Wisconsin left divided between anger, relief

The protests and vote in Madison have left the state deeply split, no less so citizens of western Wisconsin.

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On a park sidewalk across from the New Richmond, Wis., City Hall, high school civics teacher Kerry Kittel spent part of his spring break Thursday beneath a canopy, collecting signatures to recall state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf.

About 30 yards down the sidewalk, retired New Richmond police officer Tom Wulf held up a sign saying, "Walker for President" on one side and "Recall Public Teachers Unions" on the other.

Wulf and Kittel, both 55, have known each other for years. They disagree on about every issue, including Thursday's maneuver by GOP lawmakers to pass the union restrictions without any Democrats present in the state Senate. Wulf said his survey of car honks and thumbs-ups was running 3-to-1 in Walker's favor; Kittel insisted sentiment was just the opposite.

"Teachers are extremely disappointed with what happened, but I'm not exactly tickled that the Democrats weren't there to participate in the process," Wulf said. "But that was their choice, so I guess the governor did what he needed to do to get a handle on spending."

Across western Wisconsin, the news from Madison met with mixed reactions, heightening the rift and tensions that have existed for weeks statewide since new Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative majority said they needed to limit unions' negotiating powers to manage a budget shortfall.

Under the measure passed Thursday by the Assembly, most school, local and state employees would have to pay half the cost of their pensions -- 5.8 percent of pay for typical state employees -- and at least 12 percent of the cost of their health care premiums. Wages could not be raised by more than inflation each year, unless approved by voters in a referendum.

In Hudson, as longtime prosecutor Kevin Gehler headed to court Thursday, he could sense the range of emotions rippling through the St. Croix County Government Center one day after the stunning vote.

"There's a lot of disbelief and a combination of depression, shock and anger," Gehler said. "People are walking around here questioning everything."

For most of his 25 years practicing law, Gehler has been prosecuting criminals for the state. He left for private practice once -- enjoying an immediate $10,000 salary bump -- but he decided to go back when prosecutors joined a state union and gained some job stability.

Now, with the stalemate over and most collective bargaining rights set to be stripped from state employees, Gehler is questioning whether he made the right career decision. With his $94,000 salary and 23-plus years of experience, he thinks he could be a target.

"You balance the budget quicker by taking the guys who are making the most money," Gehler, 54, said between courthouse hearings. "I felt I was doing more good doing this, and I guess that's why it hurts so much."

Back in New Richmond, Wulf acknowledged that even he was surprised by his side's tactics of removing the fiscal portions of the legislation to get around the lack of a quorum. But he bristled at the growing movement to collect signatures to recall Republicans such as Harsdorf.

"As long as we're having recall elections, how about recalling the 14 Democrats who skipped the state for three weeks and were still getting paid for apparently doing nothing," Wulf said.

Down the sidewalk, Kittel said nearly a dozen people who stopped to sign petitions told him they did so after driving past the day before.

"They said, 'After what happened last night, I made sure to get down here and sign,''' Kittel said. "These weren't union people or educators, just community people who resented the way it happened."

Small demonstrations were held in River Falls and other western Wisconsin communities Thursday, but most state workers reported for duty, and even Wulf and Kittel agreed that most people who stopped to talk in New Richmond were respectful of differing opinions.

"Right now, no one wants to put their job at risk," said DNR wildlife technician Michael Soergel, who works in Baldwin. "Most folks I know are feeling pretty defeated. Their wind is gone, like getting punched in the gut and not being able to breathe."

Soergel, who spoke from home on his lunch break and not on state time, said even a small change in salary or benefits could hurt him and his coworkers, especially if property taxes and other fees increase, as he expects they will. He worries about sending his two teenage children to college. He has a college degree and earns a $39,000 salary -- there's a misconception that state workers are highly paid, he said.

"I do this job because I love it," he said. "And because I've got pretty good benefits to keep my family healthy, not because it's a high wage."

St. Croix County Board Chairman Daryl Standafer said he attended a west-central Wisconsin regional planning meeting Thursday with leaders from several counties. All anticipate less state aid once the so-called budget-repair bill "goes through the sausage-making process of the Legislature."

He said he thinks Republicans made a wise move to find a way to pass the collective bargaining limits. "Life goes on and we have to end the stalemate. Now let's do something."

curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767 pam.louwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

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