A month ago, if you'd told me that Wisconsin's Democratic Senators would be greeted like rock stars by a sea of humanity on the Capitol Square, I'd have said you were crazy. Though Hollywood actors, Jesse Jackson and a member of the Foo Fighters also appeared at Saturday's massive rally, the crowd saved its wildest cheers for the Senators, who became working-class heroes after decamping to Illinois to stall passage of Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union budget bill.
I've never felt more like a sardine as I tried to wriggle through the sign-waving crowd surrounding the State Street steps. The mood was upbeat and defiant, despite the passage of Walker's bill on Thursday after four weeks of nonstop protests. The talk was all about recalls, the April 5 Supreme Court election, and legal challenges. As tens of thousands chanted "we will not rest until our rights are restored," I started to wonder if the Republicans had kicked the wrong hornet's nest by limiting public employees' collective bargaining rights.
I missed Susan Sarandon's speech at the noon rally, but I made it to the Capitol lawn in time to see two versions of the union anthem "Solidarity Forever," one of them by Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett. "I got tired of watching this from home," said Shiflett, who flew to Madison from L.A. "This is where the battle lines have officially been drawn."
The Assembly Democrats came to the microphone in their orange T-shirts, asking, "Gov. Walker, can you hear us now?" (If he couldn't, he needs a hearing aid.) Then came the crowd's returning heroes, the Senate Democrats, hailed as the Fab 14 on signs as far as the eye could see. Each one of them made brief, rousing comments, denouncing the Republicans and promising to continue the fight.
Despite the tension surrounding their three-week exile, the Senators managed to retain a sense of humor. "Wow, you go away for a couple of weeks and look what happens!" said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, facing a brand-new army of 100,000 people.
Tony Shalhoub, star of Monk and a native of Green Bay, got his share of laughs, too. He introduced his sister, an educator in Green Bay, as a "lazy-ass malcontent, good-for-nothing bully," echoing Republican insults about public employees.
"So what do you think dangerous?" he asked, gesturing toward his smiling sister.
Mostly, Shalhoub sounded serious notes, speaking passionately about the struggle in his home state. He described Republicans as wanting to "unravel the very fabric of democracy in this state." But he gave them very little chance of succeeding and anyone who watched him as detective Adrian Monk knows that the guy is rarely wrong.
"You all are the heart and hope of America today," Shalhoub said, to deafening cheers.