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In Packers, divided Wisconsin finds common ground

By James B. Kelleher

GREEN BAY, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The Green Bay Packers have a lot to be proud of this season, including a 10-0 record before their 27-15 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions.

But a recent game-day visit to the team's hometown in northeastern Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of fans of all political persuasions peacefully tailgated outside Lambeau Field, suggests one of the Packers' most impressive feats this year may never show up in the NFL record books.

By giving this state, which was a bitter political battleground for much of 2011, something positive and non-partisan to focus on, the Packers have helped restore -- in a small way -- a sense of normality and community to Wisconsin.

Just ask Tom Tilkens, a 66-year-old podiatrist, Green Bay native and game-day fixture on Ridge Road, just west of Lambeau Field.

Tilkens contrasts the "down-home" vibe in Green Bay during football season with what he calls the "open hatred" and "politics of greed show" in Madison, the state capital, this year during the height of the legislative season.

Tilkens grew up on the east side of town within sight of the old city stadium where the Packers played between 1925 and 1956.

His parents let fans headed to the stadium park their cars on family property during game day. When he was 5, his dad handed him a sign and put him to work, waving cars onto the front lawn and collecting the nickel-per-vehicle charge from customers.

Today, Tilkens practices medicine in the shadow of the new city stadium where the team has played since 1957. And he still parks cars on game day, charging $25 for a spot in his office parking lot.

Some fans come back to park on his property year after year and have become "like family," he said.

"We send each other Christmas cards. We go to each others' funerals. We've become a family and it's the craziest kind of thing, but we have no divisions up here."


For the past year, the state has been torn in two as a result of a Republican-backed push to curb the union rights of public sector workers.

The move triggered massive protests in the state capital and the largest series of recall elections in U.S. history. In some communities, the strife ended friendships. In some families, it has divided brothers.

Tilkens' family is one of them. His oldest son, a labor attorney in Madison who represents businesses, supports the anti-union measures, Tilkens says. His second-oldest son, an academic at the University of Wisconsin, opposes them.

"You talk about two boys on the opposite of the issue," he said. "And I'm dad, so dad had to shut his mouth."

But the undefeated Packers are still "one thing that draws us together," Tilkens said.

The Tilkens have plenty of company in Wisconsin, according to the firm Public Policy Polling (PPP).

Scott Walker, the first-term Republican governor who championed the union curbs that divided the state, is still a polarizing figure in Wisconsin.

PPP said that Walker was viewed favorably by 47 percent of Wisconsin voters and unfavorably by 51 percent -- effectively an even split.

But those same voters are united in the love of the Packers. PPP surveyed state residents and found that Aaron Rodgers, the team's Super Bowl-winning quarterback, was the most popular person it had ever polled on in any field.

PPP said 89 percent of voters in the state had a favorable opinion of Rodgers and 77 percent of voters rate Packers coach Mike McCarthy favorably, too.

The test of the bond created by that shared admiration comes with every Packers home game, when tens of thousands of fans park their vehicles on the front lawns and parking lots of the homes and small offices that surround Lambeau Field.


Even in the aftermath of the bitter fight over collective bargaining, what erupts at these tailgates is beer-fueled camaraderie, not beer-fueled mayhem.

"We all get along here, which is an amazing thing," said Brenda Krainik, marketing director of the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Each home game generates about $8.2 million in economic activity outside the stadium. That's real money in Green Bay, a city of about 100,000 that Fred Monique, an official at the local economic development agency, said is "still basically a blue-collar town."

The battles in Wisconsin this year have often pitted private workers, like those employed in Green Bay's slaughterhouses and paper plants, against their public counterparts, like those who work at the local campus of the University of Wisconsin.

In Madison this spring, those tensions translated into demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, a lot of shouting, and a few arrests.

Throughout Wisconsin this fall, the animosity has continued. Earlier this month, Walker's foes launched a signature-collecting drive to try to force him to defend his seat in a recall election next year.

But on game days in Green Bay, a Packers-inspired peace has reigned. Tilkens believes it has been inspired not just by the team's winning streak but by its ownership structure, unique in the world of professional sports.

The team, which has sold stock four times over the past 88 years and was expected to sell more this year to finance a $140 million, 6,700-seat expansion of Lambeau, is owned by its fans -- about 112,500 in all.

No single stockholder is allowed to own more than 200,000 shares, a safeguard to ensure that no one can ever assume control of the club, which has more than 4.7 million shares outstanding. Shares cannot be resold, except back to the team -- and for a fraction of the original price.

"We don't have a dominant, wealthy, deep-pocketed owner, someone that everybody hates," said Tilkens.

Each summer, tens of thousands of shareholders show up for the team's annual meeting. Several years back, the event was permanently moved to Lambeau Field after several thousand people were turned away from a smaller facility.

The corporation is run by a committee of local business people -- most unpaid. If the Packers were ever sold, any proceeds would go to charities, according to the team's Articles of Incorporation.

"We're community owned, in the sense that many of our shareholders are from our community and most of them are from the state of Wisconsin," team spokesman Aaron Popkey said.

(Editing by Ian Simpson)