The winning candidate was a relative unknown, serving a few years in a lower elected office and making a name for himself in the nonprofit sector before taking on his first executive campaign against a more experienced opponent. He called for cooperation, a new style of government and most importantly, change. He was seen as highly personable, but also a cool intellectual, basing decisions on facts and reason.
Sound familiar? It should. Dave Cieslewicz had the Barack Obama routine down before "Change you can believe in" was even a glimmer in the eyes of Obama's marketing team.
"The time has come for us to look beyond us and them. It's time for us to work together," Cieslewicz told supporters at his 2003 victory celebration in the Madison mayoral race over two-time former mayor Paul Soglin. Although Soglin was an icon of Madison's liberal politics of the 1960s and 1970s, he was also backed by business interests in that election, and it was the younger Cieslewicz, then 44, who painted himself as the more progressive candidate. He was helped by the support of Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and his environmental credentials as the head of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a land use advocacy group.
Six years later, Cieslewicz is no longer the unknown candidate voters took a chance on. Soon after taking office, he cultivated an image as the affable "Mayor Dave," poking fun at his difficult-to-pronounce last name (it's chess-LEV-itch, if you don't already know). He was a smart, laid-back leader with a dry-but-lively sense of humor, the sort of mayor who makes cameo appearances on the Madison-based YouTube sensation Chad Vader, a quirky series about Darth Vader's bumbling younger brother who manages a grocery store. Cieslewicz, who recently turned 50, has maintained his youthful appeal, recently shedding his trademark suit-and-tie for workout gear to run in a half-marathon in Madison on Memorial Day weekend.
But those who know and work with Cieslewicz also know that there's another side to the mayor than the one who sends out press releases declaring the end of winter, a side that is calculating and highly political.
From moving City Council members and longtime citizen members off city committees, to recruiting people to run against a longtime council foe to battling the city's Transit and Parking Commission over a 50-cent bus fare increase, Cieslewicz has exerted his executive authority and influence on a number of hot-button issues over the past six months.
What separates the last few months from struggles that the mayor has had in previous years in office, however, is that recently, he has had his way on nearly every issue. Critics argue that Cieslewicz is squelching debate in a city known for long discussions and slow decision-making, and that he has abandoned his progressive roots in a move to the political center. But newfound allies and the mayor himself say the only differences are a greater public emphasis on providing basic city services and a greater willingness to use the statutory tools of his office.
\ Finding his center
A turning point for Cieslewicz came in August 2007, just four months after handily winning re-election against businessman and former school board member Ray Allen. Throughout the year, the mayor took heat for his steadfast backing of a plan to make streetcars a focus of public transit in downtown Madison. The issue was a staple for talk radio commentators who painted the streetcars as a waste of money at the expense of the rest of the city. Others argued they would undermine the city's bus system.
But the issue that was on the minds of most people at the time was crime, particularly on the city's west side. The outcry was sparked by a shooting death, but the hundreds of citizens who turned out for neighborhood meetings that summer aired a litany of complaints about escalating petty crime and what they saw as an indifferent police response. Cieslewicz admits being "knocked around" on his commitment to basic services at these meetings. It was then, he says, that he realized there was a significant concern about whether city government was spending too much time on issues that better belonged at the state or national level, such as the smoking ban and minimum wage increase.
"It became an issue of needing to concede to perception. I never felt that the reality was that working on the streetcar issue was taking away from working on other things, the basics," he said in a recent interview. "I felt that we had the record to show that we were working on those issues, but the perception was 'The guy is just so focused on streetcars that he's letting other things slide.'"
So on a Monday in the middle of August, Cieslewicz announced in a news release that the idea was off the table.
At the same time, there was turnover on the horizon at the state and federal government levels, with Democrats gaining power in each arena over the ensuing two years. These changes, Cieslewicz adds, began taking the pressure off city governments to make bold, progressive strokes.
"The first several years I was in office, you found local governments, not just Madison, but other places, really needing to fill a vacuum," he says. "You had the Bush administration at the federal level, you had the state Legislature, at least in part in the hands of Republicans, and they could block anything. There really wasn't anywhere else to go for progressive policies than the local level, and that's why you saw local government doing things like the minimum wage increase or the smoking ban."
As Cieslewicz focused his second term on basic services, he was aided by 2007 elections that brought a crop of new City Council members dedicated to that cause. There was also a strong desire for improving relationships within the City Council. The body had gone through a tumultuous four years in Cieslewicz's first term, with members of local political party Progressive Dane clashing with a more conservative contingent on the council over issues from zoning for affordable housing to creating a city minimum wage and mandating paid sick leave policies. Cieslewicz, who had been elected largely with the support of the political left, began to move away from them on the council in order to build better working relationships with the body as a whole.
"He made some political promises when he was first elected and he kept them," says former council member Ken Golden. "They got him elected and he didn't need them to stay elected."
In particular, Golden says, Cieslewicz's campaign promise to create the inclusionary zoning program helped carry the day in far left-leaning districts on the east Isthmus. The policy required developers to set aside a percentage of all new units for affordable housing. But the program proved ineffective, and as it faded, Cieslewicz built a new base closer to the left-center. While the council itself remains left-leaning, in some ways, Cieslewicz's politics have become the center.
"Politically, ideologically, I'm not sure the mayor has moved all that much into the center," says Ald. Michael Schumacher. "I think he's moved to a center where governance can occur. He has created an environment where we can all kind of work more together to get things done."
Some, however, say the city's back-to-basics approach means there is less room overall for progressive policies in the city.
"By saying we're getting back to basics, basically what it's saying is we're not going to do anything beyond the basics," says former Ald. Brenda Konkel, a Progressive Dane member whose relationship with Cieslewicz grew increasingly strained in her last years on the council. "We had been doing the basics the whole time."
But for others, the city's focus on the basics has been seen as necessary for getting the city through the current recession and helping a council that had been known for conflict and high-profile ideas and issues to get along.
"There's no question that the mayor tends to be a strong progressive leader, but he's had to temper many of those viewpoints with the reality of the downturn in the economy and getting back to basics in terms of public safety, economic development, jobs and providing services with declining resources to those most in need in the community," says longtime Ald. Tim Bruer.
Cieslewicz, for his part, still considers himself a liberal Democrat and says now that the city has proved that the basics have been taken care of, progressive policies are more likely to come to the fore, such as working toward a regional transit authority or enacting his proposal to create 2,500 acres of green neighborhoods on the city's northeast side.
\ Council relations
While early council years were rocky, Cieslewicz says he believes his relationship with the council has gotten better every year. It's also true that he has involved himself in council politics during his second term much more than his first.
Notably, Cieslewicz took the unusual step of campaigning this spring for Bruer and Ald. Mark Clear to maintain their positions as council president and president pro tem, respectively, making calls to newly elected council members on their behalf. The two won their second terms handily despite some initial concern from veteran council members that they were working too closely with the mayor, representing the mayor's interests more than those of the council as a whole.
"The truth of the matter is, I think he crossed a line where he went into council politics," says Ald. Larry Palm, a centrist who ran against Bruer and Clear for council president and pro tem this year. "If the mayor's calling on your behalf, the mayor has obviously got some favoritism."
Still, Palm adds that Cieslewicz was willing to meet with him to talk about these concerns and that in some ways, the current council setup makes it easier for the mayor to communicate with the council through leadership.
Cieslewicz also ruffled feathers on the city's political left when he recruited candidates to run against Progressive Dane member and council veteran Konkel in her 2009 re-election campaign. After working together closely in the first years of his leadership, the two began to clash often in public, and Cieslewicz eventually said Konkel's aggressive style of politics was a problem.
"I've been somewhat disappointed with Brenda and her approach to issues," the mayor told the Wisconsin State Journal in January. "I'm just looking for some different leadership there."
Konkel lost in April against Bridget Maniaci, a former Cieslewicz intern whom he endorsed, but says he did not recruit. In an interview, Konkel expressed concern that newer council members would be scared off from being critical when necessary.
"I think people are maybe a little bit wary of saying what they really think because they want to make sure they can work with (Cieslewicz), but if you can work with him and get nothing done, what's the point?" she asks.
At least one former council member agrees with her. Noel Radomski, who left office in 2007, adds that the mayor and council have emphasized cooperation and getting along, often to the exclusion of finding creative, innovative solutions to the city's problems.
"What I'm really interested in not only as a citizen, especially with the job losses and what's going on in Madison, are ideas," he says. "Where are the ideas? I'm serious. I don't care if there are disagreements or agreements. What I care about is where are the ideas? What's the vision for our city?"
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\ Executive privilege
The face of the new Mayor Dave was most apparent in his ultimately successful battle to raise bus fares despite the opposition of the city's Transit and Parking Commission -- which historically had been in charge of setting fares. At an Oct. 29 meeting with council members, Cieslewicz uncharacteristically lost his cool when Robbie Webber -- a member of both the TPC and the City Council at the time -- brought up the possibility that the body would vote against the 50-cent increase. Cieslewicz thumped his hand on the table and threatened to "abolish" the commission.
"I took him seriously; he was so mad," Ald. Marsha Rummel told the Wisconsin State Journal at the time. "He's usually cautious and reasoned."
While the council sided with the mayor in a close vote, planning for a fare increase in the 2009 budget, the Transit and Parking Commission voted twice against a 50-cent increase, voting once to raise fares by a smaller margin. Not content with the smaller increase, Cieslewicz took the step of asking the city attorney about the council's authority to overrule the commission. City Attorney Michael May's opinion allowed for a citizen's appeal to the council, and the council voted again in favor of the fare increase in February.
The series of events prompted criticism of the mayor for not respecting the commission's decisions and desire for compromise. Golden, also a former Transit and Parking Commission member, calls the end result a "kick-your-ass decision" that weakened a body that has historically had a large role in listening to the public and making transit decisions.
"So, he won the issue, but the consequences of the loss are tremendous," Golden says.
Cieslewicz explained his decision in a recent interview in his more typically calm, rational way. His actions, he says, were grounded in a belief that elected officials -- such as the mayor and the City Council -- should be responsible for major decisions.
"To infuse too much authority, to make final decisions in people who are unelected is really anti-democratic because you might like the outcome in this case, with regard to say, for example, bus fares, but what if the TPC were populated with other kinds of people who actually could impose a fare increase without council approval?" he says. "How would you feel about it if it were reversed? My guess is that a lot of the folks who objected to that would feel differently about it."
Cieslewicz has also raised eyebrows for removing his critics from city panels. This spring, he removed Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele from her seat on the Community Development Block Grant Commission during the post-election alder committee shake-up, and he recommended Carl DuRocher's ouster from his position as chair of the TPC.
But the mayor has fought back against critics, making it clear it is his right by ordinance to make appointments.
"I've been reading here and there lately about what a mean guy I am," he wrote on his blog on May 18. "Apparently, I am grinding my opponents into the ground like the Packers' frontline in the glory days. To read some of these accounts, I am the Darth Vader (if not the Chad Vader) of Madison politics. How am I trampling on democracy? I am appointing people to committees who I want on committees. It just seems to me that when a guy gets elected mayor (twice in my case) he gets to do that."
In particular, Cieslewicz pointed to the Transit and Parking Commission, noting that he kept nearly all of the members who voted against the fare increase. But he felt it was time for DuRocher, a 12-year member of the commission and its leader during the bus fare debate, to go.
"I felt that was a pretty significant decision that was not well-handled by the TPC and Carl was the chair," he says.
Many on the council agree with the mayor's right to make appointments -- including some who have been the victim of the mayor's reshuffling.
Ald. Paul Skidmore, who himself was taken off the city's Board of Park Commissioners in 2007 after a high-profile dispute with the mayor over selling land in James Madison Park, says the mayor should have the right to appoint like-minded citizens to committees.
"It's the mayor's right and prerogative. He won the majority of all districts," Skidmore says. "If you don't like what Dave is doing, in two years, we're going to have an election."
Still, others say the mayor's moves have had a chilling effect on citizens and council members who may speak against him and that community members are becoming less willing to bring their ideas to the city government.
"It's sad -- some people have said, 'No, he won't listen to me. He hasn't listened to other people and he won't listen to me.' That says it all when some people are saying that, and that's sad because we've got a lot of very smart people in Madison," Radomski says. "We're not capitalizing on their ideas, and that is what really depresses me because they are missed opportunities."
But Cieslewicz says he is willing to listen to all sides. He adds that he read every e-mail on the bus fare issue and called the Madison Area Bus Advocates and members of the Transit and Parking Commission into his office to discuss the bus fares before his budget announcement.
"I took all that into account, but I think what people have to understand is listening does not necessarily mean agreeing," he says. "Listening means hearing you, taking it into account along with all the other factors and then making a decision based on what you think is best for the city as a whole."
\ Political future
As the candidate who came in six years ago as a blank slate, Cieslewicz has seen some parallels to the growing pains experienced in Obama's first months in office. As the president has made some unpopular decisions with many who supported him, such as choosing not to release photos depicting torture, so too has Cieslewicz made decisions over the past six years that have not gone over well with his original base.
Still, those who would seek to oppose him are in for a challenge, as even those who argue with his methods agree that his vision is one shared by a large cross-section of Madison.
"He's a decent individual. He has some dark sides that I would love him to face and get rid of, but I think his basic vision for the community is a good one," Golden says. "The reason he's been re-elected is apart from all these annoying details, people like the general direction he's taking things."
The middle is often a popular place to govern from, but trying to play both sides of the council could leave Cieslewicz empty-handed if he chooses to run again, some say.
"He's good at getting things for the conservative side but sounding like he's progressive," Konkel says. "I think the only way he can be successfully removed from office, or the point where he gets in trouble, is if he gets a right challenge and a left challenge."
Cieslewicz, who held a fundraiser earlier this year, says he has not decided definitively whether he will run in 2011 for an third four-year term. If he were to be elected and serve out the full four years, he would become the longest consecutively serving mayor in Madison's history.
If he had to decide today, Cieslewicz says name would be on the ballot. Acknowledging that he has lost some "political capital" on the left for recent moves, he says his final decision rests on whether he feels the community supports him on Labor Day of next year.
"Paul Soglin once told me something that I carry with me: If you're going to do this job, you're going to have to say no to your friends. I really think that's true," Cieslewicz says. "It's easy to say no to people who oppose you, who always have. It's much harder to say no to your friends, but sometimes I think you just have to do that."
\ What others are saying about Mayor Dave
"He's a decent individual. He has some dark sides that I would love him to face and get rid of, but I think his basic vision for the community is a good one. The reason he's been re-elected is apart from all these annoying details, people like the general direction he's taking things."
former Ald. Ken Golden
"I think people are maybe a little bit wary of saying what they really think because they want to make sure they can work with (Cieslewicz), but if you can work with him and get nothing done, what's the point?"
former Ald. Brenda Konkel