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Wisconsin's Bernie Sanders? Those close to Paul Soglin are optimistic about governor run

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WOMENS MARCH- 36-01212017162852

Mayor Paul Soglin outside the Capitol during the Women's March.

Unlike others who heard the news of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s interest in seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Wisconsin in 2018, Barry Orton was not at all surprised.

The retired University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and longtime supporter said Monday that Soglin had dropped some hints over the past couple weeks. 

“He’s serious about this,” Orton said. “It’s not a joke.” 

At the end of December, Soglin told the Capital Times he had not ruled out running for mayor in 2019 and said he could not think of anything that would keep him from running. He also told the Wisconsin State Journal he had “no interest” in challenging Gov. Scott Walker in a likely third-term race. 

But Soglin said Tuesday while he hasn’t previously given the governor’s seat any consideration, he has reconsidered recently after hearing encouragement from people in Madison and around the state. 

“I’m just convinced right now that Wisconsin is looking for someone with the experience ... who knows how to build an economy,” Soglin said. “I’ve done that.” 

Soglin said his over two decades of experience working in the private sector, in addition to his 20 years in the mayor’s office, gives him the “opportunity to really make a difference.” Soglin said he does not yet have a timeline for making a decision, but he’s interested in visiting other areas of the state to get feedback.

If Soglin does decide to make a formal announcement, he needs to be prepared to lead a successful campaign. 

“Sara Soglin (Soglin's wife) said to me, ‘You can run for governor but you better not lose,’” Soglin said. 

Those who know Soglin said he could prove to be a strong contender as a Democratic candidate, comparing him to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Vermont “democratic socialist” garnered a large supportive base in Madison and won the state’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary. 

Orton, who has served as editor of Soglin’s blog, said the parallels are “too direct to ignore,” — “He’s Wisconsin's Bernie Sanders,” Orton said — including similar age, demographic, background and experience. Sanders served as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981-1989. 

Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who defeated Soglin in 2003 and lost to him in 2011, is skeptical of the comparison, saying Sanders’ authenticity drove his support. He also pointed out that Sanders won a primary, not a general election, and that an off-year gubernatorial race could produce a “smaller, more conservative electorate.” 

“For a local candidate to say basically, 'I'm just like Bernie,' fails the authenticity test,” Cieslewicz said in an email. “You have to be like yourself and yourself needs to be likable.” 

Former Urban League of Greater Madison president Kaleem Caire said Soglin’s ability to connect with people would set him apart in a race if he chooses to run. However, Caire said he hasn’t seen that side of Soglin lately. 

“Paul is the kind of person that would go and sit down with people and connect with them,” Caire said. “He is a community-minded mayor.” 

But thinking back on Soglin’s battles with the City Council and conversations the two of them have had about race, Caire said, “Now he’s not as open to other people’s ideas, in my opinion.” 

Caire has known Soglin since the 1970s as a supporter of Madison’s racially and ethnically diverse south side and someone his grandmother respected. When Caire moved back to Madison from Washington D.C., he reconnected with Soglin. 

Soglin served as mayor from 1973-79, 1989-97 and 2011 to now. Caire thinks that’s enough. 

“I don’t think Paul should run for mayor ever again. I think he’s stayed in this job for too long. I think he’s done a lot while he’s here,” Caire said. “Under his leadership the city isn’t going to fall apart.” 

Caire, whose name has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Soglin, said the city needs “new blood” to move forward. Likewise, he said, Soglin could bring new blood to the governor’s position. Caire also said he would have to see who else enters the race, but could see voting for Soglin if he runs for governor. 

“Running for governor would give him a new platform. Maybe it would give him a new breath of fresh air,” Caire said. 

But portraying a 72-year-old politician who first won elected office in Madison 50 years ago as “new blood” could be difficult. Stuart Levitan, a longtime political activist and Madison historian appointed by Soglin to the city’s Landmarks Commission, acknowledged that age could be a challenge, although Soglin appears to be in good health. Fundraising could also be a factor in Soglin’s decision, he said. 

But Soglin “fits the mold” of the anti-Walker candidate, Levitan said. 

“In terms of standing toe to toe with Walker and reciting chapter and verse of actual policy and policy implications, no one could do that better,” Levitan said. “He certainly would have a good narrative to tell about Madison’s success. Obviously not all of Madison’s success is due to him — there’s a certain built-in advantage based on the university. But still, he’s managed it well for a number of years.” 

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However, Levitan added, Soglin has “alienated a lot of people over a lot of years,” adding that the city’s progressive base likely would not rally behind him as it once might have. A recent example, Levitan said, is the ongoing friction between Soglin and Dane County Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson over how to address violence in the city. 

While there are “a lot of people who think Paul is past his sell date,” Levitan said, there are also few people who demonstrated as strong an understanding of how government works. 

“If he did it, it sure would be fun,” Levitan said. 

Walker himself appeared to agree, telling reporters Monday he would “love to have that battle,” which would offer a “great contrast.” 

“He’s an unabashed throwback to the 1960s radical liberal out there,” Walker said. 

Republican lawmakers also welcomed Soglin as a potential candidate. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, responded to the news that Soglin was considering a run by tweeting several praying-hands emojis. 

Levitan compared the political environment today to the one Soglin saw in 1996, when he unsuccessfully challenged Republican former U.S. Rep. Scott Klug. Soglin garnered 41 percent of the vote to Klug’s 57 percent. 

While several other Democrats have indicated interest in challenging Walker, only one has officially declared candidacy for 2018. 

“I think Paul Soglin beats (Blue Jean Nation founder) Mike McCabe in a primary. Now, if (Dane County Sheriff) Dave Mahoney runs, Dave Mahoney would be an interesting candidate,” Levitan said. “I don’t know if he has any interest in it, but Dave Mahoney would sure be a progressive law-and-order candidate from a population base.” 

Soglin highlighted Madison’s strengthening economy in his 2018 operating budget instructions sent to department and division heads Monday. Unemployment rate is at 2.1 percent, home values increased by 6 percent in 2016 and real property values are up 10 percent, according to the memo. He also attributed two-thirds of all new jobs in Wisconsin in the past six years to Madison. 

“We’re completely going against the flow of the state and while it will be a great challenge, I’m convinced the kind of partnerships, the kind of investments that we have made will work and will lead to a creation of more jobs, get more families well above the poverty line,” Soglin said. 

State Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, who was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors in 1992 and the state Assembly in 1998, did not comment directly on Soglin’s potential candidacy. 

“My only comment at this time is that I believe a primary would be good for our party so that we come out of it with our best candidate to beat Scott Walker. It’s time to end Walker’s destruction of the principles and policies that have guided us in Wisconsin for over a hundred years,” Berceau said in an email.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.