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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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In defense of Madison
It's not just our missteps that make people resent us. Sometimes it's the things we do right
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Credit:David Nevala

"Good news always sleeps 'til noon."

That small piece of wisdom from Margo Timmins applies to my job pretty well. When my phone rings in the wee hours of the morning, it's never the comptroller telling me we've kept our Aaa bond rating, or the parks superintendent calling to say the golf courses made money last year.

Instead, it's the police or fire chief or some other official calling with bad news. At 4 a.m. last Dec. 8, it was Streets Superintendent Al Schumacher's voice I heard. "Your city's a mess, Mr. Mayor," he informed me. "I've activated the emergency operations center. I'll see you in five minutes."

I asked him to give me 10, pulled on some clothes and filled a thermos with coffee before wading out to Al's waiting car in front of my house. He had sent a plow ahead so we could get through the massive storm that was at its height, with hours of more snow to fall.

We headed for the Emergency Operations Center, a big conference room at the Water Utility outfitted for use as a temporary municipal nerve center with laptop computers, phones and TV screens. By 5 a.m. the place was fully staffed with about a dozen city managers from every agency that had a role to play in fighting the storm.

Most of the morning went smoothly. Virtually every employer and school was closed, keeping cars off the streets and giving our crews a chance to do their work.

And then, at around 11 a.m., Al presented me with a choice. We could keep plowing the side streets or divert trucks to salt the main arterials. We knew the temperature would drop by the evening, and if the salt didn't get a chance to work before then, the packed snow would bind to the pavement, making for a very bumpy and slick commute the next morning.

The problem was that most of our residential streets were still virtually impassable, and we were getting reports of power lines down and citizens in need of medical attention from shoveling or snowblower mishaps.

At that point, I had the fairly straightforward choice of opening residential streets for emergency vehicles or improving the next morning's commute.

I chose to put our crews on the side streets, sacrificing the convenience of the next day's commute for the safety of residents. I knew there'd probably be hell to pay.

There was. Madison's main thoroughfares were an ice rink for the next few days. People were angry.

Because the situation stemmed directly from a decision I made, I took responsibility, apologizing for the condition of the streets. My hope was that people who were mad would blame me and not Al or our crews.

That pretty much worked. I succeeded in focusing anger on me, where it belonged.

Still, it's one thing to take criticism from Madison residents. After all, I work for them. What I didn't count on was piling on from a state legislator from a district almost a hundred miles away. But that's what happened.

Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman issued a press release saying the condition of the streets in Madison was the direct result of my wacky liberal policies and those of previous generations of Madison mayors. He threatened to introduce legislation to strip the city of its jurisdiction over streets that were also state highways.

Not only was it annoying to get criticism from some guy from West Bend, but it didn't help that he had no idea what he was talking about. He blamed the city's longstanding policy to reduce the use of salt on our streets to protect the Madison lakes. But that had nothing to do with it because we do salt the arterials.

Then there was the hypocrisy factor. Grothman claims to be a conservative, against state interference with local decisions. But apparently that doesn't apply to Madison. He wants to tell us how to clear our streets after a snowstorm.

Finally, there's the issue of competence. Grothman's been in the Legislature for 17 years and his only notable accomplishment is authoring an amendment that sullied our state constitution by denying people of the same sex who love each other the right to get married. He's never managed a thing, never made a tough call under pressure after a short night's sleep.

So I'm thinking to myself: A guy who hasn't demonstrated an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time is telling me how to run my city? Really?

His fellow Madison-basher in the lower house is Rep. Steve Nass, Republican of Whitewater. Nass has spent a full two decades in the Legislature. His specialty is to beat up on the University of Wisconsin, but he took time out this spring to issue a press release attacking Madison for installing some pavement markings called a "bike box."

According to Nass, this is just part of the liberal, anti-car agenda. It starts with a little pavement marking and before you can say "euro" we're all sitting in cafes drinking small cups of really strong coffee, wearing berets and talking about Kafka and soccer.

Nass' solution, of course, was to propose more top-down legislation from the state telling local governments how to mark their streets.

I know it's not unusual for politicians to try to score cheap political points by running against "Washington" or "Madison." I suppose in North Dakota they run against those elitist clowns in snotty Bismarck. But in recent years, the anti-Madison streak in state politics has become more visceral and destructive, and I think I know why.

In the summer of 2008, on a long flight back from a trip to Europe, I read a book called Caught in the Middle by a retired journalist named Richard Longworth. It made an impression on me, in part because of how true it rang and in part because of where I was at the time.

Coming back from a trip to our sister city of Freiburg, Germany, with vacation stops in Nice and Paris, I got a sense of what it feels like to be part of the modern, global economic reality. (I know that last sentence will drive right-wingers crazy, but we really do have a lot to learn from Europe and the rest of the world. Our insular, America First attitude is hurting our ability to compete in a global economy.)

Longworth writes about the predicament of the Midwest. He argues that our agricultural economy depends on labor costs that can't work unless we embrace the inexpensive labor provided by immigrants. He also says our industrial economy is based on an archaic model of medium-sized cities focused on jobs related to the auto industry.

The economic future, Longworth says, is in the big cities where people from different backgrounds, educations and life experiences can mix it up and create new products. Medium-sized cities and agricultural communities have a much harder time making themselves viable in the new economy.

Chicago is the prototype of the successful economy because of its size, trade center economy, transportation hub and major universities. But throughout his book Longworth carves out an exception for smaller cities like Madison. University towns tend to do well in the new, ideas-based economy because they are idea factories.

Madison's greatest asset is not the state Capitol or our lakes, but the University of Wisconsin, which each September replenishes the city with 6,000 or so of the world's brightest 18-year-olds. I am here because I came to Madison to go to the university, but I could not get into this school today because of its sky-high academic standards. (In a very real way, those who wish I wasn't mayor can blame the lax admission standards of the 1970s.)

No other city in Wisconsin and few in the world have the advantages that Madison enjoys. The city has hitched its wagon to the new economy and does relatively better thanks to the university and state government.

Unemployment rates in Madison typically run much lower than the state average. The numbers for June 2010 show that our unemployment rate stands at 5.9%, which is high for us but pales in comparison to Janesville's 10.8% or Racine's 9.7%. And the statewide unemployment rate is 7.9%.

It's a similar story when it comes to property values. While the nation as a whole saw residential values fall by an average of 6.3%, Madison held its own, losing only 1.8% in last year's assessments. The average for Wisconsin as a whole was 5.7%.

So I can push back on Glenn Grothman and Steve Nass all I want, but they reflect a real disconnect from Madison based on economic reality. If they weren't out there exploiting this sentiment, someone else would be.

One reason Madison is so often attacked is that our city works phenomenally well - and not only because the state Legislature put what became a big university here in 1849.

For the last 40 years or so, we've been a laboratory of most every lefty idea you can imagine. And our liberal policies generally work.

Noble Wray is among the most progressive police chiefs in the nation, building on the changes made decades ago by his mentor David Couper and Couper's first boss, Paul Soglin. The result is just about the lowest crime rate of any city our size in the nation.

The network of neighborhood, community and senior centers that started long ago and was expanded dramatically in recent decades keeps kids (and senior citizens) off the streets and contributes to the orderliness of the community. Our most recent addition, the Meadowood Neighborhood Center on the city's southwest side, has helped drive a dramatic decline in police calls related to problems caused by young people.

Our environmental legacy, starting with the Park & Pleasure Drive campaigns of a century ago and including pioneering recycling and bike path projects in the 1970s, laid the foundation for our status as one of the greenest cities anywhere. This is just in time for an international municipal competition for greenness related to attracting the very kind of creative entrepreneurial types who build the new economy.

We have one of the best public school systems in the country because we value education and invest in it. School referendums rarely lose in Madison. The only thing that holds us back is the archaic state school aids formula.

We have four times the bus service you'd expect for a city our size. While I had to fight for an unpopular fare increase a couple of years ago, we increased our total hours of bus service last year and continued to grow ridership to historic levels, even as fuel prices came down. Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association reports that 84% of transit systems nationwide have cut service, raised fares or both.

We are a generous city. Madisonians give to charity at a rate much higher than most other communities. Recent reports rank our total charitable giving at 15th in the nation, putting us in the same league as larger cities like Chicago, New York or Seattle.

We get recognized in a host of top 10 lists, including best places to be gay and best places to raise a family. It turns out that Madison's welcoming attitude has not yet destroyed the American family. Go figure.

But those lefty policies do result in fiscal train wrecks, right? Actually, Madison has long enjoyed an Aaa bond rating, one of only a handful of cities that achieve that distinction. It means that bond-rating companies are telling investors it's safe to invest in us because we are a well-run, financially sound city.

And some of our crazy, liberal ideas look crazy and liberal only because we're ahead of our time. Madison's smoking ban, for instance, enacted in 2005, showed the rest of the state that banning smoking in restaurants would not ruin the industry. Now the entire state has followed suit.

Similarly, Madison's adoption of an increased minimum wage leveraged the same increase statewide (although at the same time the state shamefully took away the ability of local governments to increase the minimum wage in the future).

And I'm confident that Dane County voters' lonely vote in 2006 against the blatantly discriminatory "marriage amendment" banning same-sex marriage portends a reversal in the next decade or so.

The kind of resentment you hear from Nass and Grothman isn't new. In 1975, Lee Dreyfus uttered the often-quoted quip that Madison was a certain number of square miles "surrounded by reality."

No one, including Gov. Dreyfus in his later years, was certain what number he used. The most reliable account puts this number at 35, even though Madison was larger at the time. (The city now weighs in at 77.4 square miles, not including water.) But it was a good line, and even those of us who love Madison know what he was talking about.

For instance, I keep four plastic pink flamingos in my conference room window to remind visitors that the Madison Common Council and I named them the official city bird. But the birds fared better than other official designations.

When I appointed a committee to select an official city song as part of our sesquicentennial celebrations, the group met for months and went into its final meeting with four choices. At this meeting, they narrowed their selection to five.

Earlier this summer, when a rotting willow tree was removed by city crews at the request of an east-side homeowner whose house was under it, the neighbors put votive candles and flowers on the stump. They imprinted their children's handprints on it and left a notebook out so that people could record their feelings about the tree.

Not to be outdone, residents in my own near-west-side neighborhood carried on a spirited listserv debate about whether to include an egg toss at the annual Regent Neighborhood Fourth of July picnic. People are hungry and here we are tossing around food like it's a game (which, of course, the egg toss actually is). Someone suggested replacing the eggs with water balloons, an idea that seemed to have traction until someone else pointed out that birds might choke on the tiny balloon remnants. In the end it was decided to collect canned goods at the picnic to make up for the food waste. The games went on.

I love this stuff. We should embrace our quirkiness. Austin has a bumper sticker that says "Keep Austin Weird." I wish we had thought of that. Maybe we should have one that says "I Love Madison: What's So Great About Reality?"

Madison should not be like every other place, but I don't want to be disliked either. We should want to be thought of as the eccentric uncle in the Badger family, but not the enemy.

The best idea Wisconsin ever had is the Wisconsin Idea the notion that the University of Wisconsin ought to connect to the life of the community. It's worked: Madison and the UW are virtually the same thing in many people's minds. And the UW has a role to play in rebuilding the connections between Wisconsinites and their capital city.

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin families just like mine benefited from a world-class and affordable education that their kids received right here in Madison, and all that education didn't take place on the campus itself.

The UW Hospital literally saves thousands of lives every year. The pharmacy school helps produce many small-town druggists. The School of Education helps churn out teachers in schools all over the state. The Ag School and the UW Extension have made local farms more productive and sustainable. The county judge may have received his J.D. at the law school.

And, importantly, all those upstanding and productive members of countless Wisconsin communities explored ideas and experiences that rounded them out outside of the classroom and inside the Madison community.

And I'm not just talking about sex and drugs and rock and roll. The other day, I toured a new community garden where area teenagers are growing food for their neighbors and picking up a small paycheck (their first ever) under the tutelage of a UW student.

Wisconsin would be a poorer state if not for the big land grant university on the shores of Lake Mendota. It's time we told that story better.

And, of course, Madison is fun. There's nothing like a Badger football game or Halloween on State Street or the Dane County Farmers' Market or an afternoon on the Union Terrace. I'll bet even conservative Republicans from West Bend have had some fun in Madison from time to time.

People beat up on Madison the way they pick on lawyers and politicians (two of our leading exports). When you're perceived to have power or advantages, you're fair game and that's fair enough. But when the criticism goes beyond the playful chiding of Lee Dreyfus' quip and starts to take hold in state policies like the attack on the UW's budget, we've got a problem.

And the problem isn't just Madison's. Because if the upshot of all that Madison bashing is to weaken a great university or run down the strongest local economy in the state or resist progressive policies that enhance our ability to compete in a rapidly changing world, that's bad for everybody.

We should be good-natured about accepting the ribbing our fellow Wisconsinites like to dish out. But the serious point shouldn't be to make Madison more like the rest of the state; it should be to make the rest of the state more like Madison.

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