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Paul Soglin

Mayor Paul Soglin, now a Democratic candidate for governor, was first elected to the City Council in 1968. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER


Paul Soglin has for months been mounting what is politely referred to as an “uphill” race to become the Democratic nominee for governor of Wisconsin. His poll numbers are modest and he has not raised the kind of money that most pundits say will be needed for the final push toward the fast-approaching Aug. 14 primary.

Until last week, Soglin had an out. He could have quit the gubernatorial competition and run for a new term as mayor of Madison. He would not have been assured of re-election, but Soglin could have entered the municipal competition as a front-runner, raised money with relative ease and very possibly prevailed.

So what did Soglin do? On Tuesday he announced that he would not seek re-election as mayor so that he could focus on his gubernatorial bid.

Even those who do not support Soglin have to feel a measure of regard for the irascible mayor’s willingness to take the chances that most politicians avoid.

It’s a risk to remain in the governor’s race. He may fail. But enough risks have worked out over the past five decades. So he’s going for it.

That’s classic Soglin.

For 50 years, he has been running unexpected, unlikely and uphill races. They have not always gone as he hoped. There have been painful defeats — at the hands of then-popular Republican Congressman Scott Klug in 1996, and first-time mayoral candidate Dave Cieslewicz in 2003.

But, more often than not, Soglin’s gambits have worked out for him. He won his first race for public office in the spring of 1968, upsetting veteran Ald. Ellsworth Swenson by a landslide that few expected. Less than three years later, at the age of 25, and as the most controversial member of the council, Soglin announced that he was running for mayor. He lost the 1971 primary to incumbent Bill Dyke and City Council President Leo Cooper. But, two years later, Soglin beat Cooper in the 1973 mayoral primary and then beat Dyke in the general election. At 27, he was Madison’s “radical mayor.” At 29, he was re-elected. At 31, he was re-elected again.

Ten years after he finished his first mayoral tenure in 1979, Soglin won the job back by defeating incumbent Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner in an intense 1989 contest. Soglin ended his second stint as mayor by choice in 1997. But he was back in the running once more in 2003.

After he lost that year’s mayoral race to Cieslewicz, however, the betting was that Madison’s “mayor for life” was not going to be mayor again.

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Yet, in 2011, Soglin took another risk. He challenged Cieslewicz amid the Wisconsin uprising against Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on labor rights and, amazingly, Soglin won again. Everyone had a theory about how that unexpected win was secured, but the truth was not found in some complicated political calculation.

It was found in the reality that Paul Soglin really is different from other politicians. He runs the races he wants to run, when he wants to run them. That’s what he did in 1968. That’s what he is still doing in 2018.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times