Minutes into Thursday's forum for Madison mayoral candidates, moderator John Nichols issued a directive. "This is not," he warned, "going to be a Soglin-Cieslewicz debate."
But, as it turned out, two of the other three candidates at the event in downtown Madison didn't put up much of a fight.
"About 12-15% of the population votes in municipal elections here in Madison," admitted candidate Nick Hart, "and more than likely they'll split the majority between Mayor Dave and Paul Soglin."
While Hart, a former comedian, said he was "just trying to get more people involved and change the voting dynamic." Meanwhile, candidate Dennis de Nure conceded his was "not a serious candidacy," intended only to promote his "Museum Mile" proposal.
This left construction supervisor and self-proclaimed "reform candidate" John Blotz to do serious battle with former mayor Soglin and incumbent Cieslewicz before a group of citizens packing Capitol Lakes' Grand Hall. He accused Cieslewicz of "fostering a culture of intimidation" and poorly managing public employees.
"Our citizen committees and our professional public employees ... should be able to do as they see fit without fear of retaliation, of bullying," said Blotz. "We need honesty and integrity in government."
Cieslewicz disputed these charges, as well as defending himself on the Edgewater Hotel expansion and the upcoming public market project on the government East ramp. And he bemoaned the loss of high-speed rail, calling it a "tremendous mistake of tragic and historic proportions," earning himself a round of applause.
"[Gov. Scott] Walker took us from the top of the list [for high speed rail] and put us at the bottom... but you know what? There's still a list, and we're working our way back up," said Cieslewicz."Some day, we will get high-speed transportation."
Cieslewicz outlined his vision for a public market and underground parking space at the site where the high-speed depot would have gone, dubbing it a "great public amenity."
De Nure suggested that a public market might steal business from businesses like Willy Street Co-Op or Fresh Market. Hart's big idea was that Madison legalize and tax the sale of cannabis and begin large-scale hemp production.
Soglin said the public market's future depended on whether the city could first face up to its existing debts: "My commitment to the market depends on the level of borrowing, debt increase."
Cieslewicz fired back, saying the issue of debt wasn't a new one and that this is the time to "get bullish about borrowing," given current low interest rates.
Despite being largely on the defensive on this and other issues, Mayor Dave sought to cast himself as the city's defender.
"What's going on down the street is nothing less than an assault on our modern economy," he said of the new power structure at the Capitol. "One reason I'm excited for this campaign is the opportunity to make the case against [Walker]."
Soglin framed it differently: "We're entering a new era. We're entering a complicated era. We're entering an era where we're not sure of the state government."
The former mayor noted that, during his terms, Gov. Tommy Thompson represented an opposing party, yet Soglin still managed to put through projects including Monona Terrace and University Research Park.
Cieslewicz, in turn, said of Soglin, "We'll compare records and we'll talk about history and all that's fine... but a campaign is really about the future. It's about who you think has the best ideas and the energy and the ability to address the problem the city's going to face."