After badly losing Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor, including a poor showing among Madison voters, Mayor Paul Soglin must now shape a budget proposal amid tight finances for 2019 and conclude the final eight months of his term as a lame duck.
Soglin, mayor for 14 years in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s and now completing a second straight four-year term, announced last month that he would not seek re-election, opening the field for would-be successors and changing the political dynamic for the next city budget and the months until the spring election.
Already running for mayor are Ald. Maurice Cheeks, 10th District; former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, who works for the UW-Madison think tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy; former Ald. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center; and Raj Shukla, executive director of the conservation organization River Alliance of Wisconsin.
Now, some, including at least one council member, are encouraging Soglin to reconsider.
The mayor, asked while voting Tuesday if this was his last campaign, responded: “I didn’t hear that last question, and don’t bother asking it again.” Asked again about another mayoral bid in an interview with the State Journal on Wednesday, Soglin referred to his answer the day before. When suggested his response left a door open, he quietly said, “No, it doesn’t.”
Adding to the uncertainty in city politics is that in the last two months, three council members — two former council presidents and all critics of Soglin policies — have resigned and been replaced by new appointees. And observers predict that the appointees and several current members won’t run again, with perhaps half or more of the 20-member council turning over in the April general election.
“There are very strong forces at play for potentially setting up a sea change at City Hall,” said veteran Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, the council’s longest-serving member.
More politics than usual
Seldom is the city’s political scene so uncertain. The initial jolt was Soglin’s flirtation with the gubernatorial primary last year and formal entry to the race early this year. That was followed by a lackluster campaign and a dismal seventh-place finish, with just 5 percent of the statewide vote.
Soglin didn’t fare much better in his home city, where he received just 7.8 percent of the vote Tuesday and didn’t win a single ward with more than five ballots cast. In contrast, he got 72 percent of the vote in his last mayoral campaign in 2015.
“It’s really simple,” Soglin said, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and offering a slightly subdued, matter-of-fact demeanor a day after the primary. “I didn’t have enough money.”
The mayor said he needed $500,000 to $1 million for television ads to spread a message of delivering his considerable experience to benefit the state, but “we only had $100,000,” much of it spent on 11th-hour TV commercials.
Other candidates had financial advantages, either money from previous statewide races, personal wealth, union backing or focused outside support such as Emily’s List, Soglin said. He said he counted on three democrat friends who had raised significant sums nationally for races across the country, but they couldn’t deliver in a crowded primary and with more national interest in U.S. Senate and U.S. House races.
With no momentum or cash, Soglin said he also couldn’t mount a campaign ground game, saying he recognized the dynamic in the spring. “I didn’t have the resources,” he said. “It all had a cascading effect.”
Meanwhile, primary winner Tony Evers, along with Kelda Roys and Mahlon Mitchell, who is African-American, crept into his Madison base of women and minorities, he said.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “My first mission was to have the state government returned to the people. If Tony Evers wins, I’ll look back in terms of the last 40 years and say there’s hope for democracy.”
As for his legacy, “it doesn’t undo what Madison is. It doesn’t undo the blueness and progressiveness of Dane County,” he said.
A power void
Oddly, as Soglin pivots from the primary to his final months in office, ties with the council may be improved.
City Council President Samba Baldeh said he has made a point of smoothing relationships and worked to minimize surprises. The departure of Alds. Denise DeMarb, Mark Clear and Sara Eskrich removes three veteran critics. The appointees — Alds. Allen Arnsten, Michael Tierney and Keith Furman — who come to office without intending to seek re-election, may be more deferential to the mayor, Verveer said.
The changes could mean some new alliances and working relationships, Baldeh said.
“Three of the people who had little regard for my work are off the council,” Soglin said. “We don’t know what the three new alders will do. We don’t know what they’ll do to disrupt the dynamic. It could be better.”
The impact of Soglin’s poor 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 a have a relatively full schedule of city business and related travel.
“His schedule alone sent alders a signal, early in the campaign, that Paul’s priority continued to be governing the city rather than running for governor,” Verveer said.
Ald. David Ahrens, 15th District, who has opposed Soglin initiatives, had another view. “Given the number of viable candidates running for mayor prior to his announcement for future abdication, the council knew what everybody else knows — the voters and perhaps Soglin are exhausted,” he said.
Regardless of Tuesday’s poor showing, Soglin’s lame duck status now comes fully into play. Council members don’t have political fears about their priorities making it into future budgets or prized committee appointments, Verveer said.
‘A fundamental shake-up’
Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, a Soglin ally who hopes the mayor will be assertive and reconsider his decision not to seek re-election, said: “Initially, you’re going to see a power void and see some individuals stepping up to take a lead and stake out territory. I think you’ll see jockeying for power.”
Cheeks, the lone sitting council member to announce a bid for the mayor’s office so far, is in a unique spot, having to balance assertiveness, leadership, discretion and maturity on the council floor.
Soglin said he’ll continue business as usual. “I’ve been a lame duck two other times,” he said, referring to decisions not to seek re-election as mayor in 1979 and 1997. “I’m not worried about it. I may be the most experienced lame duck in the history of the United States.”
Ald. Marsha Rummel, 6th District, a former council president who served in leadership as the council continued to assert its independence from the mayor, said, “Even if he is lame duck, he still has power to propose budgets and direct staff to pursue projects he is interested in.”
Adding to the intrigue is the spring council elections, with all 20 seats up for grabs. In the last two decades, the biggest turnover of nine members occurred in 2003 and 2007. Some are now predicting a turnover of 10 to 12.
“It’s very possible at least half of the council is not coming back,” Baldeh said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what that means.”
“Next year is going to be a fundamental shake-up,” Ald. Larry Palm, 12th District, a council member since 2005, said, adding that the focus now should be consistency and stability to create a platform for the next mayor and council.
Despite his announcement not to seek re-election, Soglin will still be a big part of the story in coming months with capital and operating budget proposals in September and October, and deliberations through early November. He also has continuing interest in reducing challenges and delays in building much-needed affordable housing and ongoing discussions on the structure of city government.
The city’s longest-serving mayor also intends to engage in the campaign to replace him.
“I will be paying close attention to the candidates,” he said. “I will make it clear who I think will be good for the city and who will not be.”