MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Nothing brings political enemies together in Wisconsin like the Green Bay Packers.
Following a controversial game-ending call by replacement referees that cost Green Bay a win over the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football, Wisconsin officials from across the political divide united behind the Packers.
Even Gov. Scott Walker and a Democratic state senator who were bitter opponents in the 2010 battle over Wisconsin public workers’ collective bargaining rights found themselves on the same side Tuesday.
Walker, whose union-busting efforts have made him the darling of fiscal conservatives, posted a message on Twitter calling for the return of the NFL’s locked-out unionized officials.
“After catching a few hours of sleep, the (hash)Packers game is still just as painful. (hash)Returntherealrefs,” Walker tweeted early Tuesday.
Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who was one of 14 Democrats who fled to Illinois for three weeks last year in opposition to Walker’s union proposal, said he saw the irony in Walker’s post but in Wisconsin “we’re all fans, first and foremost.”
“If you were born and raised in Wisconsin, you were raised on the Packers,” said Erpenbach, who urged his Twitter followers to call NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to complain. “Every Sunday it’s Packers and pancakes, not necessarily in that order.”
Packers and politics have always been closely aligned in Wisconsin, where Republicans and Democrats alike have long tried to score points by tapping into the electorate’s nearly universal affection for the NFL’s only publicly owned team.
Just days before the Packers’ 2011 Super Bowl win and Walker’s unveiling of his union plan, team President Mark Murphy appeared via a video feed during the governor’s State of the State speech before the Legislature.
Murphy’s comments and Walker’s praise for the team led to a standing ovation from lawmakers. “All we need are the Green Bay Packers” to bring Republicans and Democrats together, Walker joked at the time.
But just days after Green Bay knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers to win its fourth Super Bowl, Walker introduced his plan to close the state’s large looming budget deficit by going after public sector union bargaining rights, unleashing a torrent of opposition. Some of the criticism came from the Packers themselves, with star cornerback Charles Woodson and seven other past and present players coming out against Walker’s plan.
Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, who also tweeted his anger over Monday night’s game, said he thinks the NFL referees’ labor dispute will change the minds of some people who previously were anti-union.
“People end up thinking you can get good work for cheap, you can always find a cheaper way and it’s going to be just as good a result,” Larson told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I would hope that Scott Walker is just as outraged about decreased quality of teachers that we’re going to get as he is with replacement refs in the NFL.”
Although it was nothing like those massive pro-union protests at the Capitol, a few die-hard cheeseheads picketed outside Lambeau Field on Tuesday to voice their displeasure to the league. The game was being talked about the halls of the state Capitol, the streets of Milwaukee and all across the state.
Laurie Wroblewski, of Oak Creek, Wis., said she hopes the NFL gives the officials what they want in their contracts. She said it’s hurting the games and ultimately it will affect profits.
“With the money they may lose, I mean, they could probably pay for whatever the refs are calling for,” she said. “I just think it’s a terrible situation and I think that if they can’t come to a decision over the next few weeks, then the Super Bowl will not be anything to watch, either.”
Campaigning in Cincinnati, Republican vice presidential nominee and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan joined in the call for the officials to return.
“You guys watch that Packer game last night? I mean, give me a break,” Ryan said to laughs. “It is time to get the real refs and you know what it reminds me of — President Obama and the economy. If you can’t get it right, it’s time to get out.”
The NFL locked out the officials in June after their contract expired. The league has been using replacement officials, and through three weeks of the regular season there has been much criticism over the way some games are being handled.
Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, tried to spin the governor’s post on Tuesday, saying it wasn’t meant as a pro-union political statement. Walker’s tweet was being widely mocked on Twitter in light of his push last year that effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers, nurses and most other public workers. His proposal didn’t affect private sector unions.
“I don’t think this anything to do with unions, but has everything to do with refs making bad calls,” Werwie said.
Erpenbach tweeted two different public phone numbers of the NFL commissioner for people to call.
“I could never ref an NFL football game, ever,” Erpenbach said. “The replacement refs are doing the best they can do out there, but the commissioner doesn’t want this to sink to a World Wrestling Federation-type event on Sunday. They have to do something. It calls into question the integrity of the game.”
While Erpenbach himself plans to leave a message for Goodell urging an end to the referee labor dispute, he won’t be advising the Packers to employ the same tactics he and the other Democratic senators did last year.
“I would not recommend the Packers get on a bus and leave the state,” he said.
Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger, in Oak Creek, contributed to this report.
Scott Bauer can be followed at http://Twitter.com/@sbauerAP