Madison Mayor Paul Soglin announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election in next year’s mayoral race, marking what will be the end of a local political career spanning more than five decades.
Known for his at-times confrontational style and bushy mustache, the 73-year-old Soglin, who has been dubbed by some as “Madison’s Mayor for Life,” was first elected mayor in 1973 after three terms on the city council and has served 22 years in the position off and on since.
“I’ve had a wonderful time as mayor of the city, made some significant changes for the better,” Soglin said at a news conference Tuesday.
Soglin is currently seeking the Democratic nomination to run for governor against Republican incumbent Scott Walker. He said one of the factors in his decision not to seek re-election was to show the voters of Wisconsin that he is committed to his gubernatorial run.
A primary election between the eight Democratic contenders for governor will be held Aug. 14.
Soglin also said he believes that between six and eight years is an appropriate length of time for a mayor to serve. But when it was noted at the news conference that his tenure as the head of Madison has encompassed more than 20 years, he clarified that up to eight years is appropriate “at one time.”
Soglin has served three stints in the mayor’s 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.
“I think there’s really great value in leaving office for a while and then returning,” he said.
After a failed bid for Congress in 1996, Soglin announced he would resign halfway through his term in 1997. He then ran for mayor in 2003, but lost to Dave Cieslewicz, whom he went on to beat in the 2011 election.
“If I was not running for governor, this would still be the last term,” Soglin said. “I can assure you there will not be a third sequel.”
His official political career started with his election to City Council in 1968, but for years prior he had been a prominent student activist at UW-Madison leading demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
The timing of Tuesday’s announcement, Soglin said, was meant to give anyone looking to run for mayor adequate time to make their case to voters before a primary for the position would be held on Feb. 19. The mayor’s office is up for election April 2.
So far, three candidates have announced their candidacy for mayor: Ald. Maurice Cheeks, District 10, and former City Council members Satya Rhodes-Conway and Brenda Konkel.
Cheeks represents parts of the Southwest, Near West and West sides; Rhodes-Conway now works at a UW-Madison think tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy; and Konkel is executive director of the Tenant Resource Center.
Soglin called Rhodes-Conway “far superior in every way” to the other candidates who have already announced.
Rhodes-Conway said in a statement on Twitter that she had a good working relationship with Soglin while on the City Council and that she’s glad to earn his trust despite past disagreements.
“My candidacy for mayor has never been about the incumbent or other candidates — It’s about my vision for Madison and putting my experience to work making Madison number one for everyone,” Rhodes-Conway said.
Cheeks commended Soglin for his years of public service in a statement and highlighted the need for forward momentum in the city.
“Now more than ever, Madison is ready for a new leader with a positive vision for the future,” Cheeks said. “We need to harness Madison’s current growth to build a forward-focused economy that grows and diversifies our middle class.”
Konkel said Soglin was a mentor for her when she began in politics, although they have disagreed at times over the years.
She said Soglin’s early announcement regarding the election might encourage more people to enter the race, but his supportive comments about Rhodes-Conway could have the opposite effect.
“I don’t like it when politicians seem to hand-pick their successors,” Konkel said.
The last regularly scheduled election for the mayor of Madison in which the incumbent decided not to run was in 1983. Sue Bauman won the 1997 special election to replace Soglin and ran as an incumbent in 2003, but lost in the primary, so there was no incumbent in the general election that year.
During his current stint as mayor, Soglin said he’s particularly proud of progress made on increasing the city’s low-cost housing stock.
In 2015, the city established the Affordable Housing Fund, which has the goal of supporting the construction of at least 250 units of permanent housing with services for the homeless and 750 or more units for people making up to 60 percent of the area’s median income by 2020.
Additionally, Soglin touted the use of city funds to increase the number of summer job opportunities for youth and looking at ways to address gun violence through a public health approach as recent accomplishments.
“Madison is in a different league now than it was in 2011,” he said.
He cautioned the next mayor and City Council to remain focused on Madison’s debt service, which Soglin has tried to rein in since retaking office.
This year, the city will spend about 16 percent of its general fund to pay back debt accrued from borrowing for capital improvements and projects. Soglin said he’s held that figure relatively stable in the past few years and kept it lower than what it had been projected to be by now. But he said work is still needed to reduce the debt service to 13 percent of the general fund, a goal the city’s Finance Department had previously set.
“We’ve done a far better job since I came back in office, but it certainly doesn’t meet the standards, the expectations this city deserves in regards to its fiscal responsibility,” he said.
When asked whether leaving office could impact major projects of importance to him, such as the Madison Public Market on the East Side, the Downtown Judge Doyle Square development or the revitalization of the former Oscar Mayer plant, Soglin said, “I think if we get the right mayor, the right leadership, they should continue smoothly.”
As he finishes out his mayoral term, Soglin said his priorities will be continuing efforts to reduce violence and improve safety.
“My plans are to be the state’s next governor,” he said. “I have no further ambition than to serve as governor.”