Nick Hart doesn’t want to be Madison’s next mayor, but he hopes to win the election.
If that seems funny, good. Hart would like that.
Hart, 39, a professional comedian, is making his second bid for the mayor’s office, having spent $100 to win 2 percent of the vote in the 2011 mayoral primary that preceded Paul Soglin’s narrow victory over Dave Cieslewicz in the general election.
Hart, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a focus on criminal justice, is running again to inject a little levity into the race, but also to put another spotlight on what he sees as the city’s anemic turnout for mayoral primaries and to comment on issues like race and policing.
His candidacy, he insists, is not a publicity stunt, although he acknowledges the publicity he gets from it, including references to his political flirtations when introduced as a guest on Conan O’Brien’s show last July. He is candid but respectful in debates and forums, unwilling to train his wit on other candidates.
“If I’m looking for publicity, I could have done it a lot better,” he said during an interview at Baldwin Street Grill, his “home-base drinking hole” near his apartment on the Near East Side where he gathered many of the 200 signatures required to get on the primary ballot. “I could have just roasted the whole thing. It really is getting people who don’t vote in the mayoral primary to get out and vote.”
Matt Baier, a longtime friend and campaign manager, said, “I don’t think there are a lot of people who would put themselves out there like that. “There’s a negative connotation to the process for most people. For Nick, it’s just about engagement.”
Observers give Hart — who has never held office and has no record of public service and scant campaign resources — little chance of advancing to the general election.
In any event, he has something to look forward to on Feb. 19 , which he has pronounced as the city’s newest holiday: “Nick Hart Day.”
Hart, born and raised with a brother and two sisters in Spartanburg, South Carolina, hardly seemed destined for a comedy career, let alone runs for public office.
“Family-wise, it was great,” he said of his youth. But Spartanburg, halfway between New York City and Miami, was a distribution point for the drug trade “and a bit of a dump,” he said. “It opened your eyes pretty young.”
As a child, he went to three schools in three years and got bullied in middle school. “It was bully bullying, not Facebook bullying,” he said. “Today, it would be felony assault. You learn how to stand up for yourself.”
By the seventh grade, he had developed a sense of humor. “Humor is a way to meet new people,” he said. “If you make people laugh, they’ll like you.”
Hart has long appreciated stand-up comics, citing Paula Poundstone, Marc Maron and George Carlin as early influences. “I was always a fan of comedy growing up,” he said. “I just didn’t know how to get into it, especially from Spartanburg.”
He attended Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina — a self-described “straight-C student” — earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice. He thought about a career in law enforcement but was dissuaded after a 150-hour internship with the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office. “It was, ‘Nah, no thanks,’” he said. “These people don’t get paid enough to do the work they do.”
Hart moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, for about four months working road construction, then followed his brother who had moved to Madison. arriving in fall 2003. The city, compared to Spartanburg, seemed like “Utopia.”
He held a series of nondescript jobs but in 2007 noticed the poor turnout in the mayoral primary. “I was blown away by how many people didn’t vote,” he said, thinking, “I can go to the bars and get 1,000 votes.” He learned it took just 200 signatures to get on the ballot, but he would have to wait until the next election.
Meanwhile, he found stand-up.
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Make them laugh
Hart became aware of an open mic night at the Comedy Club on State Street. Over and over he would go Downtown but lost the nerve to try it.
In mid-summer 2009, he and his brother and a friend were walking by a bar near the UW-Madison campus when a large group of young men standing outside attacked them and fled in a stretch limousine. The victims needed medical treatment and tried to press charges, but authorities didn’t pursue the matter, claiming a lack of evidence. “It turns out they were some rich kids who had connections,” Hart said.
Three days later, on July 22, despite suffering a concussion, cuts to the head, bruised ribs and a fractured hand and dislocated finger, Hart, at age 30, showed up at the Comedy Club and took the open mic. “After you get jumped by five or six guys, going on stage isn’t that hard,” he said.
He nailed it.
“It was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, comparing the experience to a person winning big in his first trip to a casino, expecting and wanting more.
The reality, he said, is that it takes time. So he pursued a strategy. “I was going to every (expletive) gig I could do,” he said. “That gets you ready quickly to do the actual craft.”
Then came 2011. He said he’d run for mayor. But two political heavyweights — Cieslewicz and Soglin — were on the ballot. Hart ran anyway. “It was absolutely blind,” he said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. I could have roasted everybody and ticked people off. (But) I respected the process.”
Hart’s goal was to get 5 percent of the vote. He got 2 percent.
But the comedic career has gone well. He moved to New York City for four months in 2012, and to the Pacific Northwest for a time, returning to Madison in 2013. He was a quarter-finalist at several comedy festivals and the winner of Madison’s Funniest Comic Competition. He placed in the top three in the Seattle International Comedy Competition, both in 2017. He appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show — “a fantastic experience” — on July 9, 2018, and the gig opened even more doors.
So now, another mayoral race — Hart lives in the town of Madison and would have to move four blocks to the city if he were to win. He’s still hoping to boost turnout, pairing humor with reality. “I’m after the people who are not involved, because there are a lot more of those people,” he says on his website.
In early January, at the first mayoral forum at a packed Barrymore Theatre on the Near East Side, Hart contributed much of the levity on a night that engaged and entertained the big audience.
“I’m bringing them down to my level,” he said of the other candidates. “If I bring them to my level, they all do well. It made them relax. It made them relatable.”
But he didn’t shy from big issues, either. “Our city has to admit it is racist,” he told the crowd.
He’s proposed a type of community policing that would be more responsive and is concerned about the future of a high percentage of minorities and renters when the city annexes the town of Madison in 2023.
Although not mounting a traditional campaign, Hart is offering some innovation, particularly his podcast, called “Hold My Drink Senator,” where he and Baier seek to host “insightful and important players” in local politics, including the other mayoral hopefuls. Candidate Raj Shukla appeared in the third episode.
“You’ve had the worst of the best for a long time,” Hart says. “Time to try the best of the worst.”