When student activist Paul Soglin first ran for the Madison City Council, he took on incumbent Ald. Ellsworth “Swanie” Swenson. The election would take place on the same day that University of Wisconsin students were expected to turn out in record numbers to boost the Democratic primary challenge by anti-war Sen. Eugene McCarthy to President Lyndon Johnson. Desperate to avert defeat, Swenson tried to rally older voters in the district with a last-minute attack on Soglin.
“Vote Tomorrow … April 2 … This is one of the most crucial elections the 8th Ward has ever faced!” announced the campaign leaflet, which urged voters to re-elect the incumbent. “If you don’t vote, this student will be your next alderman.”
There were a lot more students, and plenty of older residents who knew and respected Soglin from his civil rights and anti-Vietnam War organizing, than there were fretful voters. Soglin won by a landslide, 718 to 487, and began a career of service and leadership that has extended to this week. Tuesday marks the end of 22 years of mayoral service by the city’s most enduring and influential leader. No mayor in the city’s history has served so long or so well as Soglin. And he has finished exactly as he started, as a passionately engaged, absolutely determined and sometimes controversial champion of the ideals that have come to define so much of what is best about Madison.
At 73, Soglin could have gone out easy, collecting laurels and accolades. Instead, he chose to mount a difficult run for another term. This time, the voters said “no,” just as they did when Soglin made his first mayoral bid — in 1971.
But only fools will imagine that Madison does not value Paul Soglin.
To fail to appreciate Soglin would be to fail to appreciate Madison itself. From the design and construction of the State Street Mall to the development of Madison's Civic Center (now the Overture Center for the Arts) to the parks and bike paths and neighborhood centers and public safety facilities that were established on his watch, Soglin has placed a permanent imprint on Madison. But his greatest contribution has been to the smooth functioning and livability of a city that is regularly rated as one of the best places in the United States to live and work, just as it is regularly recognized for its commitment to sustainability and fairness.
The city Soglin hands off to an able successor, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, was recently recognized by the Brookings Institution as one of a handful of major cities nationwide that has “achieved inclusive economic growth and prosperity by posting improvements across every measure.” Most of the cities that the Brookings scholars recognized were major metropolitan centers. But, under Soglin’s leadership, Madison got used to playing in the big leagues.
It turns out that Ellsworth Swenson was right. That election 51 years ago was one of the most critical that the 8th Ward — and the city of Madison — has ever faced. It gave us Paul Soglin, and we will be eternally grateful.
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