Madison, Wis. — Snow is falling here. The coffee shops have closed. The college bars are shuttered. A lone police car inches along State Street, icy slush glazing its wheels. The heavyset patrolman eyes me warily: Trench coats and suit jackets are rare in these parts. We nod, and he continues on, spotlights floating through the Lake Monona fog.
Up on the knoll, a white dome gleams. In the midnight quiet, I trudge toward it, past a graybeard professor and hulking Teamsters. Near the door, a skinny girl decked out in a ruby University of Wisconsin sweatshirt smokes a cigarette. Her friend is hooked into her iPhone, texting her classmates, urging them to visit. I move inside, out of the cold. The marble hall is dark, dimly lit by sunflower-yellow lamps. There is a faint hum.
Ambling down the corridor, sidestepping grungy pillows, acoustic guitars, and empty pizza boxes, I near the center of this stately building. The humid, sweat-scented air flares the nostrils. The hum becomes a roar: Thousands are packed into all four wings of the building. They wear bright purple SEIU T-shirts, lime green AFSCME ponchos, and fraying flannel. Gently elbowing my way through the dreadlocks and past the stacked hand drums, I find myself under the rotunda, at the center of a bizarre, union-sponsored slumber party.
A couple of feet away, a high-school teacher grabs a bullhorn and, much as the shaman calls the rain, begins to lead those assembled in a sing-along of “Union Maid,” a Woody Guthrie ditty. The scene is like a Grateful Dead concert without the plugged-in licks, a raucous temple for aging activists and impressionable youth. “Welcome to paradise,” chuckles a capitol guard.
For much of February, the Wisconsin state capitol was occupied by labor leaders, undergraduates, and a potpourri of lefty radicals. They were loud and they were angry. On cardboard signs and sprawling banners, they railed against Gov. Scott Walker, the Badger State’s rookie executive, who earlier in the month had proposed a budget-repair bill that would break the grip of public-sector unions in a state that has long been dominated by them.
Walker, a 43-year-old Republican, was skewered by liberal pundits. Protesters compared him to Adolf Hitler, Hosni Mubarak, and Darth Vader. But he ignored their cries and made a compelling, unflinching argument for fiscal prudence. For conservatives, it was an awe-inspiring sight. George Will observed that Walker’s steely determination called up the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who so famously tangled with union bosses three decades ago.
But Walker’s fight was more than an echo of glory past: It emerged, with speed and fervor, as the definitive state-level budget battle in the Age of Obama. Since Walker rolled out his plan, a half-dozen states have seen similar union-fueled uprisings as they grapple with budget gaps and benefit-addicted government workers. Walker, an unassuming man who speaks with a nasal midwestern accent, is suddenly a nationally recognized fiscal hawk and, to many Republicans, a hero.
On Friday, February 11, days after the Green Bay Packers topped the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, Madison was a picture of placidity. Walker, still settling in, had few enemies. He did not need a Google alert for his name. Few national reporters were paying attention to him. Wisconsin’s GOP stars — Rep. Paul Ryan, a leader in the U.S. House, and Sen. Ron Johnson, a Tea Party–inspired freshman — owned the spotlight.