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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Hizzoner vs. Mayor Dave: Two iconic Madison pols battle to lead a threatened city
Both are capable, both known quantities. Who is better suited for the challenges Madison must face?
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Credit:Phil Ejercito

When Paul Soglin is asked why he's running for mayor once again after two earlier stints in office, he cites his love for Madison and tells an anecdote involving his wife, Sara, who encouraged him by saying "You're happiest when you're mayor."

Soglin, who's 66, will always be known as "Hizzoner da Mare" to several generations of Madisonians, and a good case can be made that he and the mayor's office were a perfect Zen pairing. Like the bow and the arrow, "Soglin" and "mayor" were oneness in action for 14 years.

But those were different times. Whether Soglin, who was mayor from 1973 to 1979 and again from 1989 to 1997, still casts enough of a spell on Madison voters to oust incumbent Dave Cieslewicz will be decided April 5.

Cieslewicz, who wears the sobriquet "Mayor Dave" as comfortably as Soglin did "Hizzoner," has his own claim to the city's zeitgeist. He's playful, philosophical, progressive and politically pushy in a way that perfectly captures Madison's bourgie-hip liberal style.

But after eight years in office, Cieslewicz, 52, has suffered the usual dings and dents of a long incumbency, having angered some early supporters to the point that they see the old guy Soglin as a fresh opportunity.

This is quite a turn of events.

In 2003, after primary voters unceremoniously dumped failed incumbent Sue Bauman, Cieslewicz was the new kid who outboxed the legendary Soglin in the general election, winning 29,717-28,528. Considering that Soglin had resigned from the mayor's office in 1997 after losing an ill-fated challenge of U.S. Rep. Scott Klug in 1996 (he got creamed 57% to 41%), that second straight loss seemingly ended his storied career.

But the death notice was premature. Soglin showed plenty of life - and smarts - with his unexpected win in the Feb. 15 primary, topping Cieslewicz 18,693 to 17,500. He tapped into the unhappiness of central-city neighborhood leaders and put together a seemingly contradictory coalition of east-side progressive notables like Brenda Konkel, Barbara Vedder and Bert Zipperer with developers like Terrence Wall, George Gialamas and Randy Alexander.

As surprising as this mix was, it was no more head-turning than Cieslewicz's own transformation from the enviro-neighborhood-left candidate in 2003 to the establishment's favorite in 2011. Mayor Dave enjoys the support of the dominant business groups, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Madison Inc., and of such local business titans as MGE's Gary Wolter, First Weber Group's James Imhoff and the University Research Park's Mark Bugher. He's also backed by union groups representing Teamsters, the building trades and AFSCME.

With Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposals threatening to blow a huge hole in the Dane County economy, Madison is lucky to have two smart, experienced, well-spoken candidates. As we'll see, the winner will be greeted with extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Let's look at what Cieslewicz and Soglin will bring to the challenge.

Mayor Dave gives a meat-and-potatoes pitch for reelection. He's the guy who put 64 new cops on the street, added a new fire station, increased community service spending by 53%, greened up the city, tamed the Halloween bacchanal and moved decisively to address the mounting poverty and crime problems on Allied Drive.

He says the city "invested north of $10 million" on Allied Drive housing and other improvements. "We demonstrated the political will and the ability to take on a big problem," he says, noting that police calls were subsequently cut by half and housing affordability maintained.

Cieslewicz takes credit for moving the city forward while budgeting responsibly, including for "the three toughest years since the Depression," and maintaining the city's AAA bond rating. As he put it, "We have demonstrated that we can manage the city even in these difficult times."

In making the case for his election, Soglin highlights his competence as a chief executive and his successes on big, complicated projects: the Monona Terrace Convention and Community Center, the State Street Mall, the Capitol Concourse, the old Civic Center, as well as thousands of units of affordable housing.

Soglin also stresses his efforts to advance the cause of women in city government. This includes the breakthroughs in the 1970s, when reluctant police and fire departments opened their ranks to women, and the fact that he freely hired women to run city departments.

But the heart of the Soglin campaign is necessarily negative: He must convince voters that Cieslewicz hasn't earned a third four-year term. His bill of particulars includes charges that Cieslewicz mishandled the Edgewater Hotel expansion, borrowed excessively at the risk of the city's premier bond rating, demoralized city staff with personnel moves and fumbled major downtown projects.

Cieslewicz sees Madison as a cutting-edge city and is upbeat about its ability to prosper in the new tech and green economy. Soglin worries that, for the first time, the Madison economy is growing slower than the rest of Dane County. And he never fails to mention at every forum how worrisome is the mounting poverty in Madison schools.

For Soglin, these are troubling signs of urban decline and one more reason the city needs a fresh face in the mayor's office.

One campaign flashpoint has been the $90 million Edgewater Hotel expansion, with its $16 million city subsidy. Cieslewicz has forcefully advocated for this project, saying it will improve lake access, provide needed jobs for the building trades, and improve the tax base.

At a recent Downtown Madison Inc. forum, the mayor also argued that the project sent an important signal: "that during the deepest recession since the Great Depression Madison was willing to be aggressive and work with developers."

But for neighborhood activists, the project sent the wrong signal - that Cieslewicz was willing to bully city commissions and city staff to push development in the city's most venerable historic district.

Cieslewicz, says Soglin, "embraced a specific project and design, which led to problems. It preempted the neighborhood and gave the developer the mistaken belief that the mayor had his back. He figured: 'I got a commitment from the mayor, so I'm good to go.' That led to two years of chaos."

For Soglin, it all comes down to knowing how to lead. It's okay for a mayor to embrace a project early on, but it's a mistake to commit to a specific approach, he argues. Instead, the mayor should let the project work its way through city commissions, let the neighborhood sound off, empower city staff to give their professional opinions and only intervene if the process gets bogged down.

Soglin calls it the Tom Sawyer approach to leadership: Get the right people together and let them paint the fence while you watch.

Cieslewicz furrows his brow at this, saying the mayor's job isn't being facilitator-in-chief. He also says Soglin himself was far more assertive during his own stints as mayor than he lets on now.

On important public policy issues like the Edgewater expansion, Cieslewicz told the downtown Rotary Club, the mayor "should stand up and say, 'Yes, I support it, yes, I will try to make it happen.'"

But Soglin charges that Cieslewicz has repeatedly let big projects collapse after lengthy investments in planning. This includes the Gary Gorman housing plan for the Don Miller site on East Washington Avenue and the Fiore Companies' ambitious plan for a mixed-use library project off the Square.

With savvier mayoral leadership, Soglin says, both projects could have been saved.

(Soglin says that, if elected, he won't block the Edgewater expansion, as the project has already received key city approvals. But the stand-alone library plan Cieslewicz is pursuing "is going to be on the table" in light of the harsh implications of Gov. Walker's budget.)

Cieslewicz feels the plug was pulled on the Fiore and Gorman projects for good reason and at staff's urging. He argues that subsequent plans - city purchase of the Don Miller property for resale to developers and a new, cheaper, stand-alone and green-friendly library - are superior alternatives.

Moreover, Cieslewicz points to successful projects like Monroe Commons, Sequoia Commons and the new Target store at Hilldale being built during his watch. But he's never pulled off a marquee downtown development like Soglin repeatedly did.

And, after eight years, many of Mayor Dave's most ambitious plans for the isthmus are still drawing-board dreams - Central Park, the Public Market, the Capitol East District.

Whoever wins the election is going to face excruciatingly hard times making ends meet. Madison and Dane County have yet to climb out of the recessionary trough in terms of lost jobs and lost income. Now the Walker budget cuts are coming.

"They're going to hit us much worse than other cities because of our concentration of government workers," says Kay Plantes, an MIT-trained economist who works as a local business consultant.

Federal figures show that one in four workers in metropolitan Madison pull a government check. If the recession was the earthquake, she says, Walker's policies are the tsunami.

Aaron Olver, the city's new economic development director, estimates the impact of Walker's policies on state employees will drain $250 million from the Madison-area community. "That will hit the economy like a loss of at least 1,400 to 1,900 jobs," he says.

Because he's using the most conservative assumptions, Olver warns this is a low-ball estimate. The damage, he says, "will actually be worse."

What's more, his calculations do not weigh the consequences of the governor's aid cuts for the city, the county, the University of Wisconsin and Madison College.

At this point, neither Cieslewicz nor Soglin seems to have absorbed the magnitude of this financial threat.

They have, however, thrown their support behind unions in their struggle with the Walker administration.

Cieslewicz, in an effort to put the city's 12 unions on equal footing, led the effort to extend and standardize their contracts to a common expiration date in 2012 and possibly to 2014.

"I don't have a single second thought about it," the mayor says.

The extension means city workers won't immediately make the same benefit concessions that have been forced on state workers, plus they'll get pay raises.

Soglin pleads ignorance when asked if Cieslewicz did the right thing on the contracts. "I don't know what was asked. I don't know what was said" between the city and the unions, he says.

He grimly adds that even if collective bargaining is somehow saved for public employees, the city is "deep in the woods in terms of lost state revenue."

Soglin, in an interview, refused to speculate on what the Walker budget means for the Madison economy, but given the dark cloud that seemed to pass over his demeanor, happy thoughts were not part of his internal deliberations.

Cieslewicz, meanwhile, became feisty when told that a study of comparable college towns found Madison trailing the pack in job creation and new business start-ups.

"Sometimes Madison has a way of looking for a dark cloud in every silver lining," he said, noting that Madison's 4.4% unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation.

Which of the two is better poised to lead Madison into an uncertain future?

Bugher has an interesting take. He begins by saying Cieslewicz has done "a good job" as mayor, then amends this to say he's done "a workmanlike job."

"Dave has handled the challenges by and large," says Bugher, in a not totally enthusiastic way.

Asked about Soglin, Bugher calls him an iconic symbol of Madison. "In many ways, he's the ultimate contrarian leader - unpredictable, charismatic and certainly smart and knowledgeable about government. The real question is, does he represent the future for Madison, or is it just people wistfully remembering the good old days?"

That's one of the questions voters will answer April 5.

More coverage of the mayoral race can be found in one sidebar about the Overture Center, and in another about the candidates' biggest regret.

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