The so-called "Wisconsin 14" — those 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin to try and invoke debate and avoid a vote that would ban collective bargaining — returned to the Capitol building in Madison Saturday afternoon. They held a news conference while tens of thousands protested in the streets, explicitly calling the Republicans' actions to pass the anti-union bill illegal and compared the state's political climate to that of a dictatorship.
"[The Republicans] did something very extraordinary last Wednesday and Thursday," Sen. Tim Cullen said. "It's clear that what we did was legal, and it's certain that what they did was illegal. You can go to a dictatorship and get things done in 10 or 15 minutes. You can come to Wisconsin and get things done in 10 or 15 minutes. It's not a good situation."
By leaving the Capitol for Illinois, Cullen said, "we have committed no crime." He was advised that, legally "if someone came to my door to try and compel me to return to the Capitol, I should ask him to leave my property," and Cullen could then have that person arrested for trespassing. "They have no capacity to compel us to come back to the Capitol," he said.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach said that while the Republicans threatened to fine or arrest the absentee Democrats, or take away their parking spaces and staff, "they never once in the final week talked about the issue that was compelling the people of Wisconsin to get out in the streets. The reason that they didn't, is that they don't have an answer. They are bankrupt when it comes to ways to get us to work together...Yeah, we can work together, but they gotta knock this stuff off."
He called the protests and unrest "Scott Walker's war."
"[Leaving] was the only way they would debate the bill," Erpenbach explained. "If we come back, the debate's over. It's done."
Cullen called the last month "an era of negotiations They ebb and flow...We started from very different places. They started from the point of destroying public unions and collective bargaining.
[Collective bargaining] has worked pretty well for 50 years. There was no time or patience in this era. [The Republicans] talked to us long enough, and said 'to heck with ya, we're gonna force the thing through,' in an extremely unfair way."
Cullen went on to say that Wisconsin is now "an environment that is pretty much absent of somebody you can call a moderate."
Sen. Lena Taylor said that while she was glad they hadn't had to jump out a window, as Abraham Lincoln famously did to halt a vote ("I'm not that limber!") she is proud of walking out.
"When history tells a story...those things will show where the shame really should lie, and how they did move the process in the end," she said. "I stand proud and I stand tall on the choice no different than Abe Lincoln."