"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 13 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 14 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.
From the start, the numbers have told the story of Wisconsin’s resistance, and its resilience.
The tens of thousands.
The hundreds of thousands.
Wisconsinites from every background, every religion, every politics and every job have filled the Capitol Square for the past month.
Their message has been clear and unequivocal. They oppose Scott Walker’s assault on working families. They oppose the lawless actions of legislative leaders who are more determined to advance the governor’s political agenda than to respect their colleagues or to serve the interests of the whole state.
This has been an exhilarating, frustrating, depressing and empowering time.
Emotions have soared and collapsed.
But Wisconsinites are a resilient people. Nothing Scott Walker does to the citizens of the state will be as long-lasting or meaningful as what those citizens will do for the state when they remove him—and those who have supported him—from office.
Wisconsin’s resilience is rooted in its traditions. Wisconsinites learned to work hard in factories and on farms.
Most Wisconsinites can trace their roots to a homestead on a country road. The is and will always be “America’s Dairyland,” a farm state with a regard for those who work the land.
So when the farmers of Wisconsin arrived Saturday, on tractors that rolled in from across the state, Wisconsinites brought this movement full circle.
The tractorcade, organized by the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Family Farm Defenders, began a day of rallying at the Capitol that drew the largest yet—and that signaled the determination of Wisconsinites to keep fighting the Walker agenda.
“The governor wants to divide us,” explained western Wisconsin farmer Joel Greeno, who will ride his tractor into the Capitol Square this morning. “But that won’t happen. The governor’s got his corporate contributors. But the state employees and the teachers, they’ve got us. Farmers understand that when you cut funding for road crews and schools, our rural communities get hurt. And we’ve been hurt enough.”
Wisconsin workers and farmers have, in the words of the tractorcade organizers, decided to “Pull Together!” That’s a slogan that recalls the historic organizing of the farmer-labor movements of the upper Midwest, which had their expression in Wisconsin in the Progressive Party that sent Robert M. La Follette Jr. to the US Senate and elected Phil La Follette as governor in the 1930s.
It has been a long time since Wisconsin has been this united, and since the farmers and workers of the state have spoken in so loud and clear a voice.
On Saturday, one of the returning senators may have put it best. Referring to the decision of the senators to leave for Illinois in order to open up a broader debate, Bob Jauch, a Democrat from northern Wisconsin told the crowd: "We did not weaken democracy when we went to the land of Lincoln. We strengthened it."
Then tens and tens and tens of thousands who were listening to him roared their approval, chanting what has become the slogan of the movement: "This is what democracy looks like!"