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Rhodes-Conway

Mayor-elect Satya Rhodes-Conway received endorsements from Progressive Dane, the Democratic Party of Dane County and many other organizations.

After a big night Tuesday, candidates endorsed by the grassroots, leftist political party Progressive Dane soon will hold more sway in Madison City Hall than at any time in its feisty 27-year history.

The party, nicknamed PD — which has a sweeping, 16-page platform supporting “housing for all, equal and just communities, an end to corporate welfare, and family supporting jobs” — saw endorsed candidates capture the mayor’s office and nine of 20 City Council seats.

But Mayor-elect Satya Rhodes-Conway and many council members endorsed by PD were also endorsed by the Democratic Party of Dane County, or other organizations like the Four Lakes Green Party and labor unions, meaning they aren’t wed to a single party, entity or platform.

Democratic Party-endorsed candidates, in fact, won in all 18 council races where it made endorsements, although the party made dual endorsements in many contests, including the mayor’s race. Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce-endorsed candidates won in 12 races.

But there’s a difference with PD, which won in nine of 12 council races where it endorsed a candidate. The Democratic Party, also known as Dane Dems, for example, only occasionally passes resolutions directed at local government and has no platform on city issues.

“That’s why we exist,” PD co-chair Brenda Konkel said.

Rhodes-Conway said PD’s platform speaks to her own priorities of affordable housing, Bus Rapid Transit, racial equity and addressing climate change but said she’s not beholden to every PD platform plank and is treating the endorsement like any other.

“There’s only so many things any elected official can prioritize at any one time,” she said.

That is expected, Konkel said. “We don’t expect every candidate to carry the water on every single thing,” she said. “We know, on specific proposals, there is going to be disagreement.”

Others see a complex election result.

“They used to be a main competitor of ours in races, but lately they wind up endorsing many of the same candidates we endorse, and if you ask the candidates, they would more likely identify as Democrats than PD members,” Dane Dems chairman Michael Basford said.

Zach Brandon, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said, “They did well, but they’re not the only victor. The lines of rigidity are not as clear as they used to be.”

Rhodes-Conway, who won in a landslide over Mayor Paul Soglin, and a council featuring nine new members will take office April 16.

Grassroots work

Progressive Dane, founded in 1992, has thrived in liberal Madison partly because local Democrats focus more on state and national electoral politics and don’t do the same sort of grassroots work on leftist social justice causes or issues like low-cost housing, Konkel said.

With about 100 dues-paying members, volunteer-driven PD has a small annual budget but a detailed database and legion of volunteers willing to make phone calls, distribute literature and knock on doors for candidates, even in the dead of winter. It also offers campaign training for candidates and campaign managers, and helps with finance reports and social media.

PD reached an apex in the early 2000s, when party member Dave Cieslewicz captured the mayor’s office in 2003 — although he didn’t seek PD’s endorsement because its candidate pledge at the time was too strict — and the party won eight council seats.

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Over two years, PD’s elected officials helped pass controversial landmark laws to raise the local minimum wage, now superseded by state law; force developers to include low-cost units in housing projects, later erased by the courts and council action; and a now highly popular smoking ban in bars and restaurants.

In spring 2005, PD endorsed a broad slate of candidates that could have produced a majority on the council. But relations between Cieslewicz and PD frayed amid a business community backlash against the party’s legislative agenda, which by then featured a proposal to require most employers in the city to provide nine days of paid sick leave to workers each year. The party lost a seat in the spring elections that year, and the sick leave proposal narrowly lost on the council floor.

The fortunes of PD have since ebbed and flowed in terms of participation and financial strength, said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, the council’s senior member who has received the party’s endorsement since his first election in 1995.

Renewed sense of activism

In recent years, with Soglin in power since 2011, the party on city issues has been in a “defensive mode to some extent,” Konkel said.

The council had seven endorsed candidates win seats in the 2017 election, but two drifted away.

Rhodes-Conway, who joined PD in the mid-2000s and was active while she served on the council from 2007 to 2013, said she was invited to seek the party’s endorsement and was comfortable accepting it after reviewing the platform and letting members know she intended to focus on her priorities.

PD’s candidates did well Tuesday for several reasons, Konkel said: There were nine open seats, PD’s platform of local activism appealed to those frustrated by action at state and federal levels, and the party endorsed a strong slate of candidates.

The platform has a litany of planks including a thread on racial equity; construction of city housing and making vacant public property available for housing for the homeless; community control and oversight of the police and creation of an independent auditor of the Police Department; promoting infill development and discouraging sprawl; and a regionally integrated public transportation system.

PD’s current priorities are affordable housing and homelessness, examining police policy and procedures, reducing beds in the county jail, tending to mental health needs in the community and lowering lake levels to prevent flooding, Konkel said. There are other issues, such as expanding options for transportation, although Konkel said, “the people who are elected will set the agenda.”

Verveer said he’s personally looking to prioritize changing the city’s marijuana ordinances and addressing concerns of the LGBT community, which he expects will find support in the PD caucus.

“Clearly, a progressive wave has swept into City Hall,” Verveer said. “In many respects, there will be a refreshed, renewed sense of activism.”

But that doesn’t mean a quick push on PD’s broad platform, particularly because new council members must get up to speed on their varied responsibilities and will want to focus on parochial concerns in their districts, Konkel and Verveer agreed.

Moreover, the state Legislature has pre-empted local control on many issues, including employee and tenant law, Verveer said.

The business community is viewing PD’s result cautiously but is optimistic that the party’s endorsed candidates won’t align with every part of its platform. “We will work with anybody who will continue the momentum we’re seeing in the economy,” Brandon said. “We want to avoid distractions and we’re not looking for the fights of the past.”

PD had scheduled a caucus meeting on Saturday, largely to help the newly elected officials get acquainted, answer questions and share information, Konkel said.

“I’m not expecting anything super radical in the first year,” she said. “I think there will be a lot of vigorous debate on exactly how everything is going to happen.”

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