Paul Soglin, shown here at a recent mayoral forum, was first elected mayor of Madison in 1973. Now in his third stint in the office, he is seeking another term but faces a field of impressive challengers.

Paul Soglin was already serving on the Madison City Council five decades ago, as part of the first generation of student activists to march off the streets and into elected office. But Madison was not a radical city. The mayor was a wily conservative named Bill Dyke, whose divisive politics pitted the community against the students on the University of Wisconsin campus.

In 1971, Soglin challenged Dyke, mounting an insurgent campaign that captured the “new politics” zeitgeist of the moment but fell far short in a primary that was won by Dyke and Leo Cooper, a union man who mounted an honorable if losing bid to unseat the incumbent in the April general election.

The 1971 primary fell on March 2. On March 10 of that year, the U.S. Senate voted 94-0 in favor of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18. On March 23, the House endorsed the amendment. Before the year was done, it was the law of the land, and U.S. News & World Report headline read: “College-Town Worry: Will 18-to-21 Voters Take Over?”

“Students — armed with the ballot — are a new element in U.S. politics,” announced the magazine, which reported: “Students are active in Madison politics. Nine students or recent students sit on the City Council and the Dane County Board. Others have run — unsuccessfully — for mayor and sheriff. Election officials remark that a takeover by students is unlikely since most live in wards already represented in the city and county governments by their sympathizers.”

Soglin understood the math, but he disagreed with the assessment. He thought he could use the student vote as a base from which to make a savvy, issue-based appeal to the rest of the community.

Others disagreed. Many of the city’s most serious and engaged liberals wrote Soglin off as too young, too contentious, too radical to beat Dyke. They had a different plan.

In the 1973 primary, they coalesced around an appealing if predictable liberal named Dave Stewart, who said: “I’m not Paul Soglin, I am Dave Stewart,” and promised to "conduct the office with civility.” The argument made by the well-funded Stewart campaign, which attracted endorsements from key Democratic legislators, was that in a runoff with Dyke he could attract voters who Soglin would lose. Campaign ads announced, “Dave Stewart can win!”

Soglin countered with a masterstroke. He went deep on the issues, focusing on what he would actually do as mayor. His campaign talked about affordable housing, transportation, protecting the environment and promoting economic and social justice — with position papers, literature and detailed statements by the candidate. Instead of talking electoral strategies, he made a compelling case for what a mayor of Madison could and should be doing. “I wanted to prove that those of us on the left — the Democrats, liberals, progressives, or whatever the word for the day — could make a real difference and do something well,” he explained years later.

Soglin read the city right. Though Stewart had the money, the endorsements and the strategic arguments, Soglin took 25 percent of the primary vote to Stewart’s 23 percent. And the rest is history.

The 1973 general election race followed the pattern the west-side liberals had feared. Dyke tried to scare voters away from Soglin by attacking his challenger as a dangerous radical and speculating about whether there might be “enough decent people left in Madison so that I'm re-elected.” But the attacks fell flat. Soglin had made himself the ideas candidate — the policy wonk who understood the city’s democratic promise and was full of ideas for how to realize it.

That vision carried Soglin to a 53-47 victory, which he celebrated by noting that "we've taken the traditional romantic factions and we've welded them into a majority, and I'm speaking of labor, minority groups, professional people of liberal persuasion and, of course, students. The satisfaction of winning comes from putting together that majority.”

It was not a majority against Dyke. It was a majority for Soglin.

People wanted him as their mayor.

Each time that Soglin has won since then, this has been the key to his success. Now, the question is whether he can make it work one more time.

On Feb. 19, Soglin will compete in his 11th Madison mayoral primary. He faces impressive challengers — including former City Council member Satya Rhodes-Conway, current council member Maurice Cheeks and River Alliance of Wisconsin executive director Raj Shukla. (Madison's racial equity coordinator Toriana Pettaway, a write-in candidate, and Nick Hart, a local comedian, are making long-shot bids.)

After an ill-focused and at times incomprehensible gubernatorial bid last year, a decision to retire and then a decision to rescind his retirement, Soglin has made himself vulnerable. The city is in the mood for a new mayor. Yet Soglin's able opponents have struggled to capitalize on the opening that he has given them.

Could Soglin be beat? Yes. But he won’t lose to a candidate who simply runs against him. He will lose only to a candidate who — like the winning contender in 1973 — makes a more compelling case for what a mayor of Madison can and should be doing.

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

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