Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

Idea Fest 2019 Logo

Fifteen years ago, Erik Iverson joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle as an attorney focused on the world-famous couple’s global health program. Now he’s managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

In March, I visited Iverson with Tom Wiley, the new publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal, on a get-acquainted call atop the 14-story WARF building on the west end of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

The conversation turned to Cap Times Idea Fest, our big annual gathering of thought leaders. Iverson was talking about how his former home of Seattle is now struggling with skyrocketing housing prices, homelessness and traffic gridlock. He added how Madison today resembles what Seattle was like before those troubles mushroomed.

He even suggested a possible Idea Fest panel title: “How Does Madison Not Become Seattle?” That question has become one of the sessions we will present on our biggest stage — Shannon Hall in the UW’s Memorial Union — at our Sept. 13-14 event.

Iverson will moderate, joined by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Urban League of Greater Madison President Ruben Anthony and Exact Sciences CEO Kevin Conroy. Iverson and Conroy are friends and Iverson said they have talked about this very topic.

Iverson even distributed reading material to his fellow panelists. “For a bit of homework (because who doesn’t like homework?), I’ve attached a few links to recent articles and a documentary all speaking to Seattle’s dramatically increasing housing/drug/mental illness (in short, homeless) concerns. They are all quite powerful, thought provoking and sobering.”

That anecdote encapsules what Idea Fest is all about: fascinating sessions that develop organically throughout the year. Some, like this one, have the potential to provoke outcomes beyond our event.

Another session — about the “political center” — also grew from a conversation, this one with Scott Klug, who in the 1990s was elected to Congress four times as a moderate Republican from the 2nd Congressional District that includes Madison. Klug and I were, as he likes to say, “arm wrestling” about politics over coffee when the idea was hatched.

A former television anchor, Klug will moderate a session titled “Is There a Political Center?” in these times riven by political extremism. He has recruited an impressive bipartisan panel of analysts and former politicians.

Those two sessions are among two dozen we will present this year on topics including politics, social justice, business, culture and food, among others.

On Saturday, Sept. 14, Judy Faulkner will talk about Epic Systems, the health care information technology giant she founded and leads and whose success is in many ways fueling the Madison economy. 

The night before, Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general who now chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, will talk about gerrymandering and other issues in a conversation with Jessie Opoien, the Cap Times’ opinion editor.

There’s plenty more, too.

We’re excited this year that columnist Ana Marie Cox will bring her popular “With Friends Like These” podcast to Idea Fest, where she will interview author and Iditarod sled racer Blair Braverman.

In another session, political scientist Kathy Cramer will be on stage talking about Local Voices Network, the fascinating national effort to improve civic discourse. In another, acclaimed Madison author Chloe Benjamin will be talking about her work.

David Maraniss, the Pulitzer-winning Washington Post editor and author, will play a big role at the festival, as he does every year.

He will moderate a panel of three Washington Post colleagues (Carol Leonnig, Alexandra Petri and Catherine Rampell) discussing the national political terrain just days after the Democratic presidential debates in Houston earlier that week. He will also interview Joaquin Castro, a congressman from San Antonio, about immigration policy and 2020 politics.

Maraniss will also host a session in which he will talk about his new book, “A Good American Family,” about his family’s nomadic journey that ended with his father, Elliott, joining the Cap Times, where he eventually became editor. David Maraniss’ acclaimed book traces how his parents got caught in the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s and how that story still resonates.

Idea Fest tickets, which go on sale today, are $75 for the close-to-the-front and guaranteed VIP seats at Shannon Hall sessions, $40 for regular admission and $30 for Saturday-only sessions.

Our fast-evolving event is patterned after the giant Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, and it reflects the Cap Times’ innovative spirit. That spirit is also evident in our excellent podcasts and other live events, some of them exclusive to those who have signed up as members of The Cap Times.

(Speaking of which, you should know that Cap Times members get 50 percent off Idea Fest tickets. More information is available here.)

We are thrilled to have the financial support from many of Madison’s most dynamic companies for Idea Fest, starting with UBS-The Burish Group, an investment firm headed by Andrew Burish. UBS was the presenting sponsor of Idea Fest last year and will be again this year and for two years to follow. That support is instrumental to our ability to offer the depth and quality that we do at the festival.

Other major sponsors are a veritable who’s who of key Madison institutions: American Family Insurance, Old National Bank, Madison Gas & Electric, CUNA Mutual Group, Exact Sciences, HealthX Ventures, UW-Madison, Epic Systems, the University Research Park, WARF and the Godfrey & Kahn law firm. We love that American Players Theatre and Forward Theater, two dynamic local arts organizations, are also involved, as is Cargo Coffee.

We will post the full festival schedule and information on all the speakers in the coming weeks at, but here’s a further taste of what we’ve got planned.

HealthX is organizing and presenting a panel exploring whether health care information technology development can supercharge Madison’s economy. Leading UW-Madison researchers will speak to the future of fighting Alzheimer’s disease in a panel organized and presented by the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

Idea Fest strives for political balance. As the de facto leader of the state Republican Party, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson will talk about his party’s path forward and former GOP Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch will discuss her current role as head of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission.

A panel of Wisconsin political experts, including pollster Charles Franklin and prominent strategists from each side of the political aisle will explore the Wisconsin political landscape in 2020.

UW-Madison Professor Armando Ibarra, a dynamic speaker from UW’s School for Workers, has organized a panel on Latinos in Wisconsin.

Cap Times food editor Lindsay Christians will do a live recording of her Corner Table podcast, featuring Yia Vang, the founder of Union Hmong Kitchen, an acclaimed pop-up restaurant in Minneapolis.

Another panel will explore how theater companies can be more inclusive, and still another will explore how family farmers in Wisconsin are responding to myriad challenges.

There are many other sessions — not to mention a trivia contest, an improv comedy performance and a reception — but I’ve run out of room.

The football Badgers are off that weekend, so I cannot imagine a better way to spend a few hours hearing our intriguing speakers and mixing with our engaged attendees.

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