During the "People's Candidate Forum" at the Barrymore Theatre Tuesday night, the two candidates for Madison mayor and the two candidates for Dane County executive sat on the stage behind two tables draped with white linen as they answered questions from neighborhood groups and each other.
One of those candidates, former mayor Paul Soglin, consistently stood up when speaking. His opponent, current Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, and the two candidates for county executive, Eileen Bruskewitz and Joe Parisi, remained seated when speaking.
Was Soglin trying to appear mayoral and speak with authority? Was he having trouble controlling his exuberance? Or was this a subtle way of going on the attack, without appearing overtly aggressive?
It was hard to tell. The gesture seemed odd at times, but Soglin persisted in doing it, as though this simple act might help him gain the status of iconoclast. But both mayor candidates seemed generally at ease with the liberal east-side crowd, garnering applause when they championed progressive ideals and laughter when they cracked jokes. (Choice jokes: Soglin on the setting, "Only at the Barrymore do we get questions that are longer than the time allotted to answer them;" Cieslewicz when a toddler shrieks while he's talking about federal mass transit funding, "Let's hear it for the federal government.")
This wasn't the case with the county executive candidates. Both seemed stiffer, more polite, and at times, more boring. Parisi-speaking in his neighborhood-drew some of the loudest applause of the evening. In contrast, Bruskewitz was occasionally booed and heckled, including when she made a serious miscalculation by echoing one of Gov. Scott Walker's catch phrases: "Dane County needs to be open for business."
Both races will be decided on April 5 -- the mayor serving a four-year term; the county executive will finish out the final two years of the term of Kathleen Falk, who resigned early.
Soglin did go on the attack at times during the debate. He questioned the way that Cieslewicz portrayed his time in office. "The mayor just said he increased funding for community services budget by 53%. It's now at the level I left it at 14 years ago. That's all we've accomplished." He also questioned the mayor's commitment to diversity and poverty reduction.
One of the most interesting parts of the forum came when questions each candidate had prepared for his or her opponent were read. Cieslewicz asked Soglin why he'd resigned as mayor in 1997, if the job was the best one he'd ever had. Soglin responded that he resigned because he was in the middle of Congressional campaign and that his campaign found he was a popular mayor -- so he resigned to remove that as a factor. But he added that he regrets the decision, "not for personal reasons but because of what happened after I left office."
Meanwhile, Parisi asked Bruskewitz why she supported Walker and his dismantling of public bargaining rights. "I felt he was the only candidate facing the fiscal crisis," Bruskewitz responded. "I do believe Walker has started a conversation that was long overdue."
At the beginning of the forum, a moderator promised the crowd there would be no questions like "if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"
That wasn't entirely the case. The final question of the night was what do the candidates think is most misunderstood about them. The mayoral candidates both ignored the question and gave closing statements.
Bruskewitz tried to explain her position as a fiscal conservative, saying, "I don't like to waste money. I don't like to waste my money, I don't like to waste your money." And she added, "I'm not Scott Walker."
But the neighborhood guy, Parisi, got the last word. Earlier in the night, he said, a reporter asked him: "You're such a nice guy. Are you tough enough to be county executive."
Parisi's response was that "nice does not equal weak. Nice does not equal dispassionate. I think I've shown my passion."