MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker donned a white apron to man the grill at a bipartisan picnic that had the air of an international peace conference, with a news helicopter circling overhead, protesters yelling outside the gates and lawmakers ushered onto the grounds under tight security.
Walker didn't allow the media into the cookout he hosted at the governor's mansion just a week after winning a recall election spurred by anger over his push to eliminate most public employees' union rights. He billed the bipartisan gathering as a way to heal political wounds created during his first 18 months in office, which saw massive protests and multiple recall efforts targeting lawmakers of both parties.
Some of the nearly 100 state lawmakers who attended the picnic said later that it was a good first step, but Walker needs to do more to show he's serious about bringing the parties together.
"The question is not what happened today, but what's going to happen tomorrow," said state Rep. Brett Hulsey, a Madison Democrat who emerged from the two-hour picnic carrying a souvenir bottle of Sprecher root beer with a special label that said "Moving Wisconsin Forward."
The so-called brat summit featured the local sausages whose name is pronounced "brahts," cheese and many other Wisconsin-made products.
Earlier in the day, the president of the Illinois-based Woman's Christian Temperance Union chided Walker for having beer on the menu. The WCTU successfully lobbied for Prohibition, which made selling alcohol illegal from about 1920 to the early 1930s, and its 5,000 members continue to spread its anti-drinking message nationwide.
President Rita Wert said the problems facing Wisconsin are serious, and policy makers shouldn't cloud their judgment by drinking alcohol.
"That portrays kind of a party atmosphere, and I don't think that's what people want," she said. "It's just really a shame that it has to be that way."
The group raised similar objections in 2009 when President Barack Obama invited a black scholar and the white police sergeant who arrested him to the White House to share a beer and talk about race relations.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor respectfully disagreed with the WCTU's objections.
"In keeping with the bipartisan theme of the event, in this case we agree with President Obama," Werwie said
The two dozen protesters outside the gates included those who have hounded Walker for months, along with Marty Beil, executive director of the state's largest public employees union. Beil dismissed cookout as "nothing more than a PR gig."
If Walker were serious, he would meet privately and more discretely with lawmakers rather than throw a cookout for hundreds, Beil said. But lawmakers were upbeat after the event.
"This is a perfect venue in summer to talk about issues right after the recall process," said Republican Rep. Scott Suder, majority leader in the state Assembly. "I truly believe all of us can find common ground."
Rep. Gary Hebl, a Democrat from Sun Prairie, said the cookout laid a good groundwork for future talks on more substantive issues like job creation. And Rep. Peter Barca, the Democratic minority leader in the Assembly, said Walker stepped out from behind the grill to talk with him and promised follow up discussions with all legislative leaders in the coming weeks.
"I do think it was a positive step, no question about it," Barca said.