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From the Archives: Is blowing one's stack a mayoral attribute? (March, 2003)

This article, by Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders, appeared on March 13, 2003, just a few weeks before the 2003 mayoral election between Paul Soglin and Dave Cieslewicz. Cieslewicz would go on to beat Soglin, a two-time former mayor.

Ald. Brenda Konkel doesn't expect to have a great working relationship with Paul Soglin, should Madison voters bring him back for another encore as mayor. The problem, she says, isn't Soglin's politics, but his temperament.

"I don't know how to say it," says Konkel, a local housing advocate and Progressive Dane stalwart. "He gets angry. He screams at you. He holds a grudge."

Last fall, when Konkel wrote a letter to the editor of The Capital Times questioning Soglin's level of commitment to inclusionary zoning (which requires developers to add low-income units), he let her have it, she says, with both barrels. "He was yelling at me, telling me it was unfair to him," she recalls of this contact, which left her bitter. "That's not the way I prefer to deal with people."

But it's the kind of story one hears often about Soglin. Madison's recurring mayor can be charming and engaging. He's as bright as a halogen bulb, and he understands the issues that confront Madison better than anyone, including his opponent, Dave Cieslewicz. But he can also be abrasive and confrontational, perhaps to a fault.

I say perhaps because there undoubtedly are situations in which being firm and forceful - even furious - is an asset. Conflict is an essential component of negotiation, and Soglin is a master at using conflict to gain the upper hand. Sometimes he blows up for effect, and it works.

"He's a brilliant politician," says Andy Heidt, who served on the Madison Common Council during Soglin's last incarnation as mayor. "When you agree with him, he's great to be with."

But Heidt also saw Soglin's temper manifest itself in unproductive ways - for example, in his stormy relationship with then-County Executive Rick Phelps. "I think he gets things done, but his personality may get in the way of greater accomplishments."

Heidt also had run-ins, as when, in response to some criticism he'd voiced, Soglin "stormed up, right in my face, waving his fingers, saliva flowing" and threatened to shove Heidt's words back down his throat. Heidt, while internally "quivering with fear," says he maintained his best poker face and answered, "I haven't had dessert yet."

For Heidt, Soglin's explosive personality could both intimidate and bemuse. For others, it raises questions about whether he's the right person for the mayor's job, in an era in which "cooperation" is all the rage. Indeed, the temperament issue, though largely unexamined, may be Soglin's greatest liability.

None of this is to suggest that Cieslewicz is the better candidate or that his kinder, gentler approach is not also open to criticism. Some people consider him too milquetoast to aggressively represent the city's interests.

And let's not forget that Soglin has a proven record as Madison's chief administrator. He's earned the respect of the vast majority of city managers and employees with whom he's worked. Soglin demanded a lot of his minions, and they delivered.

But Soglin has also alienated people and burned bridges. At times he seems obsessed with wanting to win, and his "us vs. them" mindset verges on the Nixonian.

As mayor, Soglin had banners erected around the Square ripping the Legislature for giving Madison a raw deal on state aid and even posted pictures of offending lawmakers in bus shelters. These gestures, which he still defends, created lasting enmity.

Last week, five of the eight members of Madison's legislative delegation gathered at the Capitol to tout Cieslewicz as someone "we can work with." (Two of the remaining three have also endorsed him.) The lawmakers - Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Reps. Spencer Black, Terese Berceau, Mark Pocan and Mark Miller - expressed their belief that Cieslewicz would be better able than his opponent to advocate for Madison's interests at a time of declining state aid.

Sen. Erpenbach said Cieslewicz has "a high degree of credibility simply because he isn't screaming." Rep. Miller clucked about Soglin's "antagonistic" approach. And Rep. Pocan sized up the former mayor's philosophy as follows: "I have my view. As soon as you'll agree with it, you'll be right."

Soglin, as quoted in The Capital Times, sought to turn the tables on this show of support - from lawmakers whose backing he would have been pleased to have - saying, "I think there are some real questions about Dave's independence" since he "has all these obligations to the Legislature and to Kathy Falk."

It was typical Soglin: Resourceful, but rascally. And maybe just a tad too harsh.

Let's face it: Sue Bauman got trounced in last month's primary not because she was a manifestly bad mayor, but because of her personality. People saw her as carping and snide, and they got tired of it.

And yet, as Bauman stated in her own defense, "Paul Soglin is more acerbic, was nastier to people, publicly and privately, than I have ever been."

Soglin's temperament is, as it should be, an issue in this race. And so I took a half-dozen deep breaths and asked him about it.

He was, as I've mostly known him to be in recent years, gentlemanly and thoughtful. He noted that his criticism of the Legislature followed years of quiet diplomacy that produced no results. He recalled one circumstance, in the mid-1990s, when his getting "very adamant" put a halt to legislative plans to halve a $1.4 million city transit allocation.

Besides, asks Soglin, "Who are the people who are complaining? It's mostly other elected officials, isn't it? Because I won't play the game of deference, that's why." As he frames it, he gets angry when there's good reason to be, and stays within appropriate bounds.

"Have any of my attacks ever been personal? Have I ever vilified anyone as evil?" The real issue, he suggests, is not why he speaks out but why others remain silent.

Having gained the rhetorical upper hand, Soglin goes in for the kill: "Look at Madison. Look at what a great city we are. Look at how things have changed. We've got a lot of problems, but we are better."

The same might be said of Paul Soglin.

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