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Narayan Mahon for The New York Times
But this group of once-obscure lawmakers — a dairy farmer, a lawyer and a woman who is seven months pregnant, among others — that fled this capital nearly a month ago, returned Saturday to the cheers of tens of thousands who once again packed the streets in protest.
Many in the crowd wore buttons or held signs bearing admiring nicknames for the group: the “Fighting 14,” the “Fab 14” or, simply, “the Wisconsin 14.” They chanted, “Thank you” and “Welcome home.”
This is, of course, not the standard reception for state legislators, typically as anonymous as they are unglamorous.
“Before all of this occurred, I wouldn’t have known a lot of their names,” said Paul Fieber, a retired state employee carrying a sign declaring, “Our heroes.” “But that has changed for me and a lot of the population.”
The reason for the reception was that the 14 Democratic state senators had returned weeks after fleeing to another state in a dramatic — if ultimately failed — effort to prevent a vote on a bill that would significantly weaken public-sector unions.
Their disappearance — “a really, really weird trip,” in the words of one senator — was one of the most memorable and divisive aspects of the legislative standoff, and it helped escalate a policy dispute into a protracted battle over union rights that seized the attention of the nation.
On Saturday, the senators spoke, sometimes boastfully, about their pride in the outpouring of support, their dismay at the law that passed in their absence and their eagerness to meet the protesters who have backed their actions.
“I’m one of the Fabulous 14, and I’m so proud,” said Spencer Coggs, who was first elected to the State Legislature nearly three decades ago. “We are back to unite and fight with our supporters. We gave them hope. They gave us inspiration.”
Though officially in hiding, the Democrats had been more visible than ever, giving countless interviews from “undisclosed locations” around Illinois, where they stayed out of reach of the Wisconsin state troopers dispatched to bring them back to the Senate.
Fred Risser, a Senate Democrat whose nearly six decades of service make him the longest-tenured state legislator in the country, said he had never been so widely recognized. “I’m quite amazed at the number of strangers who have come up and thanked me,” he said.
Republican lawmakers, who called the Democrats cowards and accused them of abandoning their posts, made numerous efforts to get them back, including holding their paychecks, stripping their parking spots, issuing fines, threatening arrest and pursuing other legislation before ultimately maneuvering to vote without them.
The bill, which limits collective bargaining rights and requires annual votes for unions to stay in existence, among other provisions, was signed into law on Friday by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, after passing in both Republican-controlled chambers earlier in the week.
The Democrats are still officially in contempt of the Senate, though both sides said it was unlikely that they would be detained. In addition, eight Democrats — as well as eight Republicans — face recall efforts stemming from the dispute.
Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, released a statement saying that the Democrats should be embarrassed about their conduct. “Today, the most shameful 14 people in the state of Wisconsin are going to pat themselves on the back and smile for the cameras,” he said. “They’re going to pretend they’re heroes for taking a three-week vacation.
“It is an absolute insult to the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who are struggling to find a job, much less one they can run away from and go down to Illinois — with pay.”
As the senators walked around the Capitol square, where one of the largest protests in what has been a daily outpouring of union employees and supporters was under way, the crowd pressed in to shake hands and shout words of encouragement. Many called the senators by name, a fact that caught some off guard.
Senator Timothy Cullen was visibly moved and called it his greatest experience as a public official. “We heard about how strongly they felt,” he said. “But you have to be here to feel it.”
The size of the crowd, which the Madison police estimated at around 100,000, and the amount of positive energy was striking, coming a day after the long battle over the bill was lost, though legal efforts were under way to keep it from taking effect.
For weeks the rhythmic chanting of protesters has filled this city like a heartbeat, proof that despite the lack of legislative power, the political left in this state is still a visible, and audible, presence. At the very moment that the noise was expected to fade in disappointment, that thumping proof of life — the staccato refrain of “This is what democracy looks like,” was the most popular of the chants — continued with renewed vigor.
But it is unclear how long the protests will continue.
“We wanted to come together one more time to let people know this is not over,” said Ann Soderman, a high school science teacher who carried a sign listing the Democratic senators. She said she had attended several rallies but was now focused on recall efforts against eligible Republican senators, including her own. “All this energy is going to go into a different avenue,” she said.