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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Spencer Black, on passing the torch
Longtime state rep urges those who follow to connect with grass roots
Black: 'Don't just look inside the Capitol.'
Black: 'Don't just look inside the Capitol.'

Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison), who announced last week that he is stepping down after 26 years in the state Assembly, has served in the Legislature for longer than all but eight people in the history of the state. And yet a recent call to his office was answered by Black himself.

That level of accessibility helps explain why Black has been in office so long, and he recommends that his successor take the same approach. County Board members Brett Hulsey of Madison and Dianne Hesselbein of Middleton have expressed an interest in running for the 77th Assembly District seat, as has former Middleton mayor Doug Zwank.

"Rely on and work to bring forward the voice of the people," he says. "Don't just look inside the Capitol and the people you see in the Capitol. Make an effort to bring about broad participation."

This philosophy was integral to one of Black's proudest achievements - passing a moratorium on mining in the late '90s. "That involved tens of thousands of citizens coming into the political process to lean on their legislators to support this and say no to Exxon," Black says of the effort. "That took speeches in gyms, talking to interested groups and helping them organize."

Does Black have any advice for working with Republicans? It comes down to this: Don't get your hopes up.

"Dealing with Republicans now is a challenge. They've adopted the approach to be against everything. They've been nicknamed the 'G-No-P.'"

Black's least-favorite two years in office was when he served as minority leader, starting in 2001. "There's an expectation that the leaders will be the chief fundraisers," he says. "The money flow is always on the mind of legislators. They do at times make decisions that don't lead to more campaign money, but they're always thinking about it."

For his part, Black refused to accept any money from any lobbyist, political action committee or out-of-state resident. He hopes his successor makes a similar pledge.

He has no concrete plans after politics. "The next seven months I'm still in office. After that, I don't know," he says. "I'm turning 60 this month, so I'm still energetic enough to do something different with my life."

Improving safety at Allied

The Allied Area Task Force is releasing its report on neighborhood safety and security. The task force, created in November 2005, has concentrated its energy on three areas: housing, employment and safety.

The 27-page report (PDF) contains recommendations on police/community relations, the upkeep and management of apartment buildings, traffic, child safety, drug dealing and other issues. It is expected to be presented to the Common Council in late summer.

Florenzo Cribbs, Allied Neighborhood Association president and a task force member, says there's "a disconnect between the neighborhood and the police department." He hopes the report helps to remedy the situation.

County Supv. Carousel Andrea Bayrd, another task force member, says many people in the neighborhood don't feel invested in it. While she thinks the report is good, she believes the "big safety issues are on some level intangibles."

Many neighborhood residents are poor, which forces them to work odd hours. And that in turn makes it difficult to get involved in the neighborhood.

"I don't know how you solve things like that," Bayrd says. "On some level, it's almost impossible. These are issues inherent to lower-income communities. But talking about it is a good first step."

Ald. Brian Solomon says the task force plans to solicit additional input by going door-to-door and holding a community meal to talk about the report. And he hopes it will continue its work.

"One of the things we do in Madison is start fixing a neighborhood and then decide the work is done," he says. "This would be the worst time to walk away."

Pinckney Street pizzazz

Plans are afoot to construct a small plaza off the Capitol Square, next to the new Madison Children's Museum at Pinckney, Hamilton and Mifflin streets. The plaza will eventually host performances and an annual street fair sponsored by the Rotary Club of Madison.

The city will raise part of the pavement on Pinckney Street - similar to how the street is raised in front of the Madison Municipal Building - and make other infrastructure improvements.

The Rotary Club is donating $30,000 to provide seating and a small concrete stage, where there will be occasional performances in connection with the museum. The Rotary is also providing funding for a public art piece, as yet to be determined. And it plans to hold an annual June festival at the site, starting in 2013.

"It's an underutilized area of the Square," says Laura Peck, chair of the Rotary's Centennial Celebration Committee. "With the Children's Museum coming and the YWCA's rehabilitation, it's going to be a lot more active. It's a corner that could use a significant piece and some pizzazz."

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