Madison's 6th aldermanic district, covering the near east side south of East Washington, is often held up as the city's most politically active and a Monday night city council candidate forum at St. Bernard Catholic Church on Atwood Avenue reflected how seriously its residents approach local politics and policy. Three-term incumbent Ald. Marsha Rummel, a co-founder of Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, is being challenged by Scott Thornton, former president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association and a team leader in the State Budget Office.
"Over 50 questions were submitted in advance," moderator Art Hackett said while welcoming a crowd of over 60 to the forum, without a trace of surprise in his voice. And about a dozen more were written on index cards by those in attendance.
Rummel and Thornton didn't disagree on large substantive issues, differing mainly on style, with Thornton questioning Rummel's record on welcoming business to the district and resolving a conflict over the annual Orton Park Festival.
"I can tell you from experience as president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association that Marsha did not do a good job of responding to every business that wanted to move into our neighborhood and have a liquor license," said Thornton. "The alder needs to be in tune with what's going on in the neighborhood and be able to ask the questions the applicant may not think of."
But Rummel wasn't shy about listing some of her accomplishments on the council, including collaborative work on Union Corners that remains relevant even after the last effort at development fell through.
"As an alder, I'm really proud of creating a vision and writing an RFP for the Union Corners development that has been incorporated by Gorham in their proposal [for the 800 block of East Washington]," Rummel said.
District 6 now includes the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood which, while just a short bike ride down East Washington from Baldwin Street, is starkly different from Marquette. Many families in Darbo live in multi-unit -- and often subsidized -- housing. There is no Willy Street Co-op or population of overachieving Epic Systems employees there and poverty is a pressing issue. At the point of the evening where the candidates could question each other, Rummel asked Thornton about his plans for dealing with issues related to poverty.
"As chair of the Madison Arts Commission... I toured every neighborhood center to talk them about what they needed," said Thornton. "Most of these neighborhood centers were in poor communities. It was the Salvation Army in Darbo-Worthington. It was Vera Court. I have a lot of experience with that. The homeless shelter, the day shelter. I didn't quite understand from Marsha that she was opposing the warming shelter on East Washington -- I thought that was one of the best things in our neighborhood this past winter, that the city did provide a warming shelter for our city's homeless population.
Rummel stressed that the alder from District 6 is responsible for more than just representing the concerns of that particular set of neighborhoods.
"The things I really think about -- food, art and social justice -- are the things that really inspire our neighborhood," said Rummel. "Our politics are really represented well in the city by a succession of alders who know that we are urbanists. We want density, we want diversity, we want a mix of housing types, we want a mix of income, we want to be a place for all people, as they say on the sign for the Marquette neighborhood."
The race in the 6th, which tends to see a very high turnout, will be one of only two or three council races that are expected to be competitive on April 2.
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Scott Thornton stepped down as president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association last fall.]