You’re a typical Madison taxpayer, so based on this city’s strongly liberal voting patterns, you’ve likely been enduring a palpable political nausea for the two years Donald Trump has been president.
But on the plus side, there’s now the statehouse. After eight years of a governor who sought to disenfranchise your city and reveled in fostering resentment against most of what you hold dear, you remain aglow over Gov. Tony Evers. For good measure, you remain hopeful after the U.S. House flipped to Democratic control thanks to a tidal wave of diverse women candidates.
But hey, Madison is electing a mayor — the Feb. 19 primary is followed by the April 2 general election — and you’ve barely thought about it.
Sure, there are exceptions to this generalization. They include (a) the cadre of those for whom local politics is a year-round hobby, (b) those with a passion or professional interest around issues like affordable housing, racial equity and homelessness, or (c) business people with economic skin in the game that hinges on mayoral access — developers, landlords and others.
So what is happening? To try to find out, I spoke with an array of informed observers, some elected, some not, read news coverage, attended the Cap Times candidate forum and listened to Madsplainers, our outstanding podcast on local government that is currently focusing on this race.
Let’s start with the concept of voter fatigue and its possible implications.
Yes, some 640 people jammed the Barrymore Theatre for the Cap Times mayoral forum this month. They laughed and hooted and sounded engaged.
But many here speculate that national and state politics have sucked up much of the proverbial oxygen in the city. What remains, they say, is a referendum on the incumbent: a liberal boomer espousing traditional Madison values against a cadre of much younger liberal challengers who also espouse liberal values. This does not seem to be exactly enflaming the public imagination.
So what about Paul Soglin fatigue?
Three credible candidates are vying to face him in the general. (The top two vote-getters in the primary will advance, and it’s hard to imagine Soglin not being one of them.) They hope that weariness with the cantankerous 73-year-old Soglin, who’s been mayor here for 22 of the past 46 years, will propel them if they survive the primary.
Their public criticism of Soglin has been relatively muted to date, perhaps because these challengers are focused on finding that single defining message — or in modern campaign parlance, the “lane” — that will lift them into the general election.
Worth noting is that, in 2015, Soglin pounded Scott Resnick, a bright, now-former City Council member and millennial tech guy who campaigned on citywide wireless internet access. Soglin got 72 percent of the general election vote that year.
Complaints abound that Soglin is arrogant, difficult to work with and contemptuous of political foes. But to many in Madison, he is apparently as comfortable as your favorite old coat, has fought the good fight and wielded the combative bullhorn on their side since the Vietnam protests. Besides, more voters know him by record and reputation than by personal interaction.
It is very much worth noting that for all the hubbub about Epic Systems and youthful tech and university crowds — insiders say the average voter age in local elections exceeds 60 years, a factor that likely works in Soglin’s favor.
That said, many younger people seem to resent the mayor’s refusal to make way.
On issues, affordable housing — that living in Madison has moved beyond the means of many — is perhaps the one most emphasized by Soglin and his challengers. While it certainly merits top billing, one wonders how challengers can get to the left of Soglin without rankling some property taxpayers who support the concept but already feel fully taxed.
Not to say there aren’t credible Soglin alternatives — it seems to me there are, in fact, three. One will represent a distinctive post-primary alternative to the mayor.
Mo Cheeks, a west side alder and tech executive with small children, has raised the most money. (Business donors appear to have settled on Cheeks while landlords and developers seem to back Soglin, blogger Brenda Konkel wrote in a recent spending report analysis.)
An African-American, Cheeks talks of a more inclusive and innovative city, more affordable housing, transit options to reduce poverty, and making Madison safer. It is widely known at city hall that Soglin and Cheeks do not like one another, and detractors note that Cheeks failed to become council president in 2016, even though fellow alders typically elevate the council’s president pro tem, which Cheeks was.
Satya Rhodes-Conway also appears credible, having served as an alder for six years from the east and north sides a decade ago. The first to enter the race, she is managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at COWS (Center on Wisconsin Strategy), a University of Wisconsin-Madison think tank. Soglin said nice things about her before he changed his mind about running for re-election.
Rhodes-Conway too is campaigning on affordable housing and racial disparities, but has focused hard on climate change and made much of what she regards as the city’s inadequate response to last summer’s historic flooding. She is seen as the most left-leaning of the credible candidates, and mentions in her literature that she would be Madison’s first lesbian mayor.
Raj Shukla, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, a statewide water policy group, chairs the city’s Sustainable Energy Committee and points to his environmental credentials. He employs an apparent dig at Soglin in his slogan: “New energy for a Madison that works for all of us.”
The father of three, he also emphasizes affordable housing and equity and would be the first Indian-American mayor of a larger U.S. city. To some, Shukla’s environmental cred suggests a parallel to former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who had been executive director of a land use advocacy group when he defeated Soglin in 2003.
(Two others are running. Toriana Pettaway, the city’s racial equity coordinator, is an essentially unfunded write-in candidate, and comedian Nick Hart is running, I surmise, for the captive audiences.)
In the end, any of the three top challengers appears capable of a credible general election run against Soglin. The primary survivor will presumably have separated himself or herself based on organization, messaging, money and perhaps one defining and memorable idea.
At that point, the question will be whether that candidate has the talent and money to grab the public’s imagination against an incumbent with near universal name recognition.