Many of the audience members at WORT’s mayoral candidate forum Wednesday evening were angry.
They were angry about racial disparities, angry about not being heard, angry about their kids’ experience in schools and angry when the candidates didn’t have answers.
More than 200 people showed up to the forum at Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side to hear from candidates Mayor Paul Soglin, activist Christopher Daly, former Dane County Supervisor Richard Brown, Ald. Scott Resnick and former alder Bridget Maniaci.
The three-hour discussion focused almost entirely on racial disparities, but there seemed to be a huge gulf in communication between the audience members and the five candidates on stage. Those asking for responses felt they weren’t being understood or answered while those on stage attempted to explain what falls under the power of the mayor’s office.
“An example of power and privilege is what we just saw here,” said Eric Upchurch, a leader with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, which had several members in attendance. He said his issue is that the city is laden with well-meaning people with good ideas that fail in essence or execution.
“There’s an issue of expertise here,” Upchurch said.
The forum began with a series of questions from panelists NAACP Dane County chapter vice president Nino Amato, Nehemiah founder Rev. Alex Gee and Race to Equity project program director Erica Nelson. They focused on the plight of young African American men, how the city and county can work together and how individuals in south Madison will have a voice in and piece of economic development in the area.
Following that portion, the debate opened up to audience questions, which ran an hour over the scheduled time. During the audience portion, the tense atmosphere led to heated exchanges between candidates and the public.
“Step one is don’t piss people off if we want to get things moving here, so we have to have good conversations,” Maniaci said after Young, Gifted and Black leader Brandi Grayson forcefully reiterated the group’s demands. Maniaci’s point was that it takes good communication and relationships to get things done, but the comment drew sharp backlash from the crowd.
Later, Soglin repeatedly yelled a question at one speaker who had questioned him on why Madison doesn’t have certain minority requirements for contractors, like Seattle and Portland do.
“How did Seattle and Portland do it? How did Seattle and Portland do it?” Soglin asked over and over before answering his own question.
“What Seattle and Portland did was they did a disparities study,” Soglin said, citing the legal steps to have minority contract requirements and noting that a similar disparity study is underway in Madison.
On the question of what Soglin would do to address policing in low-income neighborhoods in south Madison, he replied that the questioner’s assumption – the assumption that low-income black neighborhoods are over-policed – was incorrect.
“Equity in policing is providing safety to the people of the city,” he said.
Brown drew the most vocal crowd reaction on a response to the question of providing child care. He said instead of just looking at child care, they should be figuring out how the mom can stay home with the child. Amid a loud outcry, he quickly backpedaled to add, “or dad,” emphasizing the importance of having a close parental relationship with kids.
Daly, meanwhile, drew mostly snaps and applause from the vocal crowd, particularly on issues like removing police in schools, exploring alternatives to incarceration and developing alternate work force options around urban agriculture.
Between the candidates, the friction also ratcheted up compared to last week’s mayoral forum, which Soglin did not attend.
He and Maniaci took direct shots at each other over the Edgewater Hotel, job and internship assistance and, at one point, the time limit. Maniaci attempted to cut him off when his time was up on a housing and shelter question, drawing a sharp response.
“Every one of you has gone over, I’ve been the one who’s constantly stopped,” Soglin interjected.
Resnick, meanwhile, stuck to more subtle jabs, criticizing the general lack of progress he’s seen and calling for better relationships between the mayor and other bodies.
“What it comes down to is being able to work together. We’ve set up a system, whether it’s structural or institutional, that’s combative,” Resnick said. He said a mayor needs to come to the job with an open heart and take the ego out of the equation, to which Grayson yelled, “Yes, take it out,” adding more quietly, “Soglin.”
Throughout the debate, Maniaci relied heavily on her master’s degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon, citing it in answers to at least three questions, and Brown returned to his faith-based initiative and holding the line on taxes.
Soglin repeatedly touted his accomplishments over the past four years and from previous terms, specifically pointing to investment in neighborhood centers, the Madison Out-of-School Time initiative and public libraries.
Resnick worked to appeal to the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, asking Upchurch if he felt empowered by the city, listened to, or that his questions had been answered. Upchurch said no, but then said Resnick still failed to answer his question on how the candidates will be held accountable to the community.
A frequent line throughout the night, surfacing on questions of education disparities and on the funding for a new county jail, was that “the city’s hands are tied” or the mayor isn’t in a position to do something about it.
Daly said even if the mayor can’t directly influence the decision being made, they can still speak out, contact the media or use other channels.
As questions finished around 9 p.m., moderator Molly Stentz told the dwindling crowd that the conversation is not over, that it will continue into the primary election on Feb. 17 and the general election April 7. ￼
The three-hour discussion focused almost entirely on racial disparities, but there seemed to be a huge gulf in communication between the audience members and the five candidates on stage.