March 12, 2011- Unbowed and unrepentant, 14 Democratic state senators returned to the Capitol on Saturday and received a tumultuous welcome from tens of thousands of pro-labor demonstrators.
Despite last week's passage of Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill, the senators said they did the right thing by fleeing to Illinois last month in an unsuccessful bid to block the legislation.
And they vowed to fight the law in the courts and at the ballot box in a longer struggle to restore the collective bargaining that was eliminated for most public employees.
As they made their way up the steps of the Capitol, they heard the roars of a crowd that clogged Capitol Square, and listened as chants of "thank you, thank you" rained down.
But not everyone was happy to see the 14 Democratic senators back in Madison.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) issued a withering statement ahead of their return.
He called the senators "the most shameful 14 people in the state of Wisconsin" and said it was "an absolute insult" to hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites that the senators ran away to Illinois to block Walker's budget-repair bill.
Fitzgerald wrote: "To the Senate Democrats: when you smile for the cameras today and pretend you're heroes, I hope you look at that beautiful Capitol building you insulted. And I hope you're embarrassed to call yourselves senators."
The senators showed no such shame as they took the stage, one by one, and addressed the audience that fanned out on muddy ground and spilled out into State St. Other demonstrators kept up a continuous march in the square, the scene all playing out beneath cloudy skies and a brisk late-winter wind.
State Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee) told the demonstrators, "Thank you for being our voice while we were gone. Thank you for being Wisconsin's voice while we were gone. Thank you for being America's voice."
Coggs said it was time for the "fabulous 14" to "come back and unite with you."
"We want to unite, we want to fight, we want to get back workers' rights," he said. "The people united will never be defeated."
"This is not the end. This is the beginning of phase two," said Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison).
In a news conference earlier Saturday, the Democrats talked about their future plans. They have returned to a Capitol that has been transformed by a bitter political battle. They had been held in contempt by their Republican colleagues in the Senate while they were away.
"They won the battle; we're going to win the war," said Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay).
Some in organized labor are seething over the actions taken by Walker and the Republicans to curtail collective bargaining for public employee unions. Several signs carried by protesters suggested the launching of a general strike.
Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) said consumer actions may be a better option in continuing the fight against the Republican budget proposals.
"People we're up against care about money and are very greedy," Vinehout said. "Look at the companies and products these people manufacture. When I buy something, I make my vote known."
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said the thousands rallying in Madison have another alternative to continue their opposition: recalls.
"A lot of the people shut out of the process in the last two weeks will be heard," Larson said. "They'll be trading in those rally signs for clipboards as the recall efforts heat up."
Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) said she would use the Republicans' action to gain support back in her district, focusing on the coming fight over the budget.
Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), who spearheaded negotiations to try to come to a deal over the bill, admitted that damage was done to the institution of the Senate. He said both sides were responsible.
He also lamented the likelihood that recall elections will soon be held.
"We've gone from a 24/7 news cycle to 24/7 elections," Cullen said.
The crowd that gathered in Madison was the biggest yet during four weeks of protests. It was filled with teachers, police, firefighters, nurses, students and farmers. Those moving for a look at the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor Tony Shalhoub pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, from curbside to the storefronts.
Labor groups and supporters gathered signatures to start recall petitions against eight Republican senators, and others collected names and e-mail addresses for a database in the event a recall is started next year against Walker. Eight Democrats also face recall.