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Continued: Protests grip, divide Wisconsin

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 22, 2011 - 9:23 AM

MADISON, WIS. - Second-grader Elena Pfluger took her flowered backpack stuffed with books and homework to her mother's downtown office instead of a classroom again on Monday. It was the fourth school day in a row that classes were canceled here while teachers marched in union protests at the State Capitol.

"This is an imposition that's made for some crazy days, but we feel it's well worth it," her mother, Connie McElrone, said as Elena sprawled sockless on the floor -- reading, practicing cursive writing and periodically interrupting her mom's work as throngs of protesters chanted outside the eighth-floor office window on Capitol Square. "We really want happy, motivated teachers."

As it enters its second tense week, the protest that has exploded at the State Capitol is rippling in all directions, leaving Wisconsin in the grip of a political divide unseen for decades. Parents worry about schools closing for additional days. Neighbors are divided. The debate is raging at small-town watering holes and peewee hockey games. Even some Green Bay Packer players, Super Bowl victors the whole state has rallied behind -- are weighing in to support unions.

But on Monday, none of the major combatants offered any signs of backing down in a high-stakes game of political chicken.

The 14 Senate Democrats who skipped town Thursday to indefinitely delay a vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill to strip most collective bargaining rights from nearly all public employees remained missing in action for a fifth day.

Walker refused to change course and again called on Democrats to return and vote on the bill.

He has rejected at least two proposed compromises and maintains that if the bill isn't passed by Friday, even deeper cuts may be necessary, possibly resulting in layoffs for 1,500 workers over the next four months.

Consuming conversation

Across Wisconsin, the showdown at the Capitol is consuming normally polite conversation. Before it flared up a week ago, few had reason to question their neighbors' views on unions, government and taxes. Now, the topic is difficult to ignore.

"It's such a heated subject," said 43-year-old Doug Newton, who, reflecting his politics, chose a stool in the middle of a long wooden bar at the Main Tap in Oregon, Wis., a town of about 9,000 in farm country 10 miles south of Madison.

In small towns especially, taking a stand can mean lost friendships and business.

"Everybody's being really careful what they say," Newton said.

Well, not everybody.

"I think it's ridiculous. I think [the protesters] should go home where they belong," said 86-year-old June Starr, who sat on one end of the bar with her husband, sipping on a glass of blush wine. "Ninety-nine percent of them are making too much damn money. All three of our children have been out of work" in the private sector, she said.

At the other end, a group of men gathered for an afternoon drink supported the protests. "It's pretty obvious it's just about union busting," said Mike Kressin, 47, a union plasterer.

While discussions have been civilized in public, Kressin said, they have been less civilized in cyberspace.

"I haven't seen any fights, but you see a lot on Facebook," he said.

Even far from Madison, passions and opinions run strong, especially about the protesters and their Democratic allies.

Sharon Duginske, a child-care worker at a YMCA in Wausau, drove 150 miles south over the weekend to support Walker and carry a sign that said: "The Taxpayers Spoke in November."

Back at home Monday, she said "When President Obama passed his health care bill, conservatives like me had to accept it. We couldn't just ride into the streets and take off from our jobs."

Shirl LaBarre, a resident of Hayward, and former chairman for the Sawyer County Republican Party who has run unsuccessfully for State Assembly three times, said Monday that she's ashamed of the actions by the Democratic legislators who fled the state.

"You can't run and hide," she said. "To me, it's dereliction of duty. I'm paying your salary, but you ran to a different state. Coward."

She said most of those she's spoken with in Sawyer County, a predominantly conservative county in northwestern Wisconsin, "feel like I do. They are tired. They are fed up. We love our teachers here and we have total respect for them. But they don't want to look beyond the box.

"I really believe Governor Walker is doing the right thing by the state," LaBarre added. "Sometimes you have to do something drastic and shake the fences. I stand behind him 100 percent. And I know he's doing what's right to get the state back on track."

Closer to the Capitol, some government workers have made tough decisions on whether to support union comrades, but others have found the dispute a boon for business.

"This is a godsend for us," said Ken Clary, who owns a small gourmet popcorn shop near the Capitol. "We're up probably 300 to 400 percent."

The Associated Press and staff writers Curt Brown and Richard Meryhew contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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