Largest protest crowd

Tens of thousand of protesters attend a rally at the State Capitol in February 2011. 

STEVE APPS — State Journal file photo

Bat on a plane! Cat in a tree! Rodgers to Jennings for another TD!

In any other year, weird Wisconsin animal stories and a freakishly great year by Wisconsin athletic teams may have satisfied our appetites for news. But not 2011.

Not in the year of the beer shower, the fake palm trees, the fake primary elections, the solidarity singalongs, the heart-shaped balloons, the vuvuzela serenades.

We learned what democracy looks like, what a monthlong Capitol campout smells like, what a David Koch impersonator sounds like and what Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley's neck feels like.

It's warm, Justice David Prosser told authorities in July. How Bradley's neck ended up in Prosser's hands as the state's highest court was deciding a legal challenge to new Republican Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill in June, the justices couldn't agree.

The Supreme Court fight came in a year when Madison activists held a funeral for slain local geese, when passengers on a Madison-to-Atlanta flight were greeted by a free-ranging bat, when authorities discovered a baboon named Monkey living in an East Side laundry room. And then there was Almond, the town of Exeter cat who was born in a tree — and didn't come down until falling and breaking his leg when he was 11 months old.

All the Green Bay Packers did was win the Super Bowl, beat the Bears four times and lead the NFL this season with a record of 14-1. The Badgers football team qualified for their second consecutive Rose Bowl. The Badgers men's basketball team danced to the Sweet 16. And the Milwaukee Brewers won their division for the first time since 1982.

But politics ruled, with Republicans stampeding into liberal Madison and owning power in the governor's office, the Senate and the Assembly for the first time since 1995. The newcomers quickly showed their yen for tackling contentious issues, including Walker's proposal to end collective bargaining for public employees in the state where it began.

Their policy proposals raised an outcry unseen in decades, bringing tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol and inspiring a raft of recall elections that unseated two Republican senators and now targets Walker.

Politicians did their best to remind us of junior high. Walker was humiliated after falling for the most obvious prank call ever — a phony call from a blogger posing as Koch, a major campaign donor. Democratic senators stormed out of the state in a huff to block passage of the collective-bargaining bill. Republicans thumbed their noses at them and passed it anyway.

It was a year when our Midwestern passive-aggressive nature left out the passive part, in which the state map formed into a clenched fist became a ubiquitous symbol on bumper stickers and T-shirts. Civility was put on the endangered list.

In one of the year's most public breakups, former Madison mayor Paul Soglin ran against his monthly breakfast buddy, two-term incumbent Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Voters narrowly returned Soglin to the mayor's office for his seventh swearing-in, sending Cieslewicz home to feed his blog.

Soglin quickly gained a reputation as a cranky pragmatist, unafraid to buck the City Council on a range of cherished priorities. He canceled the fall Ride the Drive before restoring it and called for slashing the loan for the Edgewater hotel redevelopment, leaving the project gasping for breath as the year ends.

Joe Parisi breezed to victory as Dane County executive, replacing Kathleen Falk, who retired to spend more time trying to recall Walker — and possibly to run against him.

Schools at every level had to adjust to the newly passed Walker budget, which squeezed their funding, and waded through political battles over collective bargaining.

Elementary and high school teachers and college instructors provided many of the protesting numbers and organization at the Capitol. Many local districts canceled classes for one or more days in February as teachers protested, often joined by students and parents. Scores provided fake sick notes, handed out like candy at the Capitol by doctors — several of whom were later reprimanded.

At UW-Madison, it was bye, bye Biddy after Biddy Martin, the popular chancellor, abruptly announced in June she was bailing for the president's job at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The move came after her push to split UW-Madison from the other 25 campuses in the system, rejected by lawmakers after an outcry from UW System leaders.

For her temporary replacement, the university turned to David Ward, a familiar face on campus who previously served as UW-Madison chancellor from 1993 to 2000.

Students showed they could still get their drunk on, gathering in April for the annual Mifflin Street block party and turning it into a crime scene: two stabbings, three sexual assaults, three substantial batteries, four strong-armed robberies and numerous reports of property damage, according to Madison police, who have joined Soglin in calls to end the annual event.

Another familiar face in Madison, Kaleem Caire, returned and made perhaps the biggest splash locally as CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison and relentless advocate for the league's proposed charter school, Madison Prep. Caire reminded Madisonians that all is not well in the region, where about half of African-Americans don't graduate from high school in four years, a third of blacks live in poverty and a disproportionate number live in prison. He proposed Madison Prep as a remedy.

Public funding for Madison Prep ultimately got voted down earlier this month by the Madison School Board. But Caire earned widespread praise for raising the issue, and the Urban League still plans to open Madison Prep next year, perhaps as a private school.

Throughout all the twists and turns and public debates over the school, as Caire careened between the school board, the teachers union and the public, he closed every message with one word that seems appropriate as we close this most interesting of years.