“Wow! You go away for a couple of weeks and look at what happened!” shouted state Senator Jon Erpenbach, as he surveyed a crowd that organizers estimated at well over 100,000 that had rallied to welcome home Wisconsin’s dissident senators.
Erpenbach and thirteen other senators fled the state Capitol in mid-February, when Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies were using their legislative majorities to strip state, county and municipal workers and teachers of their collective bargaining rights. That move blocked a vote on the legislation for three weeks, before the Republicans finally adopted a “nuclear strategy” to force adoption of the anti-union measure.
While opponents of the bill suffered a momentary legislative defeat, they enjoyed a dramatic political victory — as a mass movement built, attracting hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites to mass rallies in Madison and communities across the state and causing the collapse of Walker’s approval ratings even in Republican-sponsored polls.
That movement now proposes to recall at least three Republican state senators who backed the bill, shifting control of the chamber to the Democrats and restoring a system of checks and balances to what is now one-party government in Wisconsin.
Ultimately, the movement seeks to remove Walker from office. And its plans no longer seem unreasonable, as poll numbers suggest that the governor would be defeated by virtually any Democratic challenger in a new election.
The political dynamics are intense, and even the most optimistic critics of the governor understand that there is much work to do.
But, on Saturday, they celebrated the return of the senators.
It was a remarkable scene.
Madison Firefighters Local 311 members marched through the crowd, with pipes and drums blaring. The Rev, Jesse Jackson, actress Susan Sarandon and actor Tony Shalhoub (a Wisconsin native) joined the line of march as the firefighters wove their way through a crowd that filled the Capitol Square. Outside a hotel opposite the Capitol, the fourteen senators appeared.
The deafening roars of approval shook Madison’s downtown before the firefighters led the senators through the crowd to a stage set up at an entrance to the Capitol. A procession that should have taken minutes took an hour, and when the group approached the stage it was almost impossible to move. But, finally, they arrived to chants of “Thank you! Thank you!”
Their messages, passionate and pointed, suggested support for the removal of their Republican colleagues and a sense of solidarity with a movement that has made the rights of workers central to a broader message about democratic renewal.
“We are going to take our state back. We are going to take our rights back,” declared state Senator Julie Lassa, a central Wisconsin Democrat who told the crowd, “I have never been prouder to be a Wisconsinite.”
That was a common sentiment Saturday.
And there was a lot of pride to go around at the biggest rally yet—a gathering that former Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey put at close to 150,000.
It was the largest political rally ever in Madison.
And it was one of the largest pro-labor rallies in American history.