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Thousands of pro-labor protesters rallied at the Wisconsin Capitol Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Madison, Wis., vowing to fight back after the state's Republican governor signed into law a controversial bill that eliminates most union rights for public employees.(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

By 1:30 p.m. you could hear the crowd at the Capitol five blocks away along the Lake Mendota shoreline. By 2:30, protesters on the Square were moving no faster than a shuffle. By 3 people could not move. And at 3:05, "Wisconsin's 14" got a heroes' welcome on the steps of the state Capitol.

"You go away for a couple of weeks and look at what happens," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who, along with his smiling colleagues, kept surveying the crowd, seemingly awed by the turnout. "It's so nice to be home in Wisconsin."

Saturday's crowd, estimated by Madison Police to be between 85,000 and 100,000, surrounded the podium on the State Street side of the Capitol and showered the senators with shouts of "Thank you! Thank you!"

The senators returned the sentiment and clapped for the crowd. "We left because the Republicans gave us no voice," said Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee. "Thank you for being our voice while we were gone."

Saturday's protest was the fourth straight week of weekend protests that have drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol Square.

Taking advantage of a constitutional provision that prevents the state Senate from taking up a fiscal bill without a quorum of members, the 14 Democratic senators fled the state on Feb. 17 for Illinois to stall action on Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill. The Senate, however, voted on and passed an amended version of the bill Wednesday and the Assembly approved it the next day. Walker signed the bill Friday.

The bill, among other things, strips nearly all collective bargaining rights for public workers and sets the stage for the state Department of Health Services to revamp Medicaid without the need for legislative approval.

But the Democratic senators Saturday presented a feisty front, saying the fight has just begun. "We're with you," said Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller of Monona. "Together we will get our rights back. Together we will get our democracy back. Together we will win our Wisconsin back."

Joining the senators on the stage at the end of the rally were U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Kind and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been a familiar presence at the Capitol over the last few weeks. Only Jackson spoke, asking the crowd first to first remember the people affected by the tsunami in Japan. Then he noted the upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court election, which features a face-off between incumbent David Prosser, a former Republican legislator and conservative, and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg. Many see the election as a referendum on Walker and other Republicans.

"Come alive April 5," Jackson shouted to the crowd.

Actor Tony Shalhoub, a native of Green Bay, followed Jackson. "You need to know you are the heart and soul of America today," said Shalhoub, known for his television roles in "Wings" and "Monk." "This is the birth of a nationwide movement. A movement destined to restore the rights of workers."

The protests began in the morning with a two-hour "tractorcade," with area farmers parading 50 tractors of various models, colors and sizes around the Capitol Square. Despite the blustery weather, children and dogs were also out in force.

Some of the protest signs offered lessons from history. One quoted President Abraham Lincoln: "There is no America without labor and to fleece the one is to rob the other."

While select doors to the Capitol were open for visitors until 4 p.m., security checks still meant long lines for those waiting to get in. Dennis Evans waited about 30 minutes and wasn't happy about it.

"It's our house," said Evans. "Look, I'm 57 years old, I pay taxes and I work in the state. I shouldn't have to wait."

Evans said he is not a union worker, but he was with two friends who are. He's been to the Capitol once already to protest and calls the scene "awesome."

"I've never seen so many positive people for a cause in my life," he said.

Hundreds of people did make it into the Capitol, with a steady crowd of protesters gathered in the Rotunda chanting, singing and taking turns addressing the crowd.

It took Russ Hannula 90 minutes to gather the courage to speak, but he had a confession to make.

"I came here today to apologize because I voted for Scott Walker," said Hannula, who lives in Williams Bay.

"Everyone makes mistakes," shot back one person in the crowd.

Hannula said he is neither a public employee nor a union member. And he doesn't consider himself a Republican or a Democrat.

"I'm one of those independent voters who tends to stay in the middle," he told the crowd. At the same time that he voted for Walker for governor, for instance, he checked the box for former U.S Sen. Russ Feingold, who was running for re-election but lost to Ron Johnson.

In a brief interview after he spoke, Hannula, who owns his own software company, said he was on the fence about Walker's proposal until he saw news footage from the Joint Conference Committee meeting Wednesday. He said the turning point for him came when Republicans walked out while Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca was speaking.

He then went to the Internet to find a copy of Walker's original budget repair bill. He calls the content "beyond the outrageous."

Hannula said he voted for Walker because, unlike Democratic candidate Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker "was non-emotional and stuck with the problems." But now he is appalled at Walker's approach, which he says pits taxpayers against public employees.

This was Hannula's first visit to the Capitol to protest Walker's plan and the first protest he has attended since the Vietnam War. These protests in Madison, he says, are "as important if not more important because the country is following what Walker is doing."

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