This article originally appeared in Isthmus on November 20, 2002. The 2003 Madison mayoral race was just getting started and Paul Soglin was part of a crowded primary race that included incumbent Sue Bauman, perpetual gadfly Eugene Parks, legendary blues guitarist Jim Schwall, east side activist Bert Zipperer and political neophyte Dave Cieslewicz.
Paul Soglin greets me in his stocking feet at his front door, shirt open at the collar, dark brown eyes peering out evenly over his characteristic droopy mustache. He's spooning a bowl of leftovers, Chinese from the looks of it, and given the relatively early hour of my visit, a meal that one might easily construe as a brunch - microwaved dim sum.
Through the kitchen and out on the deck, two large dogs and a gangly golden retriever puppy named Roxie are woofing it up, tails and tongues wagging, noses pressed wetly against the glass. His wife, Sara, is away at work (hair stylist, part-time), and their three teenage girls, on a day off from school because of a teachers convention, are widely dispersed between State Street, Mickies Dairy Bar and any number of west-side malls. Soglin frets briefly about jewelry and piercings, enjoins the dogs to "settle down," pops open a couple of Diet Cokes, and leads me to the basement.
Soglin's house, a split-level, neo-Prairie-style ranch nestled in the west-side Westmorland neighborhood, was built in the mid-1950s by a UW ophthalmologist with a strong eye for both environment and privacy. Unassuming, yet spacious and comfortable, it is tucked back on a small hillock in a wooded cul-de-sac. Gordon Baldwin, the esteemed constitutional scholar and UW Law School professor emeritus, is Soglin's backyard neighbor.
We take seats on a diagonal sofa in the family room. There's a stone fireplace and doorway opening to a small personal office, and a couple of tables and shelves filled with photographs: Paul, Paul and Sara, the kids. More photos show Paul with various luminaries: Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Jimmy Carter, Bubba and the missus, Al Gore, Crystal Gayle and Kenny Rogers, among others.
Soglin sweeps an arm, surveying his domain. "This is mine," he announces. "Upstairs is for the family - Sara, the girls, three dogs, three cats and a rodent." He scrunches his nose. "The girls like to keep rodents. It seems as though I'm always waiting for some rat to die."
We start chatting about life and politics in general, then about Madison in particular. I ask him why he is entering local politics again (Soglin was mayor from 1973 to 1979 and from 1989 to 1997), giving up his job as a financial adviser and running for mayor. What is the special bond between Soglin and Madison? He warms quickly to the subject.
"This is what's important about Madison," Soglin begins. "It's a city where we can experiment and tinker with the democratic model and achieve a good deal of success. It doesn't have the overwhelming problems that a lot of other cities have, but does have the resources to effect change. We have the opportunity here to move forward.
"We have done that, and in great part succeeded, in the sense that you cannot be satisfied with what you have because that will lead to complacency, and that can lead to deterioration. That's why every public decision has to be made in the context of its implications. What are the externalities of the decision, the long-term ramifications?"
'It's where I want to be'
When I first laid eyes on Paul Soglin, in the spring of 1969, he was living on West Washington Avenue, not far from the old Milwaukee Road depot and where the Kohl Center stands today. As an alderman and student activist in the '60s, his picture - long hair, mustache, denim shirts and blue jeans - had been in the papers. But on this particular day, the same week in which he had been arrested and jailed during the height of the first Miffland "riot," he was walking east on Bassett as I was heading west in a car.
It had to be Soglin, I thought, but what was notably missing was most of his hair. The gendarmerie had shaved it to a nub during his brief incarceration, probably just for yucks, which did strike me as a bit harsh for an elected official who was just carrying out his responsibilities.
After all, regardless of politics or ideological drift, Soglin at least had the guts to stand up for the rabble, even if scores of them were throwing bottles and rocks, setting fire to trash heaps and peeing in the streets.
I leaned out the window and yelled, "Hey! Are you Soglin?" He regarded me with suspicion for a moment, then confirmed his identity. "Well, I'm not exactly sure what you people are up to," I said, "but hey, good for you." He nodded in affirmation, and we went our separate ways.
As years passed, he became mayor and I graduated from UW and moved into journalism, by 1973 working for The Capital Times. I was at the Loraine Hotel the night of his first mayoral victory party, a big upset over Bill Dyke, and I saw him walk to the bandstand to acknowledge his supporters, say a few words, and take off his denim shirt. Underneath, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, "Mellow Man."
Soglin came here from Hyde Park, in Chicago, because of Madison's progressive tradition, the UW's high academic standards and its history of social activism - that, he says, and Big Ten football. But it was not until the period between when he left the mayor's office in 1979 and when he returned a decade later that he decided once and for all that Madison would be his home.
"I came very close to staying in Boston," he says, recalling his teaching turn at Harvard in the 1980s. "When my fellowship was over, I stayed on there a little while longer. There was a law firm that would have provided me a very secure position financially, and I had the opportunity to get a nice loft apartment that was under development. I spent a weekend thinking about it, then realized that Madison was my home. I turned down the job, said I wouldn't be available for the condo, packed everything up and drove back here.
"I realized that I liked Madison better than Boston. My friends were here. It's where I feel comfortable. It's where I wanted to be."
Let him count the ways
"Why do we love this place?" Soglin asks, rhetorically. "I don't really know, I can't describe it completely, but it's home, friends, comfort, lifestyle, intellectual stimulation, sociality and State Street - all of those things."
State Street, along with the Civic Center (which he developed as mayor in the '70s in concert with the Capitol Concourse), remains one of his favorite places in town. Others include the UW Memorial Union, the Lake Monona bicycle path (which he also developed, "built for only $60,000 and enjoyed since by tens of thousands"), and the Cardinal Bar.
The bike path, he adds, is highly representative of who we are: "Recreation is huge, the kind in which people participate instead of just sitting around watching others. There are more bicycles here per capita than any other city in the country, and at one point, one in every four adults was playing softball. That's really pretty amazing." For spectators, he adds, whether for music or sports, the city offers the Kohl Center, the Coliseum, the Civic Center, Monona Terrace and Camp Randall Stadium.
"It's a necessary part of government to encourage all these different aspects for a better, more complete life and culture," he says, "and we do it pretty well. It's an almost Greco-Roman concept - celebrating the individual in athletics, the arts and, underlying that, having a high sense of stewardship. Many people here embrace that idea traditionally.
"The arts, too, and the facilities we have for them, are instrumental in stimulating creativity, and we've done a pretty good job of encouraging that, of making our artists feel accepted and comfortable. There are any number of talented people who've come through here. Thornton Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ben Sidran, Richard Davis, the Zucker brothers, Kitt Reuter-Foss - they're among the more obvious ones.
"But we also have had plenty of others who perhaps aren't so obvious - that old gang that used to hang out at the 602 Club, for example, or Broom Street Theater, which doesn't have the same prominence as some, but nevertheless has played a big part in shaping things."
Our noble eccentrics
Scoundrels, too, Soglin believes, have helped shape Madison's character. "You have to have scoundrels," he says. "Look at the great cities of the world, many of them seaports or gateway cities, river towns. Those cities become hubs of commerce, and with that comes everything from artists to academicians to scoundrels - pirates, river rats and all that goes with it. Madison isn't a port city, in the traditional sense, but there are some similarities, and we've certainly had our share of those kinds of characters."
Semantically, we go back and forth a bit over the aptness of this word. I point out that by the strictest definition he can't really be talking about people who are "dishonest or unscrupulous." Rather, I suggest, he may mean the term in the sense of a "rogue" - the kind of person whose behavior one may disapprove of but who nevertheless is likable or in some way attractive. Musing for a moment, he agrees with the distinction.
"We tend to exploit our eccentrics, let me put it that way," he says. "They're the kind of people who are always pushing the envelope, keeping us on our toes, making us think. They're really not quite naughty enough to be actual villains, but more along the lines of those who might find themselves getting arrested for what they may believe is being noble."
At my urging, he runs down a list of the usual suspects: Judge Doty and Frank Lloyd Wright, Eddie Ben Elson, Don Eisenberg, Jack McManus, the brothers Reichenberger, Ben Masel, the CC Riders.
Mention of the Riders pricks my memory, and I come up with the name of Bill Bandy, a downtown landlord in the early '70s who once hired a few members of the local motorcycle club to go into four of his rental houses for the express purpose of trashing the joints in order to roust what Bandy considered to be undesirable student tenants.
"A classic scoundrel," Soglin enthuses. "Bandy was willing to destroy his own property just to get even. He didn't care."
Ira Sharenow, I offer. How might he classify him?
"A pain in the ass," Soglin laughs. "He's not charming. You wouldn't look forward to sitting down and having a drink with Ira. A scoundrel is charming and engaging."
Who else? I ask. He mentions activist Gene Parks and architect Kenton Peters.
"Gene Parks certainly is a scoundrel," says Soglin. "He can be so outrageous. Here he is one day, accusing me in the papers of being a racist, and the very next day - a Saturday morning, no less - he's calling on the phone to congratulate me on what a good job I'm doing on annexation. Nobody else that I know calls me a racist and then the next day tells me what a great guy I am."
He chuckles. "I voted for Gene for mayor the last time around."
"Now, Kenton Peters - he's one of the best scoundrels of our era, and one of the most creative. To this day, I don't know why he added the extra penthouse to that building on East Wilson Street, whether he truly was absentminded one night when he was drawing it up, or if he just said, 'Screw 'em - I'm adding another floor, and I'll just take my lumps for it.'
"And yet, Kenton has a half dozen other models sitting around in his office - great ideas he still has for the city. Some of them are very interesting, provocative proposals, which probably ought to be taken seriously."
'We need to do better'
Upstairs, amid the clickety-clack of canine claws scratching across the bare kitchen floor and Roxie the pup yelping joyfully, we hear the sound of voices. Sara is home, one or two of the girls, and a friend of Sara's who has dropped by for a visit. Time marches on, time to wind down the interview.
Does he ever think about his legacy? The social initiatives, certainly, but also the hands-on, physical verification of his efforts: the State Street Mall, Civic Center and Capitol Concourse, his contribution toward transforming Monona Terrace from contentious myth to reality?
"I look around, and I see differences here because I have been mayor," he says. "I am quietly content with that. I don't necessarily need to see somebody naming a park after me.
"But I have come to realize that we need to do better. We need more capable people than some of those who are running things now. The city staff, the infrastructure itself, is still sound. It's the leadership that is lacking. I'm confident, should I get back in office again, that we can get things straightened back out within six months, which also says to me that the city was in pretty good shape when I left it.
"When I first ran for mayor 30 years ago, I wanted to prove that those of us on the left - the Democrats, liberals, progressives, or whatever the word for the day - could make a real difference and do something well. I think we proved that once or twice, but now I find that I still have unfinished business.
"An old fart like me."