Gov. Scott Walker appeared Thursday in La Crosse to defend his controversial labor rights bill and Senate Republicans’ maneuvers to pass it. Hundreds of protesters were waiting for him.

Walker and the Republicans have been criticized for suddenly ending a nearly month-long stalemate over the bill with a late-night vote Wednesday.

During his stop in La Crosse, Walker blamed Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller for failing to get 14 Democrats to return to Madison and vote on the bill, which strips collective bargaining rights for most public workers.

The Senate voted 18-1, with no Democrats present, to approve a modified version of the bill that had been blocked since the Democrats left the state for Illinois. The Assembly approved the collective bargaining bill Thursday with only four Republicans, including Westby’s Lee Nerison, voting against it.

Walker said Miller insisted that the collective bargaining restrictions be taken out of the budget repair bill, which the governor has touted as necessary for fixing the state’s budget deficit without laying off thousands of state and local workers. The governor also implied Miller was answering to “national labor bosses.”

“Sen. Miller put out a provision he knew we couldn’t accept because it would undercut our local governments,” Walker said.

Some local leaders have complained the legislation will undermine employee relations and gives them tools they don’t need.

Walker defended the conference committee’s vote — taken with just two hours notice Wednesday night — as legal and fair, blaming the Democrats for not being present.

“This has been on the calendar for more than three weeks,” Walker said. “The fact that there was no one there is the fault of those 14 state senators.”

Democrats have blasted Republicans for the way the bill was pushed through.

“Democracy has no time limit, but for Republicans to allow only two hours of debate on a bill to cheat working families out of decades of rights shows a disgraceful disregard for democracy,” Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a prepared statement. “This is not the Wisconsin way.”

Walker spoke to media and a handful of employees at Colgan Air services during the half-hour stop. A crowd that had gathered outside jeered “coward” as his airplane taxied away from the hangar.

“I wish he would have come outside to see the people opposed,” said John Bayer, one of several La Crosse firefighters who joined the protest.

Voter backlash?

Wednesday night’s Senate vote re-ignited protests at the Capitol and throughout the state and seems to have fueled local efforts to recall Sen. Dan Kapanke, one of 18 Republicans who voted for the modified bill.

Two political action committees’ ad campaigns against the bill said they raised $200,000 overnight, bringing the total to $750,000 raised since they began an effort last week to pressure Republican senators.

A poll sponsored by the left-leaning shows 57 percent of voters in Kapanke’s district contacted Wednesday — before the Senate vote — said they would support someone else in an election. Only 41 percent said they would support Kapanke.

The group also raised $300,000 overnight to fund the recall effort, campaign director Daniel Mintz said.

Several hundred people rallied Thursday morning along Fourth Street outside the La Crosse County Courthouse, where Elizabeth Eumurian signed one of several Kapanke recall petitions circulating through the crowd. She said it was the first time she’d attended a protest rally on the bill.

“They’re taking people’s rights away,” she said.

Doris Baum, a UPS worker and union member collecting signatures, said people are more willing  to sign the petitions since Wednesday night’s vote.

“I don’t like it any time you plow over people’s rights,” she said.

“This is about all workers,” said Della Hansmann, an architect who said she attended protests in Madison each of the past three weekends.

Organizers need 15,588 signatures by May 2 to trigger a recall election.

“I think the chances after yesterday are growing that a recall could be successful,” said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim. “Up until yesterday I thought it was a strategy to put pressure.”

However, Heim said, the last thousand signatures can be very difficult to gather, and the present level of anger may not last until summer.

Walker dismissed concerns about recall efforts against eight Republican senators, saying the public will eventually realize the unions’ “scare tactics” are untrue.

Kapanke, who last week said the recall is simply “part of the process,” said Thursday: “If I didn’t believe this would make Wisconsin better down the road I wouldn’t be voting yes.”

National spotlight

In an unusual move, some federal Democrats  criticized the state Legislature on Thursday.

“This is not the way we do business in Wisconsin,” said Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat from La Crosse. “We can’t accomplish anything when it’s all about politics.”

Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl issued a statement saying, “This is not how Democracy is supposed to work. … This is not the way to build strength in our state or our economy — that will only happen when fairness and respect are restored to guide us.”

Even Minnesota’s Rep. Tim Walz chimed in.

“This has never been about the budget. It’s been about limiting the rights and the voice of ordinary, working Americans,” said the Mankato Democrat. “I have every reason to believe the people of Wisconsin will continue to raise their voices for freedom, and I applaud their efforts.”

“They usually stay out of this stuff,” Heim said. “This has clearly become a national issue … It’s brought enormous attention to the state. I do wonder what this is going to do to the state’s image. … It makes us look very divisive.”

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