March 12, 2011- They are the unlikeliest of folk heroes.
But this group of once-obscure lawmakers — a dairy farmer, a lawyer and a woman who is seven months pregnant, among others — that fled this capital nearly a month ago, returned Saturday to the cheers of tens of thousands who once again packed the streets in protest.
Many in the crowd wore buttons or held signs bearing admiring nicknames for the group: the “Fighting 14,” the “Fab 14” or, simply, “the Wisconsin 14.” They chanted, “Thank you” and “Welcome home.”
This is, of course, not the standard reception for state legislators, typically as anonymous as they are unglamorous.
“Before all of this occurred, I wouldn’t have known a lot of their names,” said Paul Fieber, a retired state employee carrying a sign declaring, “Our heroes.” “But that has changed for me and a lot of the population.”
The reason for the reception was that the 14 Democratic state senators had returned weeks after fleeing to another state in a dramatic — if ultimately failed — effort to prevent a vote on a bill that would significantly weaken public-sector unions.
Their disappearance — “a really, really weird trip,” in the words of one senator — was one of the most memorable and divisive aspects of the legislative standoff, and it helped escalate a policy dispute into a protracted battle over union rights that seized the attention of the nation.
On Saturday, the senators spoke, sometimes boastfully, about their pride in the outpouring of support, their dismay at the law that passed in their absence and their eagerness to meet the protesters who have backed their actions.
“I’m one of the Fabulous 14, and I’m so proud,” said Spencer Coggs, who was first elected to the State Legislature nearly three decades ago. “We are back to unite and fight with our supporters. We gave them hope. They gave us inspiration.”