Despite an intense flurry of politicking via phone, online, and in person, the outcome of the vote for the next chair of the Dane County Democratic Party wasn't close. Incumbent chair Wayne Bigelow handily defeated challenger Russell Wallace at the party's membership meeting in the Concourse Hotel on Wednesday evening by a vote of 208 to 123.
The second floor ballroom in the downtown hotel was overflowing as the main event got rolling shortly after 7 p.m., as Democrats new and established, young and old, turned out to cast a ballot in the contentious leadership battle. Wallace, a recent vice-chair for the party, was seeking to replace the four-year chair Bigelow, each offering competing visions of growing the party as it gears up for county elections in the spring and the state and national races next fall.
The race has largely been cast in oppositional terms over the last few weeks, though, with more zealous supporters of both candidates roundly and regularly criticizing the other. The passions it aroused was a reminder of the perennial battle between competing factions of the Dane Dems, one that is often expressed in nasty electoral, and sometimes personal, battles at the city and county level.
Many local elected officials were present at the meeting, everybody from Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (who spoke following the vote) to multiple members of the county board, not to mention current Wisconsin state representatives and senators and former officeholders like Paul Soglin and Austin King. Nearly every local Democratic elected official was there, it seems, except for those in the Madison Common Council, who were busy with budget deliberations, including candidates for most of these bodies.
The focus of the meeting was a brief debate, with each candidate delivering brief opening and closing stump speeches around an open Q&A session. While both Bigelow and Wallace looked to sell themselves in their statements, the questions reflected the antagonistic nature of the campaign. The role of Progressive Dane, the repercussions of Wallace's blogging, his relationship with the UW-Madison College Democrats, and the ability of the Dane Dems to support their counterparts in adjacent counties were the major subjects of discussion, topics that largely served to keep the challenger on the defensive.
'I am not and have never been a member of Progressive Dane," said Wallace, poking fun at claims of his involvement with the local third party while making his non-membership with the group clear. "I do not publish a blog and I will never publish a blog," declared Bigelow to applause, a sign that his opponent has rankled feathers with his online writing.
Blogging in fact, was a major element to the debate. Wallace's comments on the issue of race in the UW College Dems role in the District 8 campaign between Eli Judge and Lauren Woods last spring helped spur some 40 members of that group to turn out en masse in support of Bigelow. One of these students was Steven Lawrence, who live-blogged the entirety of the meeting, regularly underscoring his opposition to Wallace and other progressive activists supporting the challenger.
"I really respected what Wayne said that he doesn't have any plans to blog," said Lawrence. "I don't think that's an appropriate place to call out elected officials when you are one yourself. I think blogs are a great thing for holding elected officials accountable, but when you are ripping people apart on it, I think that ends up really dividing people rather than uniting them."
Bigelow says Wallace has upset many people with his writing. "It's not as if I haven't said the wrong thing in a public setting, but I always know when to apologize for it," he said. "When you blog, it's like you're talking to the public, and Russell just kept on pushing and pushing."
For his party, Wallace discusses his writing in terms of his activism. "I've never been afraid to challenge people when I think they're doing something wrong," he said. "I've considered removing stuff from my blog because I knew it would be used against me, but frankly that would not be intellectually honest. I wrote and put my name on it, unlike a lot of the College Dems who criticize me. I am not afraid to stand by what I wrote."
Ultimately, not many people were surprised by the outcome, with various attendees supporting both candidates speculating that Bigelow would emerge the victor and continue in his chairmanship. While the meeting continued after the vote was announced, many activists attending it took their leave, the small talk in the corridors underscoring the continuing divide between the Dane Dems' competing factions.
"I'm not surprised by the result tonight," said Vicky Selkowe, a member of both the Dane Dems and PD who describes the outcome as a "lost opportunity" for reexamining the party's priorities. "There are a lot of local progressive Democrats who are weary of Wayne Bigelow's unjustified and unrelenting obsession with Progressive Dane. I'm sure they, like me, hope that Wayne will now decide to stop his divisive attacks on PD and will instead be the kind of party chair we all want, who singularly focuses his energy on strengthening and building the party."
Bigelow says the vote totals speak for themselves. "Given my background and success with the Democratic Party," he notes, "we just had a huge turnout, and the majority like what I've been doing."
Wallace isn't going to drop his efforts within the party, though. "Succeeding in politics is about staying in for the long run, and the last guy standing wins," he said, a sign that this tussle for power will undoubtedly continue.