Elizabeth Miller may not have been a typical attendee of the gathering of Mayor Paul Soglin election watch party. Not a diehard supporter, she had a hard time deciding who to vote for in Tuesday's mayoral election because “they both seemed good, they both seemed to have the same values.”
She eventually went with Soglin because his ideas seemed “a little more concrete,” she said. But when asked how she would feel if Satya Rhodes-Conway won, her sentiment wasn’t unique.
“I’m okay with that. It’s not like it was Soglin versus a Scott Walker or something,” she said with a laugh.
While Soglin supporters gathered at the Brink Lounge Tuesday night said they voted for Soglin because of his pragmatic nature and experience, most acknowledged their respect for Rhodes-Conway, who Soglin called “eminently qualified” before he decided to enter the race — even if they weren’t confident she’d be able to accomplish quite as much as Soglin has.
During his re-election campaign, Soglin framed himself as the candidate who “gets Madison” and get things done for Madison by being realistic about the solutions needed to tackle challenges facing the city, including bus rapid transit and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In July 2018, Soglin announced during an unsuccessful campaign for governor that he would step aside from the mayor's office. Several months later, in October, Soglin changed his mind and joined the 2019 mayoral race. He attributed his change of heart to his “concern” for and “love” of Madison.
Soglin addressed the crowd at The Brink shortly before 9 p.m. to announce that he had called Rhodes-Conway to congratulate her on her win. With 137 of 144 wards reporting Tuesday night, Rhodes-Conway received 61.9 percent of the vote compared to Mayor Paul Soglin’s 37.7 percent — a margin of over 18,000 votes.
Soglin spent a few minutes talking about the importance of partnering with developers and builders to solve Madison’s housing problems.
“If we go back to 2011, we basically had a drought in regards to the construction of housing in the city,” he said. “We had builders and developers based here in Dane County who had sworn that they would never do business in the city of Madison again, and they came back.”
He cited, as he did in the campaign, how Madison’s vacancy rate increased over his time in office, getting closer to five percent, which is considered healthy. He also said he had a “good deal of support from folks who built housing.” During his tenure, Soglin implemented an affordable housing program that set a goal of building 1,000 units of affordable housing in five years.
“I do not hope that we retreat from that partnership we’ve established. We cannot have the city pitted against those who build housing if we are going to solve what is a national problem and one of deep concerns here in the city of Madison,” he said.
He also highlighted the city’s recently announced Equity Business Initiative, which aims to support local businesses owned and operated by people of color.
“If we are going to make a difference in terms of intergenerational wealth, in terms of home ownership, in terms of closing so many of those gaps, it has to come with business ownership,” Soglin said about the initiative.
Supporters also reflected on Soglin’s history. Glenn Silber remembered sitting in a UW-Madison “cine-club” watching a movie and a man came in with a coffee can and said “Okay everybody, I got news, our favorite alderman Paul Soglin is running for mayor, and we’re starting tonight, so throw a dollar in the can for Paul, we’re going to help elect him mayor.”
“I kind of rolled my eyes like, right, he’s going to win mayor,” Silber said.
Silber co-directed “The War at Home” film about Madison during the Vietnam War. He was in town because there’s a special screening of the film Wednesday night at the Marquee cinema at Union South.
That film, he said, shows “through the conflict of the '60s, Paul emerges as the central figure that translates from the student movement to an expression of wanting real change and real power, not just protesting against something, but showing what we were for.”
Former county supervisor and current chair of the city's Urban Design Commission Dick Wagner also reflected on a long friendship with Soglin.
“It’s sort of the end of an era. You bond with somebody when you sniff tear gas together,” Wagner said. “It’s been a long political association with Paul.”
“I’m very glad Satya won too. I have only great respect for her and I’m proud of her accomplishments as an out lesbian running for office, it’s part of my whole life too,” said Wagner, the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board. “I had an early conversation with her, and I just said, Paul’s such an old friend. And she understood that.”
The race was sometimes framed as a competition between Soglin as the status quo and Satya as the change. Carol Olsen, who has been a Soglin supporter since the 1970s, didn’t think that’s fair.
“I think Paul is for change but it’s tempered with what is possible and what the city can afford, and I think Satya has a lot of great ideas but I really don’t think she’s got the experience to be able to do it effectively,” she said.
Mike Goodman said he thought it was a race of “realism versus more idealism.”
“I think Satya’s promising the same things that people have been asking for for years, but I don’t know how realistic it is. And Soglin’s a bit more pragmatic, what there’s money available for and what there isn’t,” he said.
But when asked early in the night how he would feel if Rhodes-Conway were to win, he said he would “just accept it.”
“I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. I mean, she has experience too,” he said.
Under his administration, Soglin prioritized food policy and created a healthy retail food initiative. Under his leadership, Soglin has pushed for the Madison Public Market despite some debates over its priority for city funding. He also cites increases in income and decreases in unemployment for African American households.
Answering a few quick questions for reporters, Soglin said he would let others decide what his greatest accomplishment was. He said he would not be retiring but “looking for jobs.”