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Wisconsin Towns Poised to Vote on Leaving Iraq

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

More than 30 Wisconsin communities vote Tuesday on a series of ballot questions calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The measures are similar to resolutions passed in more than 70 cities nationwide. Grass roots supporters of the resolutions hope to send a message to the Bush administration, but opponents worry they'll send the wrong message to American soldiers. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports.

SHAWN JOHNSON reporting:

A standing room only crowd has gathered in the basement of an Evansville, Wisconsin library to discuss the local ballot issue that supporters say will affect each and every one of them. The debate is being waged with an approach that one might expect for something like a school referendum, but this town of about 4,000 residents south of Madison is tackling a global issue. Speaking for the Troops Out Now side is Will Williams, a decorated Vietnam Veteran wearing a Prisoners of War Missing in Action beret and a black t-shirt with the slogan Veterans for Peace.

Mr. WILL WILLIAMS (Vietnam War Veteran): When you are living in a country where it's a two party system, and both parties ignore the cry of the people, then it's time to do what we're doing now, get a referendum to bring the change that's needed.

(Soundbite of applause)

JOHNSON: Sitting two chairs over is Ron Gay, who served with the U.S. Marines for twelve years. Gay wears a dark gray suit and sits with his hands folded most of the evening, except when he lofts his Bible into the air to accentuate a point. Gay is pastor of the Baptist church a few doors down and is speaking on behalf of the town's Stay Till Victory contingent. He says to withdraw now would be wrong.

Reverend RON GAY (Pastor, Former Marine): To put down wicked people like Saddam Hussein and morally unbelievably wicked like the worldwide terrorists, apart from war, it's never been done in another way. If you have a suggestion that works, I'd be happy to hear it.

JOHNSON: Meetings like this one have been held all over Wisconsin. Activists are knocking on doors to get out the vote and posting yard signs. These questions are completely non-binding and don't carry the weight of law. But that hasn't stopped opponents from fighting them. The City Council in Watertown, Wisconsin, tried to stifle a referendum there, even though supporters had gathered the necessary petitions. Organizer Penny Iler(ph) sued and won. She says it was worth the court battle.

Ms. PENNY ILER (Watertown, Wisconsin Resident): Well, it's important that democracy work and that patronizing people that think they know better than the populous can't stop us from speaking our minds.

JOHNSON: Back in Evansville, people treat this vote as though it will have great consequences. After the formal debate is over, Marine Sergeant Kevin Lewis(ph) hops to the stage. The Iraq War veteran is determined to tell people what he thinks of their referendum.

Sergeant KEVIN LEWIS (Veteran, Iraqi War): It breaks my heart. The referendum affects me, it breaks my heart and it breaks the hearts of those over there.

JOHNSON: Lewis lives in nearby Stoton, where he won't get he chance to vote on bringing the troops home. But he says people need to know what kind of message they're sending and about how hard it is for soldiers to hear.

Sergeant LEWIS: You're putting it on the line every day, you're almost getting killed and stuff, and when you're pulling triggers on a shoot/no shoot situation you doggone want your American people behind you, because you're doing difficult things.

JOHNSON: Some worry that if these questions are successful it will inspire voters in other states to try similar efforts. Those behind the anti-war push say that would be a good thing. They say the war ultimately boils down to a local issue that effects every community, paid for by tax dollars and American lives. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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