Wisconsin GOP, Democrat disputes escalate
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A days-long clash between public unions and Wisconsin's Republican governor escalated Saturday as tea-party activists came out in force to defend Gov. Scott Walker as he tried to strip union bargaining rights.
A coalition of tea-party groups, including Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and American Majority, descended on Madison, setting up a clash between labor supporters who for the past several days have been camped out at the state Capitol in protest of Walker.
American Majority sent 10 busloads of supporters from different locations around the state to participate in a Saturday afternoon counter-protest. Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart and Herman Cain, a conservative radio talk show host and long-shot 2012 presidential candidate, spoke at an event the organization held Saturday afternoon. Also in attendance was Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who gained national fame as "Joe the Plumber" during the 2008 presidential election.
American Majority President Ned Ryun said he believed 10,000 conservative activists attended the event, which was organized over the past two days.
"The whole purpose was to support Scott Walker and to send the message that we want the bill passed," Ryun said in an interview.
Walker, a former Milwaukee County executive who was elected governor as part of a GOP statewide sweep in the November midterm elections, has called for deep cuts in state worker compensation and benefits as he seeks to address a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion over the next fiscal year. Walker is also seeking to eliminate collective bargaining rights for unions.
The clash comes two days after Democratic state senators walked out of the state Capitol and left the state in protest of Walker's proposed cuts -- a move that left Republican leaders unable to reach a quorum to call a vote. State troopers have waged a futile campaign in recent days to retrieve the absent Democratic legislators.
Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach told POLITICO Saturday morning that he and his colleagues huddled earlier in the day to discuss recent developments. But he said they had no plans to return to the state until Walker could reach a reasonable negotiation with state employees.
"We're just waiting to hear what [Gov. Walker] has to say," said Erpenbach, who was speaking by cell phone from downtown Chicago, where he spent the night.
Erpenbach said the Democrats were willing to remain outside of the state "as long as it takes."
"When we come back or how long we stay, it's totally up to him," he said.
Wisconsin's unrest is threatening to spread to other states, which also are seeking cuts in worker benefits to offset deep budget deficits. Ohio workers protested earlier this week after Republican Gov. John Kasich called for elimination of collective bargaining rights and Tennessee Republican lawmakers are attempting to weaken collective bargaining rights for teachers.
Meanwhile, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin offered an endorsement to the conservative activists setting foot at the state Capitol in Wisconsin in a post on her Facebook page Friday evening, criticizing labor workers for their aggressive posture.
"Here we are still struggling to get out of a deep recession and coping with high unemployment, record deficits, rapidly rising food prices, and a host of other economic problems; and Wisconsin union bosses want union members out in the streets demanding that taxpayers foot the bill for unsustainable benefits packages," Palin wrote.
Workers, who have been joined in their protests in recent days by University of Wisconsin students, were poised to fire back. Labor officials estimated that 50,000 to 60,000 workers, students and allies had been mobilized by Saturday morning.
"I think it's important that I stand with other working families and protest what Gov. Walker wants to do," Betsy Zahn, a Wisconsin physical therapist who attended the protest, said in an interview.
Labor workers and tea-party activists rallied on opposite sides of the Capitol Saturday morning, as hoards of media and police officers looked on. Workers also were slated to hold a late afternoon march.
Walker has stood firm, refusing to cede to the demands of Democrats and labor workers. A Walker spokesman told The Associated Press that the governor planned to spend Saturday with family out of public sight.
The protest has drawn national attention, with President Barack Obama weighing in and drawing a rebuke from Walker. In an appearance on a local TV station on Wednesday evening, Obama accused Walker of waging "an assault" on unions. The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has deployed Obama's political arm, Organizing for America, to Madison.
Walker fired back in an interview with Fox News on Friday morning that it "would be wise for the president and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budget, which they are a long ways from doing."
Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the tea party-aligned group FreedomWorks, said the organization was planning to begin activity in both Wisconsin and Ohio.
"This issue at the state level isn't going away," he said.
First Published February 20, 2011 12:00 am