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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Scott Resnick for Madison mayor?
The young alderman says city needs new ideas
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Credit:Laura Zastrow

Ald. Scott Resnick encountered something of an anomaly recently: a person who remembers what Madison was like before Paul Soglin, the city's enduring mayor.

In Resnick's time in Madison, the political landscape has been dominated not just by Soglin, who was first elected mayor in 1973, but also by Dave Cieslewicz, who was mayor from 2003 until 2011. Even though Soglin and Cieslewicz -- who continues to weigh in on city issues with his Isthmus blog, Citizen Dave -- have remarkably similar agendas, the city's recent political battles have often broken down into Dave vs. Paul, notes Resnick.

"We could have a conversation about Madison that doesn't involve Dave and Paul," says the 27-year-old Resnick. "We don't have to have the 'Paul position' or the 'Dave position.'"

It's why Resnick -- whom many view as a Soglin protégé -- is contemplating challenging his mentor next April for mayor. While Resnick admires Soglin, he criticizes the mayor's sometimes caustic, gruff style, which he says has become a handicap.

"Paul has been a valuable resource to the city," Resnick says. "There are things he's been able to accomplish over his career, where his personality has served him well. The question should really be: What is the right personality and leadership style to serve Madison today?"

Knocking off a political force like Soglin seems like a tall order. But Resnick, who says he'll make a decision about running by early July, notes that Soglin was first elected mayor at age 27. Resnick would be 28 next April.

Paying his own way

Resnick was born in New York, but his family moved to Wisconsin when he was 2. His dad was a radio DJ and found work at a Wausau station.

Politics caught Resnick's attention in high school, when he got involved in the National League of Cities youth organization, which exposed him to policy debates regarding issues like poverty.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison he studied political science and joined the college Democrats. But, he says, "I needed a job in college. I was paying a lot of that myself."

While still living in the UW's Chadbourne Hall, he and his friends founded the company InZüm, which streamed TV programming, much like Hulu. The business failed, but he learned a lot. One of the most important lessons, Resnick jokes, is "never start a company that has an umlaut in the title. That's a guaranteed fail."

He adds, "We made about $50 over nine months, split eight ways."

With his friend Jon Hardin, Resnick tried again with Hardin Design and Development, which builds software apps. Initially, the company's employees worked out of their apartments, finding work via Craigslist.

The group's big break came when it got a contract to build an app for MSN Money. Business mushroomed from there, with Hardin Design building apps for Mercedes-Benz, Disney, CNN, IBM, FedEx and others.

The company moved to posh digs on the shore of Lake Mendota in the Verex Plaza building. Most of the workers dress in jeans or shorts, and there's a game room with a large-screen TV and pool table. "We don't pay minimum wage," Resnick boasts. "Everybody has an IRA, everybody has health insurance."

Although he likes his job, Resnick finds himself more passionate about his public-sector work.

A Hardin app might get 300,000 downloads, he says, "But at the end of the day, what have you done? I've sold a few more Mercedes-Benzes. I've sold a luxury product."

Resnick ran for Common Council in 2011, winning the District 8 seat that Soglin held decades ago.

It can be thrilling to see government help people, he says. "In my district, I'm dealing with folks who are interacting with the government for the very first time. I remember one distinct email -- someone wrote 'my water is green and my landlord is not picking up the phone.' Another was 'I can't get my apartment above 50 degrees. Is that against the law?' Yes, that is against the law. I can help you."

Although he loves the work, Resnick says he will not run for the seat again, regardless of whether he runs for mayor. He wants others in the district to have a crack at the job.

Bridging the digital divide

In more than three years on the council, Resnick says some of his biggest achievements have been working in the tech field.

He spearheaded an open data initiative, in which Madison became the second city in the country to make its data available to the public. Although it's now official policy, Resnick admits that city hall has been slow to implement it.

He points to the invasion of the emerald ash borer, a pest that threatens thousands of the city's trees. Resnick says the city's data could have helped people earlier. "It took us over 12 to 18 months just to get the data set available," he says. "We're still trying to get crime data."

The slow response, he believes, is because "so many people are scared of transparency." He adds, "There's no one to enforce it and no champion for that transparency."

Resnick is also working to address the so-called digital divide. "We know the Internet is a tool," he says. "It's not the answer, but it's a tool for students to succeed in the classroom. We also know we have tens of thousands of students who don't have the Internet, a basic necessity to be successful."

He's trying to get the city to create a "mesh network" that would give everyone here wireless Internet access.

Resnick notes that in 2007, Madison was ranked the number-one city for innovative processes. "Now we're not even ranked," he says.

Overture fights

Since being elected mayor in 2011, Soglin at times has had a tempestuous relationship with the Common Council.

There have been bruising budget fights. The biggest fight has been over funding for the Overture Center. Right before Soglin was elected, the Common Council restructured ownership of the arts center in an attempt to stabilize it financially.

Soglin didn't like the deal, and a month after he was elected he told The Capital Times: "The best I can do is just wait for this to crash and burn. It is going to be pretty horrible."

It's one of the comments that Resnick points to when he says Soglin's "style" may no longer be the best thing for Madison.

"The Overture debate started out being as polarizing as you can imagine. Everybody agreed something had to be done, cuts had to be made, but what you couldn't do was have Overture fail," he says. "That would have been devastating for our downtown."

As part of council leadership last year, Resnick took a different tack by sitting down with Overture officials well in advance of the budget process to find out what cuts they could live with. Says Resnick: "As a result, last year's budget was passed without a fight over Overture funding.

Resnick wasn't the only alder to take part in those negotiations. Ald. Mark Clear says Resnick was involved "in part because he was one of the few people Paul would listen to at the time."

Issues of style

Soglin's style stifles the city in other ways, Resnick contends.

He points to conflicts between the city and Dane County over the 911 system and the city's response to app-based ride services Uber and Lyft. Soglin said the services needed taxicab licenses, and some drivers were fined for operating without them.

Resnick, who has worked on legislation to deal with the new services, agrees that concerns need to be addressed. But he says, "You want to be open to new ideas. Saying 'no' at the door is not the right approach.

"It goes back to style," he says. "It's being able to have a welcoming perspective, a perspective that you don't have all the answers. It's an easy thing to say, but it's a hard thing to admit."

Resnick also says Soglin will be vulnerable on the Judge Doyle Square development, a massive project the mayor champions. Expected to cost $200 million -- with as much as $100 million in city aid -- the project includes a new parking garage and a subsidized hotel for Monona Terrace.

Says Resnick: "Outside of a few individuals in the core of downtown, I have yet to find someone to tell me Judge Doyle is a good idea." He believes it could become a central theme of the mayoral election.

Resnick says he would focus on three issues if elected mayor: making the city innovative for the 21st century, building partnerships with private entities and other governments, and addressing inequality.

That last issue is something Soglin has made a point of working on. While Resnick credits Soglin for acknowledging the problem, he adds: "The idea that city hall is going to deliver the answers to equity is not the right approach. We need to listen to grassroots leaders and empower them to succeed."

Soglin's campaign manager, Melissa Mulliken, says the mayor is proud of what he's accomplished for the city. "We look forward to a campaign and to comparing [Scott Resnick's record with] what Paul Soglin has accomplished as mayor, his passion for the city's future and his ability to stand up for what's best for Madison and our taxpayers."

Potential candidates

Although Resnick criticizes Soglin's style, Clear says he thinks they are similar in many ways. He finds them both "ambitious but also very interested in solutions."

Clear had also contemplated a run for mayor but has since decided to run for the state's 78th Assembly District seat, now held by Brett Hulsey. (Clear will be running against Ald. Lisa Subeck.) Former Ald. Bridget Maniaci also says she wants to run for mayor, and Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff has said she's contemplating a run.

Is Soglin vulnerable? "Anything is possible," says Clear. "Paul will be very difficult to beat. It really depends a lot on whoever is able to make the case that Paul's leadership in this term has not been successful."

Resnick agrees that beating his mentor won't be easy. Soglin has done a great deal for the city in the past four decades, he says. But now, Resnick believes, someone else deserves a shot.

"We need to be thinking toward the future, and there are new ideas we should be exploring."


[Editor's note: This article is corrected to note that Jon Hardin is Scott Resnick's friend and business partner.]

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