In a startling reversal, Mayor Paul Soglin will now seek another four-year term, dramatically shaking up the city elections early next year.
Soglin, mayor for 14 years in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s and now completing a second straight four-year term, in July announced he would not seek re-election amid an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor where he eventually placed a distant seventh place in the August primary.
But on Friday, Soglin announced he is entering the mayoral race, saying he’s been encouraged by many to run, is enthused for a campaign, wants to continue to promote racial equity, economic development and entrepreneurship, and has unfinished business such as the Madison Public Market.
“I made a miscalculation in July,” he said in an interview. “I thought I would not be up for another campaign after the governor’s race. I am.
“Since mid-August, more and more people came up to me — old supporters and friends, people new to the city, progressives, conservatives, people highly involved in our efforts to build a robust and inclusive economy — saying, ‘we’d really like you to run,’” Soglin said.
Others, he said, told him they appreciated his leadership in the wake of torrential rains on Aug. 20 that resulted in severe flooding in the city. The encouragement “meant a lot,” he said.
Since mid-summer, seven candidates have filed initial paperwork for the mayoral race: Ald. Maurice Cheeks; former Alds. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the tenant Resource Center, and Satya Rhodes-Conway, who works for the UW-Madison think tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy; Raj Shukla, executive director of the conservation organization River Alliance of Wisconsin; Toriana Pettaway, the city’s racial equity coordinator; Madison firefighter and former School Board member Michael Flores; and comedian Nick Hart.
Asked why voters should choose him over his challengers, Soglin, 73, replied, “The answer is leadership — experience and leadership — and demonstrating the ability to solve problems.”
The crowded field of challengers was undaunted.
"It doesn't change my belief that we need new leadership," said Rhodes-Conway, who announced her candidacy well before Soglin said he wouldn't seek reelection. "Madison needs to deal with affordable housing, bus rapid transit, racial equity and the impacts of climate change. We need to get some things done and get moving on them now."
The city, for example, has long talked about Bus Rapid Transit, "but I don't see any rapid buses on the street," she said.
Cheeks, who declared his candidacy just before Soglin's July announcement, said, "I am excited to lead a discussion with all the candidates for mayor about a hopeful, forward-looking view for Madison’s future. This race is about the leadership of our changing city that offers fresh vision and a plan to promote economic opportunity for all."
Shukla said, "The real question is, are we satisfied with where we are as a community? Have soaring housing costs made us a stronger? Has a transit system that’s near the breaking point prepared us for the future? Have we invested enough in real solutions—like early childhood education—to bridge the racial, economic and social divides that plague the city?
"I am eager to show the city how my leadership is equal to the dreams of our residents," he said. "More of the same is just not good enough anymore."
Konkel said she always believed Soglin would run. "I'm not surprised," she said. "Soglin is always running for something, if not mayor, governor or Congress. It's just in his DNA. I think it will make the debates much more lively. I think we can have some really great debates about the direction of the city."
The other challengers could not be reached for comment.
Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, the council's longest serving member, has not endorsed any candidate but believes Soglin is now the front runner.
"I believe the mayor becomes the immediate front runner without any doubt in my mind, particularly with such a crowded field," Verveer said. "There are many in the city who believe its time for a change and are not excited by today's announcement. However, many are excited."
To some extent, the election will be a referendum on Soglin, shining a light on the things he said he would do that are not done, Konkel said.
As campaigns take shape, Soglin said his top priorities for the next four years would be closing disparity gaps through a more inclusive economy, low-cost housing and walkable communities, creating new avenues for entrepreneurs, solving the challenges of youth engaging in crime, and the future of State Street and Downtown.
The city, he said, needs a mayor who is committed to lifting people out of poverty, with five critical areas that must be addressed: housing, transportation, health care including behavioral health, substance abuse and nutrition, and quality childcare.
Soglin’s change of mind further enlivens what could be a sea-change city election, with three recently appointed City Council members not expected to run, more council retirements expected and predictions of up to 12 of 20 council seats changing in April.
In the meantime, the November general election will determine if the state is led by Democrat Tony Evers or Republican Gov. Scott Walker. An Evers victory would present an “exciting” prospect for an opportunity to help guide local and state policy in the same direction, Soglin said.
Rocking the landscape
Engaging, humorous, intimidating, grumpy: Soglin has been the mustachioed face of the city for almost half of the last 50 years.
He has rocked the city’s political landscape many times, most recently with his surprise entries in the 2003 and 2011 mayoral races. After leaving office after an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1996, he electrified the city by entering the 2003 primary, barely losing in the general election to environmentalist Dave Cieslewicz. He surprised again by joining the 2011 race, narrowly ousting Cieslewicz, who by then had become a favorite of many council members and seemed destined for a third term.
In 2015, Soglin got 72 percent of the vote to easily defeat his general election challenger, then-Ald. Scott Resnick.
Soglin offered another jolt with his flirtation with the gubernatorial primary last year and formal entry to the race early this year. That was followed by a lackluster campaign and dismal seventh-place finish with just 5 percent of the statewide vote in the Democratic primary. The mayor didn’t fare much better in his home city, where he received just 7.8 percent of the vote and didn’t win a single ward with more than five ballots cast.
After the primary, Soglin blamed his poor showing on a lack of campaign funds.
The impact of Soglin’s primary showing, especially in the city, is hard to measure. Some say a result in a gubernatorial primary doesn’t say much about how people feel about his performance as mayor, especially since he continued to have a relatively full schedule of city business and related travel. Others suggest voters may have Soglin fatigue.
A third sequel
Soglin, who was the city’s youngest mayor at age 27, has served three stints in the office — 1973-1979, 1989-1997 and 2011 to the present. When not holding public office, Soglin spent time in the private sector as an attorney and consultant, including at health care software giant Epic.
In July, Soglin said he believed that between six and eight consecutive years is an appropriate length of time for a mayor to serve, and underscored, “I can assure you there will not be a third sequel.”
“Eight years is a long time,” he said this week. “(But) the last two months, especially the feedback I’ve got in terms of handling the storm, has been very invigorating.”
Soglin, who has often battled with the council, especially on the budget, said he wants to continue efforts to make Madison a modern city appealing to millennials, the tech industry and entrepreneurs, and to shepherd the Public Market and other projects to completion. He said he has left office before seeing initiatives through, leaving in 1979 before the former Civic Center was completed and in 1997 before Monona Terrace opened.
He said he’s kept a commitment of building 1,000 units of low-cost housing and vowed to continue combating the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement “and the danger, the heartbreak and the destabilization created by its horrible actions” when it arrested 20 people in Dane County last month.
Soglin estimated a campaign will cost about $250,000, and voiced confidence he could raise the money based on recent conversations with supporters.
The race, Konkel said, was always going to be expensive, but it now may become harder for challengers to raise money because people fear angering the mayor, Konkel said.
The filing deadline for city races is Jan. 2, with a primary on Feb. 19 and the general election on April 2.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the State Journal has attempted to get responses from the other candidates. As a condition of sharing the announcement ahead of time, the Soglin campaign had requested the newspaper not contact anyone for reaction until after it was publicly announced on Friday morning.]
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