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Stuart Levitan: The Player
Stuart Levitan is hooked on politics. But is he ready to serve?
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This article originally appeared in Isthmus on May 24, 1996


Some politicians thrive on political maneuvering. Others enjoy immersing themselves in public policy. Stuart Levitan loves both.

Mention anything remotely political and he is instantly engaged. His eyes sparkle, he tilts his head pensively for a moment and then with a deep breath launches into a declarative speech, hands in motion, as though he's addressing a convention full of people, not just a single reporter who casually asked, "What's going on, Stu?"

A former reporter and Dane County supervisor, the 42-year-old Levitan serves on several city committees, is active in Democratic campaigns, and last month announced his intent to challenge state Sen. Fred Risser in the District 26 Democratic primary set for Sept. 10.

Levitan says running for the Legislature is a logical outgrowth of his life experience. While he was growing up, politics were a staple in Levitan's Long Island home. His father, a professor, worked on Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign and hosted a television show on public affairs. His mom was "a Democratic committee woman," and had little Stu mingling at Democratic Party functions when he was 3 years old. (She also sneaked him past police lines to see John Lennon at a Miami hotel, but that's another story.)

Politics is in his blood -- and in the Nakoma home he shares with his wife, county Supv. Terese Berceau. Together, they subscribe to about a dozen magazines, almost all of them -- from Governing to Mother Jones -- political. A number of years ago, Levitan confesses to "pillow talking" with his wife about block grants.

It's what turns him on.

"I think that Stuart has a great appreciation of the issues facing us," says Mayor Paul Soglin, who early on endorsed Levitan in his race against Risser.

"The thing that inspires him and his wife Terese is they are truly public servants," adds Ald. Jean MacCubbin, who is on Levitan's steering committee. "His heart and soul is in this."


Colorful past

"Do you have your lead yet?" inquires Levitan of this reporter for a third time, wondering how this profile will begin. He rattles off examples of creative introductions he wrote in the 1970s when he worked as a reporter for The Capital Times and the Madison Press Connection, a strike paper.

Levitan's journalism background is key to his identity. (A contributing writer to Isthmus, he's written pieces on Woodstock '95, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Muhammed Ali.) When he fields media questions, it's obvious he's visualizing his words in print; often, he'll pause to conjure up a precise word, or to restate quotes until he's satisfied with the sentence construction.

Asked about his core political beliefs, Levitan says: "It is our tendency to injustice that makes government necessary and our capacity for mercy that makes democracy possible."

Around Madison, Levitan's colorful past as an irreverent, flamboyant reporter has earned him a reputation. He recalls entering Waupun prison under "not completely forthcoming circumstances" to interview Karlton Armstrong, one of the Sterling Hall bombers. He also says he was banished from the mayor's office after printing -- in a newsletter he published called Scoopsheet -- that former Mayor Joel Skornicka purchased a sexually explicit magazine. (He fought his exile before the city's Ethics Board, and lost.)

Another longtime Levitan passion is music. His tastes are eclectic: Duke Ellington, Los Lobos, Ry Cooder, some Indian music and, of course, the Grateful Dead.

Levitan plays the saxophone and is learning bass. He's played at several Taste of Madison events in the band Johnny & the Nakomans with Rep. Scott Klug, although he admits they haven't "gigged together" in a while.

A lot of folks tell stories about Levitan, some of which he confirms. Yes, he was busted at Madison Square Garden in 1973 for impersonating a concessionaire, complete with uniform and beverage rack, just to get a better view of the Grateful Dead. It's also true he spent his first weekend of married life at a Dead show with his buddies. And he really did play softball on Jimmy Buffett's team against a White House team during the Carter years.

Not all the stories are true. Levitan denies, for instance, that he once smoked a joint at White House in Washington. When asked if he ever inhaled, he replies with an astonished laugh: "Let's put it this way. I'm 42 years old. I was 18 in 1971. I've enjoyed normal life experiences. Some I've enjoyed more than others."

Levitan credits his wife, Berceau, who he met in 1980, for straightening him out. He says the fact that he had a public persona at a young age -- he was the Cap Times' Washington correspondent when he was 21 -- may mean people still remember him as the guy who ran around with bushy long hair, cutoffs over long johns and flashy jewelry.

But, like other members of his generation, Levitan has matured -- politically and otherwise. In fact, he's now a health-crazed marathon runner, although he's temporarily out of commission with tendinitis.

Soglin, another person who found himself in the public eye at an early age, doesn't think Levitan's past will affect the race.

"He does have a long and colorful history, but I also think he has demonstrated effectiveness," says Soglin. "After we deal with financial issues at the state level, the next most important issue is the whole land-use and growth issue, which Stuart is prepared to address."


Stuart saves Dane County?

Levitan may still be a free spirit, but he's also a serious politician. He's fond of noting that during his five years on the County Board he brought newspaper recycling to Dane County communities and instituted a fair-housing ordinance. He's also earned a law degree, worked as a legislative aide, argued a case before the 7th District Court of Appeals, and interned for state Supreme Court Justice William Bablitch. He's also worked as a cabdriver, on the graveyard shift.

His current job, from which he's taken a leave of absence to campaign, is as a mediator/arbitrator for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. (As he puts it: "Spreading labor peace, imposing industrial justice.") Off the clock, he keeps busy serving as chair of the Madison Development Corporation, vice chair of the Madison Plan Commission and chair of the city's Starter Home task force.

Recently, he helped institute a new zoning code for smaller lots and narrower streets, in step with the traditional neighborhood/New Urbanism school of thought that now serves as a cornerstone of his campaign.

Levitan's campaign platform reads like most progressive agendas: abortion rights, accessible health care, comprehensive campaign-finance reform, increased aid for mass transit, making housing more affordable and fighting for affirmative action.

But topping his campaign literature is what he labels the "New Urban Agenda" for comprehensive and coordinated land use, transportation, housing and economic development. He says these issues are a synthesis of what he's spent the last 20 years doing and learning.

"Part of it is Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany and 'Nolen in the '90s,'" says Levitan. Among the specifics: Curtailing urban sprawl, reforming annexation, stopping the expansion of Highway 12, creating a regional transit authority and strengthening regional planning.

Levitan links land-use and transportation issues to economic development, saying companies that get public support should develop in areas reachable by mass transit and in ways that don't cause sprawl. These companies should also be required to create and retain good jobs. "It is only slightly melodramatic to say that if we sow the wind today of bad choices in land use, transportation, economic development and housing," he says, "we will reap the whirlwind tomorrow of a society that is ever more isolated, insular and divided."

Levitan, like Soglin, believes urban areas aren't getting treated fairly: "The last two years have been horrendous for cities. It is astonishing how anti-city Wisconsin government is right now." He promises to fight for a more equitable shared-revenue formula and to enact legislation that gives power to local governments on such issues as gun control and pesticides.

Levitan strongly opposed passage of a state law requiring women to wait 24 hours for an abortion. Last July, in testimony before an Assembly committee, he called the proposed legislation "an ugly and noxious attempt at social engineering." He suggested that if these restrictions were imposed on women, then men who plan to have unprotected sex with a woman of child-bearing age should first receive counseling by a medical practitioner, a minister, a financial consultant and an assistant DA, who will explain the laws of child support.

"I can safely predict," said Levitan, "that this course of action would substantially reduce the number of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies in the state of Wisconsin."


Passing the torch

Levitan kicked off his campaign on April 16 in the ornate Assembly parlor at the state Capitol, surrounded by local politicos, Berceau, his treasurer Virginia Hart and other supporters. Behind him a banner proclaimed his campaign slogan: "It's Time to Pass the Torch."

Yet Levitan insists he is running on his own merits, not against the 69-year-old Risser. In fact, he praises Risser's four decades of service as a steady liberal voice, and says he would likely have an identical voting record. Levitan's no fool -- he knows that running against a venerable incumbent requires a delicate touch.

"At one time or another, everyone whose vote I want has already voted for Fred, and they've probably done it time and time again," says Levitan. "I have to make it okay for them to vote to retire Sen. Risser without invalidating his 40 years of service."

Risser, for his part, says he's looking forward to an active, stimulating race focused on issues, although he hasn't started campaigning.

"I plan to announce a week or so after the legislative session is over," says Risser. "Right now, I'm devoting my full time to the session as constituents elected me to do." But Risser balks at Levitan's contention that it's time for a change: "I'm in my legislative prime, and I'm rarin' to go."

Levitan's early speeches primarily contain a few implied jabs at Risser. For example, he says if elected he'll serve only three four-year terms: "If I can't get done what I need to get done in 12 years, I should find another line of work." And when pressed to distinguish himself from the incumbent, Levitan vows to be more active and involved: "We don't have the luxury anymore of waiting for somebody else to take the lead or waiting for somebody else to draft the bills and bring them forward."

But Levitan also promises a clean and friendly race. "I'm not going to say anything in this campaign that I'd be embarrassed to say with him in the room." And if he loses, he says he'll endorse Risser in November against any Republican challenger. (Ann Neviaser and County Supv. Ruth Ann Schoer have been mentioned as possibilities.)

If Levitan does get the nomination, though, he'll have no qualms about "going medieval" in a no-holds-barred race against a Republican.

"The disingenuousness, to the point of hypocrisy, of conservatives who say they're against government regulation turns the stomach," seethes Levitan, who's just warming up. "To say repeal the minimum wage because we're against government regulation of the market, but oh yes, criminalize abortion. How bizarre of an inconsistency can you hold? I've heard of cognitive dissonance, but how they can remain upright and mobile holding thoughts like that is hard to fathom."


Love him or hate him

Democratic Capitol incumbents and insiders are reluctant to take sides on a Levitan-Risser match, knowing they'll have to work with whoever wins. Off the record, they handicap it as a race that could go either way.

One such observer says Risser -- like former Congressman Bob Kastenmeier, who lost to Scott Klug -- could be vulnerable just by virtue of being a long-term incumbent. But this same observer faults Levitan for being a partisan antagonist with a reputation of liking to hear himself talk.

MacCubbin, who serves with Levitan on two city committees, has heard people call Levitan arrogant, but chalks that up to his passion for the issues.

"Even his wife says that people either love him or hate him," notes MacCubbin. "But if he sometimes comes off as being aggressive or abrasive, it is to push home a point." Observing him in floor debate, MacCubbin admires how Levitan senses where problems may arise and works to build consensus. "He's good at brokering compromises on the floor and talking them through."

But GOP strategist Jim Pugh compares running against an institution like Risser to running against Mayor Daley on the South Side of Chicago. He doesn't think Levitan has a prayer.

"Stuart is a chronic candidate who has a credibility gap," asserts Pugh, who also has harsh words for the incumbent. "Fred Risser looks like a senator, he's old enough to be a senator. In fact, he's old enough to be a senator in the Roman senate." (Risser, by the way, is nearly four years younger than Bob Dole.)

Michael Christopher, who got 45% of the vote against Risser in 1992, chides Democrats for not embracing "new, energetic leaders."

"In some respects Republicans have done a better job of that in this state," says Christopher, who has endorsed Levitan. "We really need to open up our politics." He also fears that a plethora of other races against Republicans this fall, including Soglin versus Klug and the presidential race, may draw money and volunteers away from a Dem-on-Dem contest.

"There's a lot more local activity and interest in other races -- that could hurt Stuart," says Christopher. "Although the voters may say, Let's clean the house and start over fresh."

Levitan believes he has a better chance than Christopher. In 1992, when Christopher lost, there were also high-profile contests for Congress and U.S. Senate on the primary ballot, which works in favor of an incumbent with name recognition. Right now, it doesn't look like there'll be much else on the ticket for the primary this September. Also, in 1992, the Dems were in control and Risser was president of the Senate.

Besides, Levitan notes that when he ran for secretary of state against Doug La Follette in 1990, he carried the 26th Senate district.

Already, Levitan has raised $16,000 of what he hopes will be a $50,000 war chest. (In 1992, Risser and Christopher each spent around $60,000.) His radio and TV ads will begin airing soon. And he has events planned throughout the summer, including a "Pass the torch and watch fireworks" party at the lakeside home of mayoral aide Sally Miley, neighborhood brunches and a Door County-style fish boil. He plans to maintain a literature table at the Farmers' Market. And supporters say that with all the musicians working on his campaign, a catchy jingle is in the works.

"I'll wage a ground war, I'll wage an air war," says Levitan, who's clearly thriving on the rigors of the campaign. "Who knows, maybe there'll even be a torch-light parade to cap it all off."

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