There’s government and there’s politics, and never let it be said that Madison Mayor Paul Soglin lets the practice of one get in the way of the other.
Emails released by the mayor’s office earlier this month show officials were concerned about the future of the city’s Oscar Mayer plant after the plant’s parent company, Kraft Foods, announced plans to merge with H.J. Heinz. They also show that officials never shared their worries with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., whose whole reason for being is to use tax breaks and taxpayer-financed incentives to help retain and create jobs.
Madison’s worries proved prescient as, four months after the merger, the new Kraft Heinz announced it would close Oscar Mayer and eliminate 1,000 jobs. Soglin told this newspaper the city never contacted WEDC because “they obviously can’t be trusted.”
It’s true that WEDC, beset by manager turnover and questionable loans, is not exactly a paragon of trustworthiness. It’s also the creation of Republicans who have controlled state government since 2011 and has been under withering criticism by legislative Democrats almost since its inception.
Soglin is no Republican, but it would be weird — and something close to a dereliction of duty — for the state’s second-largest city to swear off cooperation with WEDC. That’s where the money is, after all.
Sure enough, when I asked Soglin whether the city’s refusal to contact WEDC about Oscar Mayer was indicative of a policy barring cooperation with the agency generally, the mayor assured me it wasn’t.
“We work with them all the time,” he said. “There’s extensive work between the city and WEDC.”
Not only does the mayor’s office work with an agency that “can’t be trusted,” the agency’s penchant for doling out tax breaks doesn’t stop the mayor from going on a tear against, well, tax breaks.
“Tax breaks for the rich do not create jobs,” he said during a Saturday rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Tax breaks for the rich make billionaires wealthier and concentrate their power so that public schools fail, bridges collapse and poison water flows into our homes, schools and our hospitals.”
It’s a curious statement for a mayor of city where WEDC has provided some $186 million in tax breaks and other help for 184 projects by companies including Danisco, a subsidiary of DuPont, which reported $25 billion in net sales in 2015.
When I asked Soglin Monday whether he opposed “tax breaks for the rich” (companies), he said he wasn’t necessarily talking about WEDC’s work, but about an “across-the-board cut in income tax.”
After Democrats and Republicans (but mostly Democrats) spent months blaming each other for not doing anything to keep Oscar Mayer open, Soglin admitted what I and people way more knowledgeable than me have been saying. There’s “nothing anyone could have done to keep Oscar Mayer open,” he said.
So why bother with the blame game? Well, Soglin said, I and other newspaper types kept asking questions.
A better reason is that reality is another one of those things that often doesn’t interfere with the practice of politics.