MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin defended Wisconsin's governor at a tea party tax-day rally Saturday, telling hundreds of supporters that his polarizing union rights law is designed to save public jobs.
Braving snow showers and a frigid wind outside the state Capitol, Mrs. Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, told tea partyers she's glad to stand with Gov. Scott Walker. Hundreds of labor supporters surrounded the rally, trying to drown out Mrs. Palin with chants of "Hey-hey, ho-ho, Scott Walker has got to go!" and "Recall Walker!"
"Hey, folks, he's trying to save your jobs and your pensions!" Mrs. Palin yelled into the microphone. "Your governor did the right thing, and you won! Your beautiful state won! And people still have their jobs!"
Mr. Walker, a Republican, signed a bill into law last month that calls for almost all public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health care coverage, changes that amount to an average 8 percent pay cut. The plan also strips them of their right to bargain collectively on anything except wages.
Mr. Walker has said the law will help balance a $3.6 billion hole in the state budget and give local governments the flexibility they need to absorb deep cuts in state aid. Democrats, though, think Mr. Walker wants to weaken unions, one of the Democrats' strongest constituencies.
Tens of thousands of people descended on the Capitol to protest nonstop for weeks against the plan, and minority Democrats in the state Senate fled to Illinois to block a vote in that chamber, drawing national attention to the controversy.
Republicans eventually passed the plan without them, and Mr. Walker signed the measure in early March. Democrats managed to win a temporary court order blocking the law from taking effect, but tensions still are running high over the measure.
Capitol Police estimated about 6,500 people converged on the building Saturday, but authorities said it was impossible to tell how many were tea partyers and how many were labor supporters. The Capitol Police is a division of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, a Walker Cabinet agency.
The tea partyers appeared clustered in front of the building, waving "Don't Tread on Me" flags and signs that read "Public workers — the party is over," "Thank you, Scott," and "Tax and spend brings the end."
Counter-protesters surrounded them, banging drums, bellowing into bullhorns and ringing bells. Bitter arguments broke out along the edges of the two groups over everything from the size of government to corporate power. At one point conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart took the stage and told the labor supporters to "go to hell."
"I'm serious!" he screamed. "Go to hell! You're trying to divide America!"
The tea party crowd cheered and the counter-demonstrators booed as Mrs. Palin stepped to the microphone. She said she was proud Wisconsin conservatives prevailed against union "hatred and violence" — even though none of the protests in Madison ever became physically violent and only one person was arrested Saturday for disorderly conduct, police said.
Mrs. Palin said Mr. Walker is working to solve Wisconsin's long-term budget problems so it can honor pension commitments to public workers.
"This is where the line has been drawn in the sand, and I'm glad to stand with you in solidarity," Mrs. Palin said.
She segued into attacks on President Obama by accusing him of failing to control the nation's burgeoning debt, leading the country into war in Libya on fuzzy pretenses and ignoring rising gas prices.
Jeff Kuhn, 62, of Chenequa, Wis., carried a "Walker Rocks" sign to the rally. He said Mrs. Palin's speech galvanized him.
"We're not giving up," he said. "The government union workers shouldn't be entitled to more benefits than us."
Kathy Abel, a 51-year-old nurse from Madison, held a sign printed with "I hated Sarah Palin before it was cool" and wore a button that read, "Proud to be a union thug."
"They make me giggle," Ms. Abel said of the tea partyers. "Their values are so topsy-turvy. They had to come because this is where it's happening. This is the flashpoint for democracy."