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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
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Bridget Maniaci criticizes Paul Soglin's style and agenda in her run for mayor of Madison
'There's no real sense of direction'
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Maniaci: 'There's been so much attention on downtown. I'm interested in talking about other things.'
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Bridget Maniaci had high hopes that she would be able to work with Paul Soglin when he was returned to office in 2011.

Soglin had endorsed Maniaci for the Common Council in 2009 when she upset the liberal stalwart Brenda Konkel, who represented the near east side. And, Maniaci says, she often talked with Soglin about the Edgewater Hotel project, which became a focus of much of her two terms in office.

But her relationship with Soglin was not warm and fuzzy. "It was quite heartbreaking to see the opportunity to work together dissolve, on small issues and big issues," Maniaci now says, blaming the mayor. "The spirit changed within city hall. I did not get the sense there was an open-door policy. Issues became political fights that never needed to be political fights. The goal of reaching a solution and consensus was not the primary focus of discussions."

It's partly because of those charged political battles that Maniaci says she will challenge Soglin next year for mayor. She floated the idea last year before moving to Pittsburgh to work on a master's degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University.

Although Maniaci is back in Madison now, she is still working on her degree, which she expects to finish in December. She plans on taking short trips back to Pittsburgh during the fall while she works up her final group project -- and simultaneously running for mayor.

At just 30, Maniaci is one of two from a younger generation looking to challenge Madison's long-serving mayor. Ald. Scott Resnick, who is 27 is also contemplating a bid, though he has yet to formally declare.

Like Resnick, Maniaci criticizes Soglin's style and his agenda. She says under Soglin, the city feels "stagnant."

"There's no real sense of direction," she says, pointing to the lack of a homeless day shelter and a multi-modal transit center, two long-term city goals. "There's no cohesive strategy for what anybody is working on."

Maniaci admits beating Soglin won't be easy, but she says one of the things she loves about Madison is that it welcomes all comers, regardless of pedigree.

"I've always appreciated having come from a city where I didn't need a personal fortune or have to come from a political family to get involved and get engaged."

Beating Brenda

Brenda Konkel had become a polarizing figure on the Common Council by 2009. She was a fierce advocate for open government, the poor, the working class, and neighborhood interests. But some found her strident and inflexible and wanted her gone.

Maniaci seemed an unlikely candidate for the task. Her only political experience at the time was interning in the offices of both Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and state Rep. Tom Hebl (D-Sun Prairie). But she came in second in the primary, beating out three other challengers. The establishment quickly aligned behind her for the general election. Three mayors, Cieslewicz, Soglin and Joe Sensenbrenner, all endorsed her, appearing in a photo with her. She also got a nod from the district's former alder, David Wallner.

Maniaci narrowly won the general election. And some of those early supporters are noncommittal today.

Says Wallner: "I think Paul is doing a good job, things are steady, the economy is picking up. He still merits another term. Bridget is probably too inexperienced [to be mayor]."

Sensenbrenner, who is president of the board at the Center for Resilient Cities, where Maniaci works as an associate, says he hasn't decided whom to endorse for mayor. "It's healthy for the city to have a vigorous discussion of our future," he says. "The field [of candidates for mayor] is one I think will increase, and that's healthy for the city."

Maniaci has not announced her campaign staff, but she has at least one notable endorsement: John Wiley, former chancellor of UW-Madison.

In office, Maniaci was quickly thrust into the battle over the redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel. The neighborhood and historic preservationists were largely opposed, but Maniaci championed the project, to eventual success.

Maniaci says she'd like to see the city make strides on development in other parts of the city, not just downtown. She would try to develop more affordable housing.

"There's a lot of places that should be able to support good housing, retail and job opportunities," she says. "There's been so much attention on downtown. I'm interested in talking about other things."

She does not have a firm position on the $200 million Judge Doyle Square -- a project Resnick says could be central to the campaign.

"What I need critical answers to is what will this hotel get us in terms of changes to Monona Terrace and their booking?" she says. "Given the success of Wisconsin Dells in booking conventions, what is the strategy and what are we going for? What kind of class in convention improvement and capacity will we see? Is this just a marginal bump in convention booking or will this make us competitive with the Dells?"

A place at the table

In studying Madison, Maniaci has looked at demographic maps of the city. She noticed that the ethnic makeup of neighborhoods hadn't changed much between 1940 and 2010.

For her, it underscores a crucial problem facing the city -- a lack of diversity and inclusiveness. If she is elected, Maniaci says she'd make it a goal to get more people involved in city government.

"You have voices in this community today who are very under-represented and are not at the table in the conversations in city hall," she says. "If you're working hard and you have children... to even be engaged and come down to city hall, it's very difficult."

Maniaci thinks technology is key to broadening participation. She says Pittsburgh's city council spurred more involvement by making proposed resolutions available to everyone on Google Docs, allowing people to comment directly on proposals.

"Technology gives us a great advantage to open up the doors to city hall to new crowds, to new sources of citizens that are not regularly at the table," she says.

Getting elected

Ald. Mark Clear says that Maniaci will need some of those new faces in order to get elected. Clear sees the younger generation as key to her chances. But, he adds, "Young people traditionally don't participate, except in districts where there's a high concentration of them, like the district she represented."

Ald. Mike Verveer, a Soglin ally, says it will take more than attacking the mayor's style to beat him.

"His personality is a double-edge sword," Verveer says. "He can be gruff or rude at times, and other times it can be a breath of fresh air.... A lot of people appreciate that he doesn't put on airs. He is who he is, and people know who they're getting."

Aside from Maniaci and Resnick, Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and former Police Chief Noble Wray have been mentioned as candidates. (Neither returned recent calls from Isthmus.)

Ald. Larry Palm doesn't see Maniaci mounting a serious challenge, comparing her campaign to state Rep. Brett Hulsey's outsider bid for governor. "I don't think she has an appeal to attract a large demographic," he says.

But Palm does think a strong challenger could emerge. He notes that Soglin's latest campaign report (PDF), from January, shows he owes $18,500 to his campaign manager, Melissa Mulliken.

"That's not a position an incumbent wants to be in," Palm says. "An incumbent should have name recognition, a history of achievements and funding."

A strong opponent, Palm argues, could siphon funding away from the mayor. He thinks Resnick, Bidar-Sielaff and Wray could pose such a threat, adding: "I don't anticipate Bridget taking away significant funding."

Mulliken says Soglin has since repaid his campaign debt to her. In an email, she writes: "The mayor has very deep, widespread support and we are absolutely confident we'll have all the resources we need to win this race."

Clear says the dynamics of the race have yet to take hold, and like others, he expects several candidates to declare.

"There's some sort of dark horse out there," Clear says. "I don't have any idea who it is. But someone else will jump in, someone we haven't expected."

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