MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker released to The Associated Press on Friday tens of thousands of e-mails he received in the days after introducing his plan to strip public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.
The e-mails provide a first glimpse of the extent of public support that Walker said he was receiving from Wisconsin residents via e-mail for the proposal, as well as extensive opposition that he generally downplayed.
Signed into law a week ago, but halted Friday by a judge after a challenge from Democrats, the contentious plan drew tens of thousands of pro-labor protesters to the Capitol and has galvanized union supporters across the country.
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 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 deluge of responses, many of them angry.
"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!"
One woman who identified herself as a Milwaukee Public Schools employee wrote in to support Walker's plan.
"I voted for you in November, and today I am thankful that I did so," she wrote. "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. I'm glad to see us moving in a conservative, constitutionally sound direction."
Other e-mails reviewed by the AP 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.
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 those potential increase to the rate of inflation. The law means they can no longer negotiate issues such as work conditions, vacation time or grievance processes.
Walker says the law is needed and will 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, union leaders and the Senate Democrats who fled the state, 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.
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On Friday, a Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the law from taking effect. The law had been challenged by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat who argued a legislative committee that broke a stalemate that had kept the law in limbo for weeks 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, which is required for it to take effect.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.