An event that started out as an idea for a social gathering among conservative Facebook fans, then grew into a major Republican rally with an expected audience of perhaps 1,000, ended up drawing an estimated 3,000 people at its height.
Celebrate Walker, held Saturday afternoon in Wauwatosa's Hart Park, featured a lineup of the state's most powerful Republicans — short of Walker himself, who was rumored to be weighing an unannounced, last-minute appearance.
He did not come, but his wife, First Lady Tonette Walker, and their son Alex did make a surprise visit. Tonette Walker spoke briefly on behalf of her husband and children, thanking the audience for their show of support.
First event of its kind for Walker
It was, in fact, the first public event organized by pro-Walker forces since he took office — and that made it an attractive venue for three of the most powerful Republicans in the state, who all happen to be vying for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl.
Four-term governor and former Bush cabinet secretary Tommy Thompson spoke early and showed the Walker crowd he's still got it with a speech that started at a shouting level and kept climbing as he prowled the stage.
"We are red, they are blue, and when we get done they're gonna be black and blue!" he roared, and was met with a roar in return.
He stripped off his topcoat to reveal a bright red University of Wisconsin-Madison windbreaker underneath, announcing that the capital W on his back stood for both Wisconsin and Walker.
"We are Wisconsin! We are Republicans!" he crowed. "And we are taking our state back!"
An hour later, State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald tried to match Thompson in fiery rhetoric.
"We weren't going to be afraid to take a political risk," he said, "and not be afraid to do the right thing. And we went out and we recruited 132 different candidates to run as Republicans for the state Assembly. We needed four seats to pick up a majority; we picked up 14!
"We ran on two principles: We were gonna get people back to work in Wisconsin – and we were finally going to solve this budget mess that has dogged us for years!"
Former Congressman Mark Neumann, the final speaker for the day and last of the Senate candidates, also worked up a theatrical performance by doffing his coat in the growing cold and pulling on a Walker T-shirt.
Neumann said that as a member of the private sector himself, he had to carefully consider whether to invest in Wisconsin — and he did, "Under our job-creating governor, Scott Walker.
"I can't think of a better story to tell you folks in terms of our great confidence in Scott Walker and what he's done for this state and what his team's doing," Neumann added.
Organizers said shortly after the rally began that 2,500 people had arrived for the event. Only 1,000 or so were expected, but fine weather and the desire to drown out the protesters who showed up also showing up drove a large crowd.
"Shame! Shame! Shame!"
As the first speaker and representing the home district, state Sen. Leah Vukmir warmed up the crowd by challenging anti-Walker protesters who had gathered outside the event perimeter, saying "those people over there" deserved shame.
Immediately, a chant of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" went up from the pro-Walker crowd — the same chant huge crowds taunted Republicans with during mass protests last spring in the Capitol.
On positive notes in her speech, and when she introduced Tonette Walker, chants of "Walker! Walker! Walker!" also erupted. That would become a feature of nearly every speech of the day.
Jerrid Madden, the 16-year-old "Next Generation Conservative" from Muskego who was a featured speaker, got applause and a big laugh from the crowd.
"Winston Churchill once said," he began, "'If you're not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at 40, you have no brain.'"
The crowd erupted, but he went on in a more serious vein.
"But what if you’re a young conservative today? I'd say that means you are a young person who uses his brain, and was raised with heart....
"For this, I thank my blue-collar, small business-owning single father, my aunt, my grandmother, and all of the other conservatives in my life who taught me the value of a dollar, a strong work ethic, and certainly that I was entitled to nothing I haven’t earned."
Kathy Madden, Waukesha County's clerk of circuit courts, spoke from the perspective of a local elected official.
"I'm expected to manage a $9.4 million budget for the taxpayers, and the reforms in Act 10 allowed us to shave nearly a quarter of a million dollars off our expenditures," she said in an interview after her public speech.
"There are municipalities, county governments and school boards across this state that have benefited from Act 10."
One disruption during rally
The rally didn't get far without incident. It was Madden who was speaking when a pair of protesters who had managed to enter the event quietly suddenly unfurled a large anti-Walker banner right in front of the stage.
Security personnel rushed to remove them from the crowd.
That, however, would prove to be the only hiccup of the day. As the rally wound down toward the last couple of speakers, Meg Duffey, in charge of security for the event, said the last of about 100 protesters had left at about 3 p.m.
"There were probably only about 12 left for the last 45 minutes to an hour before that," she said.
"Everything went very smoothly. We had one snafu and they were escorted off the property. There were no other incidents — just the one," she said. "I've been in constant contact with the police and everything seems to be on the up and up."
About halfway through the rally, organizers said the crowd had grown to 3,000, nearly filling the arena.
Noelle Lorraine, media and public relations coordinator, said: "It's triple what we expected, with 3,000 and counting. It's remarkable the power of social media and online networking.
"Ever since the very first Patch article came out, it went viral, and I credit 75 percent of our attendance to that," she added.
"It doesn't make a difference if you call yourself conservative or you call yourself Republican, we are united here today for the same cause — standing with Scott Walker," Lorraine said.
"It's quite humbling and I'm very proud of all of my friends who helped put this together," she added.
The rally concluded about 10 minutes earlier than its scheduled 4 p.m. run with a final chant for Walker, as overcast skies during the last hour brought a deep chill to the crowd.
Santo Ingrilli, one of the organizers who first conceived of the rally, told Patch: "The event exceeded all my expectations for it. To see the number of people who stayed through this three-hour event in these frigid temperatures is a testament to the support that Gov. Walker indeed enjoys in Wisconsin."
Asked about the fact that it took a grass-roots group of local folks to put on the event, as opposed to a well-funded political organization, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch said:
"It almost means more coming from individuals who came together because they have like minds and like appreciation for fiscal common sense and security for the future.
"It almost means more that people made up their minds on their own," she added. "This is the type of political movement our Founding Fathers based this country on."