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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Jan. 14, 1977: Mayor Paul Soglin becomes 'acceptable' in his run for reelection

It is Thursday night at the Blackhawk Country Club. The staid little Village of Shorewood Hills lies still and cold 'neath the pale light of a wintry Wisconsin moon, and in a posh and spacious room overlooking the snow-capped fairways and the sprawling west side, the Madison Press Corps is bellied up to the bar.

The setting and circumstance are not without irony. Every two years, when the Madison mayoral election draws nigh, Shorewood Hills is considered a political issue. Shorewood Hills, a close-knit and exclusive community on the southwestern shores of Lake Mendota, is not a part of the City of Madison. It is a tax island. While benefiting directly from the use of Madison streets and recreational services, in addition to participating in the broader economic base from which they derive their income, the villagers pay no city taxes. On this night, however, by invitation of the Madison Press Club, this tight little island has been chosen as the site of the first in a series of forums which are intended to publicly air the divergent views of the Madison mayoral candidates.

Second irony: there are few working journalists who are active members of the Madison Press Club, almost none. The membership is derived principally from advertising agencies, public relations firms, and assorted house organists. Among working journalists, those who represent the news media, the Press Club is considered to be lame. The name itself (somewhat unkindly, to be charitable) is said by "real" reporters to be nothing more than a comforting means for the members to legitimatize their existence.

Most "real" reporters are cynics.

At this moment, the Press Club and candidates are eating their meal in a private room adjoining the bar. In the bar, as is their wont, the reporters are drinking and exchanging gossip. A round of applause from the diners sends them scurrying to their places. Folding chairs are drawn up in a row, their position adjacent to the speakers' podium but properly segregated by distance. The festivities commence. Mickey McLinden, an associate of a travel agency who also writes food reviews for Select Magazine, is addressing the group.

McLinden is the president of the club. He announces that the annual awards banquet will be held later this month at Maple Bluff, then turns the program over to Art Wichern. Wichern does PR for Triple A. Among the press, there is a slight stirring. While professing privately to a general boredom with the event, they are nonetheless curious. The candidates, for the first time on the record, are about to present their respective images to the public and press.

Introductions are made and up steps Hizzoner. Six years ago, when Paul Soglin was still an alderman representing a predominantly student district, he would not have been caught dead in Shorewood Hills. He would not have been caught dead in a suit. Tonight, however, is six years down the road. The firebrand alderman, worn leather jacket discarded alongside his radical ideology, is now a two-term mayor. He is also a politician. To most of Madison as demonstrated by his unqualified electoral success, Soglin has become acceptable.

If not an endearing man (his colossal ego and built-in arrogance are sometimes overbearing even to those who attempt to embrace him), Soglin is no longer a threat. Ever since the early months of his first administration, when there was no mass machine-gunning of capitalists and other enemies in the basement of the City County Building, he has cut an attractive figure. This is hardly by accident. It is pragmatism par excellence.

Tonight the pragmatism is strained. Administering in seclusion is one thing; politicking in public is quite another. Perhaps the thrill is gone. Soglin is obviously bored; or tired; or both. His cocker-spaniel brown eyes, described as sexy by some, women mostly, are bleary. As he leans against the podium, trim and natty in a three-piece wool with a hint of subtle red weave, he speaks in a distracted monotone.

He is received in kind; several of those in attendance appear as fascinated by the TV camera lights as they are by the words of Hizzoner. He briefly lists a few of his self-proclaimed triumphs-mass transit, renewed AAA bonding, the State Street Mall and the Civic Auditorium, improvements in the Welfare Department, federal funding for housing (no mention here of sojourn in Cuba) -- and then he makes his point. The cornerstone of good government in Madison, he says, is participation. Paul Soglin, he contends, is the catalyst who makes it work. There are those who disagree.

The Candidates Tee Off

One of them is the next speaker, Anthony "Nino" Amato, 20th district alderman. While Wichern drones on reciting from a lengthy list of degrees, positions and accomplishments which Nino has painstakingly prepared for his own introduction ("There goes your 10 minutes, Nino," cracks one TV newsman), the young reformist/opportunist from the far west side sits poised in his chair, a sheaf of notes in his hand, restless to launch his attack.

He has come well prepared. Highly aware of the impact he must make to usurp his well-entrenched rival in the minds of an electorate that is increasingly personality-oriented, Nino is acutely conscious of image. His image, like his philosophy, is archly conservative. Nino Amato may be the last man in town who still wears a shirt with a button-down collar. He wears it tonight, with a sportcoat of gray and red plaid. His straight black hair is fashionably long, layered and carefully coiffed. Together with his pale skin, alert dark eyes and boyish good looks, he gives off a vague resemblance to a Latin lover in a silent movie. By comparison, Hizzoner looks like a prosperous Mexican bandit.

Nino, it is said, is extremely self-confident at this stage of his campaign. Despite his rejection by the Chamber of Commerce as the favored business candidate, he is supported by an abundance of funding and a purportedly efficient organization. Nino, it is said, thinks he has the election in his hip pocket.

The confidence oozes out immediately in the smoothness and style of his presentation. Seizing upon familiar themes, he assails Soglin for thriftlessness, unprofessionalism, and an anti-business posture. Then he starts in on sex. Hizzoner, Nino accuses, is a willing accomplice to the industry of sin: escort services, massage parlors, pornographic bookstores and (horror of horrors) nude dancing. Because these activities flourish, he charges, Soglin's acquiescence must be called to account.

Nino takes a bow and sits back down. He says the next time he comes to eat, he expects spaghetti.

In the press row, it is suggested that his gag writer be cooked in the sauce.

George Bolden, an east-side café owner and candidate number three, provides some comic relief. An older man, unpretentious and forthright, stout and chunky with a square-ish head, he admits that he does not expect to win, but hopes to add fuel to the fire. He gets off the best line of the night when he says, "I ain't no politician; don't wanna be one." He also points out the elderly are getting gouged on their taxes, but the statement is lost 'midst the merriment.

The final two candidates are Michael Duffey and Michael Sack. Neither is lightly regarded; neither has much of a chance. Each has his merits. Duffey, speaking in a soft voice, disagrees with Soglin's claim of leadership. Cooperation in city government, he says, is lacking. Drawing from his experience on the Central Madison Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, he feels he would bring an insight to the mayor's office that would stimulate business and enable him to be a better administrator. When he mentions that he will be personally accessible to anyone seeking access to his office, Soglin stifles a yawn.

Michael Sack, characteristically clad in a nondescript slate-colored suit, green sweater and rubbers, characteristically gives them hell. A socialist and a man of intensity, he leaps straight to the fore and unleashes a barrage of social ills that must be contained: property tax unfair to all but the wealthy, urban sprawl, excessive rents, improved housing for lower and middle income families. Symbolically, the lights go dim as he speaks; should he bring up the appropriation of MG&E, they might just go out. "People are suffering," says Sack, volatile and earnest.

Sack and Duffey will both get their votes. Each will undermine Soglin's support to some degree, and Duffey's run will cause Nino to squirm. But in the end, their bids will both fail. Duffey will suffer from underexposure and Sack will be limited by student conservatism, a waning left, and his own outraged passion. In a "liberal" community of relative means, where the security of comfort is considered a right best reserved for those who maintain it, a leftist ideologue of any stripe is misunderstood by most and mistrusted by many.

Perhaps Sack's show of integrity will not go unnoticed and Duffey's moderate professionalism will see him through. Perhaps they will purloin enough of the Soglin and Amato vote to upset the trend. But not likely. In the end, it will be Soglin and Amato. A contest of imagery. A confrontation of personalities and egos. A clear-cut clash of  philosophies. Their only similarity is that both are young pols on the make. If it comes down to that, it just might get dirty.

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