we're doing. It's about standing up for democracy."

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