By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) - In the days after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced plans to strip the state's public workers of nearly all their union bargaining rights, his office was flooded with a deluge of e-mail.
Some constituents cheered. Others could not have been more forceful in their opposition.
"Your handling of the current situation in Madison is an embarrassment to the people of Wisconsin. You appear to be an ignorant puppet and I am ashamed to have you as governor of the state I call home," wrote a person who said he lived in Wisconsin and is married to a teacher.
Countered a woman who identified herself as a Milwaukee Public Schools employee: "Despite the outcry from the great majority of my colleagues, I am very much in favor of the changes you are proposing. This legislation is more than fair to us in the public sector and will bring a measure of financial relief to the people of our state. Keep up the good work, Governor."
Walker released the e-mails to The Associated Press on Friday, providing a first glimpse of the extent of public support the governor said he was receiving via e-mail and the extensive opposition that he has generally downplayed.
The contentious plan drew tens of thousands of pro-labor protesters to the Wisconsin Capitol and has galvanized union supporters across the country. Walker still signed the plan into law a week ago, but a judge halted it from taking effect Friday after Democrats filed a legal challenge.
The law requires all public workers, except most police and firefighters, to pay more for their benefits. It also limits most public workers' collective bargaining rights to wages only, and caps potential wage increases to the rate of inflation. The law means they can no longer negotiate issues such as work conditions, vacation time or grievance processes.
Walker first mentioned the e-mails on Feb. 17, the same day 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois in an effort to keep the legislation from passing. As thousands of protesters banged on drums and blew whistles outside his office door, Walker told reporters he had received 8,000 e-mails -- the bulk of which he said supported his efforts.
"The majority are telling us to stay firm, to stay strong, to stand with the taxpayers," Walker said at the time. "While the protesters have every right to be heard, I'm going to make sure the taxpayers of the state are heard and their voices are not drowned out by those circling the Capitol."
The following day as an estimated 40,000 protesters flooded the Capitol, Walker said he received more than 19,000 e-mails and believed they were indicative of a "quiet majority" that backed his proposal.
An initial review by the AP of the e-mails found that many messages also expressed a fervent opposition to the plan. Some were laced with profanity and insults. One writer called Walker evil and another compared him to "maggot puke."
The AP review found that a mass e-mail Walker sent to state workers on Feb. 11, the day he introduced his proposal, thanking them for their service was met with a stream of negative responses.
"Please, keep your backhanded 'thank you's and empty compliments to yourself," one person who identified himself as a state corrections worker wrote to Walker. "Actions speak louder than words, and every one of your actions speaks quite clearly to your irrational hatred of the very people that have dedicated their lives and careers to keeping the state running safely and efficiently."
Another woman who identified herself as a state prisons sergeant wrote in capital letters: "WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO TAKE WHAT WE HAVE WORKED SO HARD FOR? WE ALL HAVE FAMILIES AND HAVE CHILDREN OF OUR OWN TO FEED! TIMES ARE HARD ENOUGH WITH THE ECONOMY THE WAY IT IS!"
Other e-mails the AP reviewed came from Wisconsin residents working in the private sector.
"I urge you to protect collective bargaining rights for public employees. Making collective bargaining illegal would be devastating to Wisconsin's working families and economy," wrote a resident from Oak Creek, Wis.
A couple from Genesee, Wis., encouraged Walker to "stay firm" and not give in to the opposition. "We support what you are doing. It's the right thing to do for Wisconsin," they wrote.
AP and Isthmus, a weekly Madison newspaper, both filed open record requests with Walker's office on Feb. 18 seeking the 8,000 messages the governor referenced at his news conference. The AP amended the request a week later, seeking all e-mails Walker had received through that day.
After receiving no response from the governor's office, the AP and Isthmus filed a joint lawsuit on March 4 seeking the e-mails. A settlement reached March 16 called for Walker to release the messages and pay the organizations' attorney fees, which came to $7,000.
The agreement specified that Walker did not acknowledge violating the state's open records law.
The public outcry over Walker's collective bargaining proposal turned the state and its Capitol into a national flashpoint as lawmakers struggled to balance state budgets crippled by the Great Recession.
Walker says the law is needed to help the state fill its current $137 million budget deficit and a projected two-year shortfall of $3.6 billion. He said the plan gives local governments the flexibility to absorb more than $1 billion in cuts to state aid that he's proposed as part of his budget plan.
Opponents, including teachers and union leaders, have argued Walker's true goal was to bust the powerful public-sector unions that have traditionally served as a strong source of support for Democrats. Minority Democrats in the state Senate fled to Illinois last month to block a vote on the plan in that chamber, giving the protests time to build.
On Friday, a Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the law from taking effect. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, argued a legislative committee that broke the Senate stalemate met without the 24-hour notice required by Wisconsin's open meetings law.
The order keeps Secretary of State Doug La Follette from formally publishing the law.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)