This article originally appeared in Isthmus on April 10, 1981
If you ask Paul Soglin if he is any different today than he was two years ago, he will tell you he is more relaxed.
He will give you this impression on a spring afternoon when you walk into his house, which doubles as his office, and find him lying on the couch, watching the television. His shoes are on the floor, a cigarette is burning in an ashtray, a cat named Whimsy is napping nearby. He seems to be in character.
Once he offended many people by seeming too relaxed, with a kind of go-to-hell attitude about certain aspects of mayoral protocol that found him wearing work shirts and jeans, padding around city hall in stocking feet and, on one particular Halloween, showing up at a meeting of the council dressed like a duck. In those days he seemed relaxed, all right, but underneath he was often tightly wound.
When he explains it today, he skips the more personal details -- his divorce, the death of his father -- and concentrates instead on the constant pressure he recalls: always on display, forever called to reckoning. He had nagging attacks of self-consciousness over such trivial matters as which restaurant to go to or what kind of clothes to put on, every mindful of what other people might think if he did what he wanted and dressed as he pleased.
Now, he says, he is a private citizen, and the pressure is within his control.
He turns off the television set. He gets up from the sofa, crosses the room to a bookcase, rummages through a large album collection and picks out one -- 72 Top Original Hits. The first cut is "Groovin'," by the Rascals. He stretches and yawns.
"God, I'm tired," he says. "I've been putting in 10- and 12-hour days."
Business, he offers, has been coming along nicely. Since sometime last summer, when he returned from the East after teaching urban affairs at Harvard and consulting on community development with a private Boston firm, he has been diligently building his law practice. There are still opportunities for consulting -- a plastics corporation in Portage, manufacturers of solid waste disposal units (i.e. garbage cans), was his most recent client -- but his fortunes ride on his performance as an attorney.
The telephone rings -- a client -- and h e sits back down on the sofa, receiver to his ear, adding 10 more minutes of business to his week and probably subtracting as many from his life by lighting up his umpteenth smoke of the day. As he talks, his office, set up around the corner in what used to be the dining room, lies open to inspection.
There is a desk along one wall, with a Coronet electric typewriter, scattered pens and notebooks, and two dirty ashtrays. At one end, on the floor, is another box of albums, one cover exposed, the sallow zombie image of Lou Reed staring up at the wall. He is staring at a poster of The War at Home, the film that documents the struggles of the city during the years of the Vietnam war.
Across the room, resting on a small buffet, is an unopened bottle of wine, and next to it is a photograph of Soglin and Fidel Castro, Fidel sort of smiling, Soglin pointing at his beard. In the corner, tucked out of the way, are a set of dumbbells and an Exercycle, one soiled tube sock draped over the frame.
From the looks of the place, his workload is diverse. About a third of it, he says, has to do with governmental problems, another third revolves around family law, and the remainder is miscellaneous. It is the first category that enthuses him the most. In that area, he has represented Fred P. Ott's, the bar and restaurant franchise in the University Square Mall; a bar called Wiggie's near Oscar Mayer, a passive solar development on the west side called Sun Valley, ands his newest project, something about property for the State Bar Association.
Representing Fred P. Ott's in an application for a liquor license, Soglin passed his firs test. In appearing before the Alcohol License and Review Committee and the city council on behalf of people who wanted to put a bar in an already congested booze-and-suds district near campus, he was taking on an issue that was fated for debate. In a new profession, his reputation was laid on the line.
"There's no question about it," he says, "my credibility was at stake. There were some people on the council who felt that if they knew the place was going to be well run, they'd go ahead and grant them the license; if not, we'd all be out of luck.
"I talked to the management and they assured me. I told them that if it wasn't well run, they might not end up losing their license, but my effectiveness would be through.
"That's the key thing when you're representing somebody -- you not only have to represent them, but you also have to be credible, and it has to pan out in the long run."
He has his own screening process for cases.
"What nobody sees," he says, "are the clients I turn down, some of them very lucrative ones. I either don't believe in what they're doing, or I think they have a very admirable position, but don't have a snowball's chance in hell and they'd be wasting their money. I tell them that. If there's a potential conflict -- an outgrowth, for example, of anything I did with the council and boards when I was mayor, I simply tell them no."
Working again within city government, he says -- all those old faces and haunts -- has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. Some of the council members who worked with him in the past tend to be tougher on him than their fresher colleagues. If friendships are involved, he says, the relationships are sure to be examined twice.
But Soglin knows the ropes. He has always been thorough, and, in addition, has a certain winning way about him, a keen knack for lobbying and making sure he gets what he wants. He lays his groundwork carefully, leaving little to chance -- a fact that on the occasion of one council appearance prompted a sarcastic member to say, "If Soglin's here, you know the votes are here -- this one is going to pass."
Why would anybody say anything like that? Soglin laughs when he's asked.
"Because," he says, "the votes were there and it was going to pass."
There is, of course -- self-confidence or not -- no such thing as a sure thing. An avid horseplayer, Soglin knows this well. In dealing with the council or the boards, he plays the game carefully.
"I've got to sell my case to them the same way that anybody else does," he says. I've got to have the facts. I've got to know what I'm talking about, and it's got to be within the policy that would gain their support.
"The only hassle I've really gotten is that some people have thought that it's demeaning -- 'the former mayor' playing that kind of role. They think I should be doing something more than representing people who want liquor licenses."
"Something more," as far as Soglin is personally concerned, covers a lot of ground. A fair amount of it is social, much more than in the past. On a given night of the week, depending on the season, you can find him playing softball, space pinball machines or electronic chess. Sometimes he goes dancing. He is frequently seen with a beautiful woman.
You can also follow him to the track. Arlington is his favorite summer hangout, alone or with friends.
"We had a winner at nine-to-five," he is fond of saying. "Not much of a price."
There are also the times he plays disc jockey, often at a benefit for some progressively slanted political group. One week is was a gig at Merlyn's, a fund-raiser for the Common Sense Coalition. Soglin, sitting in the booth with headphones on, laid down three and a half hours of rhythm and blues. It cost two bucks at the door.
It was '60s stuff, mostly, his staple: Aretha Franklin, the Miracles, Temptations, Four Tops. None of it was very political; it is the kind of music that reaches out quickly from somewhere back in time and grabs them all by the seat of their souls, those rock 'n' roll children who are dancing, these days, down the far side of 30.
Why does he like to play it?
"Because," he says, "I could never carry a tune."
Amid all these diversions, however, the tune he plays best is still politics. For a man like Paul Soglin, if there were ever "something more," it would be more of what he's doing: practicing the art of compromise, keeping his hand in the trade. He no longer has the mayoral office to implement change or express his views, but he is finding other outlets.
A good, if not mesmerizing, public speaker, Soglin periodically addresses a cross-section of interest groups, frequently students. A common theme is national affairs.
One month ago, before a predominantly student audience at an MATC symposium on Vietnam, he predicted that the next eight to 10 months under Reagan would bring about a widespread resurgence of political activism similar to the early years of the Vietnam war. It would manifest itself in renewed education, peaceful assemblies, community rallies and teach-ins, and it would be led by people between the ages of 28 and 40, many of whom were previously involved. The students, Soglin said, would follow along.
"We are back to a blend of the Eisenhower and Nixon years," he says. "It's not the end of the world, but it's bad enough so that people will have to get off their duffs and become active again.
"Obviously, the Reagan administration will involve us somehow in an armed conflict. They'd like to, anyway, and they won't wait unless we -- the people -- stop them.
"They are saying that El Salvador is not Vietnam. Okay -- it's not; it's El Salvador. They are sending military advisers and equipment to support a repressive right-wing government, and unless the people take action we are going to see the same thing all over again. The critical pointwill be a year or a year and a half from now. If they're still on the same course, you will se an escalation of dissent that will be similar to what happened between 1968 and '72.
"Reagan, to a certain degree, and some of the real right-wing Republican groups who so boldly rattled swords in the days following the election, think in terms of the times when certain constitutional rights might be suspended, when internment camps might be activated, when basic civil rights might be cut off from groups -- particularly homosexuals. But there's a level of awareness and suspicion of them, particularly in the press, which, hopefully, will prevent that from happening.
"The Democratic Party, too, must understand that it is not tied to moderates; it is tied to the left. It was not the left that undid the party over the past 20 years -- it was the moderates, and the ultimate was Jimmy Carter. It was his contradiction of principles, or his lack of principles, that was the undoing of so many senators and other Democrats.
"Unfortunately," Soglin says, "the Democratic Party has not been able to produce since John and Robert Kennedy a candidate who is somewhere on the left, who is nationally recognized and who is perceived as being competent.
"If that candidate arrives, we're in for good years. If he does not, then we've got to focus on the legislative body and at least prevent serious damage from being done. It is absolutely essential that the Democrats regain control of the Senate in '82 -- that's the first priority."
When not expressing his opinions in person, Soglin may be seen in WISC-TV's "Life at Five" in a spot called "Face Off" on Wednesday afternoons, where he debates issues with another former mayor, his "old buddy, Bill Dyke." In a civilized way, the two philosophical rivals seem to enjoy slinging darts.
There is also his writing, something that he picks at sporadically. Still at work on the book he facetiously calls "Growing Up in Madison, Wisconsin -- 1960s Through 1981," he admits that his progress is slow. While claiming to enjoy writing, he has "only a few chapters done," together with some outlines, a folder of notes "and some great one-liners." Since no one has broken an arm to pay him to do it, he says, he is moseying along at his "own style and pace."
"In bad economic times," he says, dryly, "people are not interested in political stories."
What is left, therefore, is the best outlet of all -- being an attorney. It's funny, he says, but it's almost like being the mayor. It comes out when he begins to speak of the state of city politics, the Skornicka administration and the mayoral campaign.
He agrees wholeheartedly with recent accusations by Natalie Smith and Phil Ball, among others, that the mayoral race was minimized by the role of the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times.
"The most obvious thing," he says, "is that it wasn't a competitive race; at least it was not perceived that way. The reason is that the two daily newspapers have not been in a competitive stance.
"There has been no criticism of Joel Skornicka -- and I don't just mean negative criticism, I mean critical analysis, the way it should be. They have not offered critical analysis of the mayor's performance in the course of two years. Both papers supported him in the '79 election, and it was not in their interests to twist him around.
"When it comes to the mayor's race, we're basically a one-newspaper town."
The situation, Soglin says, has led to a marked lack of enthusiasm among potential candidates who, in his opinion, "would make excellent mayors." He names a few: Fred Arnold, Natalie Smith, Mary Louise Simon, Mary Lou Munts and Jim Rowen. To go begging for access, however, battling for name recognition in light of this chill, discourages them.
He endorsed George Wiesner in this week's election. "I think Wiesner would have made a damn good mayor," Soglin says. "He's a good listener; he's not afraid of controversy or immersing himself in a problem. But nobody knew who he was. Because of that, his chances were remote.
If you go by Soglin's information, however, Skornicka is much more vulnerable than most people think.
"The Skornicka administration is one of momentary gratification, with some long-range problems coming for whoever is mayor in 1983," Soglin says. "They should crop up in the spring or summer of 1982: understaffing, less efficient staffing, physical deterioration. I see it all coming because they've had a penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude that they've taken all along. You can get away with it for a couple of years if you're building on a solid base; after that, you're in trouble -- or somebody is.
"What's happening right now in the Planning Department is just a disgrace. I would love to see how much staff time has been spent on just analyzing the employee bumping problem, how many dollars have been spent on meetings, how much is lost economically in terms of the inefficiencies that will result.
"My guess is that it will easily exceed the money saved from eliminating the positions."
The political mood in the city, Soglin says, is "general frustration with things not being done -- not that we're just standing still, but worse yet, that maybe we are rolling backwards.
"You see it as much on the right as you do on the left. The feeling of the right about Skornicka is ambivalent. They're comfortable with him in that they know that he won't go to Cuba, he won't get the council actively engaged in a debate on El Salvador, he won't push new legislation that the development community considers harmful to its interests.
"But they are also frustrated by the lack of results. I get that comment all the time. I hear it from bankers, developers, other attorneys -- the professions that are usually associated with more conservative interests -- and the comment is always the same: 'Why don't you run again? At least when you were in office, we knew where we stood and we got things done. It may have been difficult for us, but we knew where we were going.'
"I see it in some of my clients," Soglin continues. I've got one who, when I look at the role that I'm playing for him, I kind of chuckle, because it's the same role I played as the mayor. The work I'm doing now should have been done out of the mayor's office. In terms of bringing together disparate interests to resolve an issue, I'm doing more of that than I am being an advocate for my client.
"I was told point-blank: 'We went to the mayor's office and couldn't get anywhere. We didn't know what to do, so that's why we called you.'
"That's damned good for my business," Soglin says, "but in the long run, I don't know that it's good for the city."
Given what he sees as a citywide malaise, might he ever run again?
"No. I have no political ambitions. When I see things screwed up, I'd like to be able to just step in and help straighten them out, but I have no desire to campaign. I have no desire to spend 47 hours doing something that should take 15 hours to accomplish. I figure that if I can ever bring enough stability to my law practice, then I can have the luxury of expressing my political views in a way other than an elective office.
"I'll tell you one thing -- my personal happiness comes ahead of a political career."
And as for personal motivation?
"I'm very highly motivated," he answers. "I'm just not motivated to be mayor. There are very few people who understand the principle of handicapping horses the way that I do. I really know the stuff.
"Maybe when I'm 50 -- maybe then I'll run again. But right now I'm 36, and if you come by this May, the only thing you'll see me running after is the ice cream truck."