Although he has been a dominant force in Madison politics for over four decades, Paul Soglin is in many ways an enigma.
You can find vastly differing opinions about him, and those opinions do not necessarily coincide with how much a person's political views are in sync with the mayor's. Some people say he holds grudges and is hard to get along with. Others call him intellectually rigorous, with high expectations for everyone around him.
People seemingly love or loathe him.
Ald. Mark Clear says that a Soglin aide recently talked to him about one of the mayor's initiatives, saying, "This is really important to Paul."
Clear's response: "How would I know that?"
"His staff doesn't reach out to say, 'We're working on this, we'd like your support,'" says Clear, an ally of former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz who doesn't get much time with Soglin.
Though he may be hard to read, Soglin has yet again firmly and quickly made his mark on the city since beating Cieslewicz in a close election last April. He delivered, by most accounts, a good budget. The $250 million spending plan deals with a severe drop in state aid but raises property taxes by only 3.2% and does not lay off any employees.
He has challenged some of the measures that had appeared settled by his predecessor, Dave Cieslewicz, including renegotiating a bike-sharing program with Trek Bicycle, reducing the city subsidy from $300,000 to zero. More noticeably, he has severely slashed tax increment financing for the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment project from $16 million to $3.3 million.
In doing so, he's ruffled the feathers of some council members, like Clear, who had hoped certain bitter disputes were settled.
"The old Paul had much more patience and was much more inclusive, and not only listened but incorporated the ideas of others," says veteran Ald. Tim Bruer, one of two council members in office the last time Soglin was mayor, from 1989 to 1997. "Mayor Paul today is much more guarded, much more focused on his view of how things should or shouldn't be done."
"Some people think he's too blunt," says Ald. Paul Skidmore, a Soglin supporter and friend. "There's another side to that coin, which is you don't go along to get along. He's not going to say what you want to hear."
After more than 14 years in the job as mayor, in three separate stints beginning in 1973, Paul Soglin admits that it still pains him to disappoint people.
"One of the toughest parts of the job is learning how to say 'no' to your friends," he says. "I don't like doing it, but I will when it's required.
"I wish I didn't have to recommend funding the Overture for only $1.35 million," he offers as an example. The city originally promised the center $2 million a year, but the mayor reduced this amount, saying the private sector was better able to make up the difference. Council members are proposing a budget amendment to increase the city share to $1.85 million.
Soglin says he didn't relish proposing the lower amount. "When it comes time to fund public arts centers, I've always been able to meet budgeting expectations. Most of the city's arts programs today are programs I created."
The mayor is contemplative in conversation. In an hour-long interview with Isthmus, he sits in a City-County Building conference room dressed in a black-and-white flannel shirt and jeans. He is fidgety, often standing up or wandering around the room.
As he speaks, he stares out the window, as if in a trance. But when he gets defensive or wants to emphasize a point, he turns and looks directly into a reporter's eyes, a technique that is both subtle and unnerving. It's like he's shouting without raising his voice.
The grumpy Soglin is often on display for reporters. His patience with them seems almost always at its limits. It's not unusual for him to roll his eyes at questions or offer brusque answers, both in press conferences and one-on-one interviews. He'll say "I don't know" rather than volunteer a good quote that elaborates his thinking.
Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway says it comes down to the "very high expectations" Soglin has for everyone around him. In the context of the Common Council, she adds, "he has some pretty high expectations about the amount of background research we will have done on issues, the level of detail with which we will have examined things, and the intellectual rigor with which we'll conduct ourselves."
Rhodes-Conway says "it is a little uncomfortable to have decisions we thought were made revisited." But, she adds, "If it benefits the city, so what if it's uncomfortable?"
Ald. Mike Verveer, who was first elected during Soglin's last term, says he's glad to have him back. But he admits the transition has been rough for many of his council colleagues. "Paul didn't enjoy any sort of honeymoon phase, particularly as it relates to the council," he says. "A lot of my council colleagues just miss Mayor Dave."
Soglin himself is defiantly dismissive about council relations. He's unconcerned about whether the council gets its way on budget amendments. "I think we're enjoying a good relationship," he says.
Clearly, not everybody likes his style, and some council members have pushed back. They bristled when Soglin canceled the fall Ride the Drive, a popular event that closes several downtown streets for cyclists to enjoy. The mayor later reinstated it. And 10 alders - half the council - have proposed amending Soglin's budget to reinstate the Edgewater TIF to the original $16 million approved by the council.
Clear says more is at stake than this project. "It's a test of whether the city can be trusted to fulfill its promises."
Soglin bumped both Clear and Bruer from the influential Board of Estimates, and they have subsequently become two of the mayor's chief critics. Bruer expects the council to challenge the mayor more and more.
"The mystique of Paul Soglin has really begun to wear thin," Bruer says. "The perception around city hall is there's a right way, a wrong way and Paul Soglin's way. In numerous occasions, he's gone forth in a vacuum only to have the council reverse his decisions."
Although he says nice things about the mayor, Bruer is largely critical. He claims that Soglin doesn't forget past slights, be they political or personal.
"He has pent-up energy in his views of how things should work," he says. "Dave Cieslewicz grew into the position, but it was always 'our city.' For Paul Soglin, it's always been 'his city.'"
Others dispute this view. Bert Zipperer, a former alder who worked with Soglin in the early '90s, says he and the mayor had "mega-battles."
"We were great warriors. And we weren't always on the same side." But, he adds, "On each of those battles, whenever it was over, it seemed to me it was a new day. Win or lose, when the final vote was taken you go on."
Zipperer concedes, however, that Soglin is not particularly chummy: "He's not the kind of guy who is going to sit around and crack jokes with you. If that's what you need, he's not going to be the one."
The war on poverty
Soglin ran on an agenda to fight poverty. It's an ambitious goal, but the mayor has already made some notable efforts.
In drafting the budget, Verveer says Soglin considered social service contracts sacred. "Even in this tight budget time, he's been able to work toward doing what we can in that area, specifically multimillions in community service funding. Paul made those as hands-off as possible. He just did not want to even think about cutting community service contracts."
In the new budget, Soglin also created a housing development position. The job, to be filled after the budget is approved in November, will be to develop affordable housing for the city and determine, Soglin says, "how to use the millions of dollars sitting idle" for this purpose. One problem he'd like the person to address is the city's high rate of foreclosures of four-unit buildings.
When they're foreclosed on, maintenance suffers and new tenants aren't screened properly, which has a bad effect on neighborhoods. "We've been discussing what we can do to get these four-units into owner-occupied hands," Soglin says.
On the issue of homelessness, the mayor is less hopeful. "Not all, but a significant number of homeless have got other problems, related to employment, mental health and substance abuse," he says. "We're not the government agency designed to address those issues. That's the state and the county."
Soglin has reinvigorated one of his old initiatives, the Neighborhood Resource Teams. "They should be what the name implies. They're not there to run neighborhoods, they're there to be a resource."
He pulls out a map his staff recently found in the office that had been made 20 years ago, during an earlier Soglin administration. Many of the neighborhoods where the teams were active, such as Wexford and Truax, showed considerable improvement, he says.
The mayor also wants the city better focused on economic development issues. "We've had meetings with developers who have bluntly told us that indecision and delays on the part of the city have prevented them from consummating transactions of tens of millions of dollars of new developments or improvements."
Soglin is pushing for resolution on the city's rewrite of zoning laws, which has been three years in the making. The slow process has led to a climate of uncertainty for developers, he says.
"I have a serious dilemma with the zoning code rewrite," he says. "I don't want to delay its adoption, but I don't want its adoption."
The proposed code, he says, "ignores economic reality" with "five-story limitations in a good part of downtown."
Cieslewicz vs. Soglin, redux
Much of the tension on the council stems from the April 5 election, when Soglin beat Cieslewicz by fewer than 1,000 votes. Though Cieslewicz had plenty of critics on the council, others were very close to him.
Soglin has continued to harp on his old opponent, criticizing his decisions and blaming him in part for the city's financial trouble. During the summer, Soglin once again trotted out a chart in a press conference, showing how the city's debt load climbed under Cieslewicz.
When asked whether it was fair to blame Cieslewicz for the city's rising debt load, Soglin snaps, "I'm not blaming anybody. These numbers are real."
Rhodes-Conway wishes Soglin would just give the Dave-bashing a rest. "That doesn't feel like the most productive way to move the conversation forward," she says.
Clear says the increased debt was necessary because the city had been neglected before Cieslewicz took office. "The capital budget ballooned so much because we spent a number of years catching up on infrastructure, mainly roads," he says. "We've basically accomplished that. What's important now is to not get behind."
Opponents and supporters are both still comparing the mayors' styles and agendas.
When Soglin was quoted as being in favor of a proposed development by Overture benefactors Jerry Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland - which would demolish several buildings in the 100 block of State Street - some feared it was the Edgewater being replayed.
"By already announcing his support, he's doing the same thing to us that Mayor Cieslewicz did on Edgewater," says Stu Levitan, chairman of the Landmarks Commission. "I thought we'd gotten past that. Let the committees do their work."
Rhodes-Conway was also alarmed: "I think that part of the reason Edgewater was such a disaster is that the developer felt they had the mayor's support, so they didn't need to give any ground."
Soglin contends there's a world of difference in how he's approached the State Street project. "I have not told a single member of my staff how to analyze that project," he says. "Not one person has been told a certain outcome is required. I'll make my final decision when those folks make their recommendations on it."
Asked what has changed since Soglin has been mayor, he asks, "Which time?" As both Madison's youngest elected mayor (in 1973) and its longest serving (14 years and counting), he is a modern institution.
"The next time a mayoral election comes around, Paul will be 69 years old," says Skidmore. "I wonder if he's going to run."
Skidmore thinks there's no reason for Soglin not to run again, especially if "he's as excited and energized as he is now."
Soglin might have seemed worn out during the budget process, but Skidmore still sees "a fire in his eyes." Even without the current term, Soglin is going to leave "a real legacy in Madison," he says, noting his stewardship of such projects as the Monona Terrace Convention Center and the State Street pedestrian mall.
Bruer doesn't think Soglin will be motivated to stick around beyond this term: "Paul will fill out his four-year term, garner extra years that will raise his retirement pay. At 70-plus and a pension that will be given a tremendous boost, I'd be surprised at the end of this term if he'll run again."
Soglin, for his part, says he loves being mayor because it is about meeting challenges and making a difference in people's lives. "When you solve a complex problem, the satisfaction is enormous."
He laughs in astonishment when asked about his future: "Let me get through one budget first."