Anyone hoping that by now, less than two weeks before the mayoral primary, Ray Allen and Peter Muñoz would have distinguished themselves as candidates for Madison mayor, must be disappointed. The two men challenging Dave Cieslewicz are, as the Wisconsin State Journal recently put it, in "a race for second." But neither has yet managed to rise above the other.
At the first debate of the season, held last month by the Dane County Public Affairs Council, the two agreed so often and on so many issues that Muñoz later joked that there must have been an echo in the room.
Cieslewicz did not attend because, his spokesman told TheDailyPage.com, he considers the Public Affairs Council "very biased" with a "right-wing" agenda. Allen calls Cieslewicz's decision to skip the affair "an arrogance," but at least the event offered a chance to see Allen and Muñoz debate each other. Too bad they didn't use this chance to crystallize the differences between them. Instead, they spent most of the hour criticizing Cieslewicz.
In fact, it seems at times that both Muñoz and Allen are running mainly out of dislike for Cieslewicz. Muñoz, known for his effusive temperament, turns red in the face when he speaks of the current administration.
"I think he's leading the city toward a disaster!" exclaims Muñoz. "I can't use strong-enough language."
Among other things, Muñoz is still mad at Cieslewicz for merging the Affirmative Action Office with the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2005. The controversial decision caused a rift in the city's minority communities that still exists today, says Muñoz. "That's what's got me pissed to the limit."
Allen merely describes himself as "frustrated" by Cieslewicz.
"His priorities are misplaced," says Allen, grousing that Cieslewicz has not done enough to address the city's problems of poverty or crime. "The mayor's office is a tremendous bully pulpit," he says. "Why not raise the issue of poverty?"
Running for mayor is also a tremendous bully pulpit. And, while both Muñoz and Allen are underdogs against the incumbent, whoever clinches second place will have a chance to raise whatever issues he deems most important.
So which one most deserves this opportunity?
Just two minutes into an interview, Peter Muñoz brings up streetcars, warning that Cieslewicz's financial decisions could "bankrupt" the city: "What is he thinking? And he's proposing to bring in streetcars at a cost of $200 million!"
There's no current proposal for streetcars on the table and, therefore, no cost estimate. Muñoz is basing his figure on what other cities have paid. Madison's streetcar study committee won't unveil a proposal until later this year, and actually building a streetcar line - if it happens at all - is years away. But this hasn't stopped Muñoz or Allen from harping endlessly on the subject.
Allen, in an interview, also brings streetcars up almost immediately, while complaining about how the Madison school district must pay Madison Metro for bus service. "Instead of focusing on trolleys," he asks, "how about focusing on savings for the Madison school district?"
Ironically, once Allen stops focusing on the cost of nonexistent streetcar lines, his point about the schools is intriguing. The former Madison school board member says the schools pay $1 million a year for supplemental bus service, which he thinks the city should be providing for free: "You could save them a million dollars a year that they could put in a classroom."
And while Madison Metro, which has its own budget problems, might need the money, Allen says the schools are more important. In fact, he thinks he could find plenty to cut in the city's budget, passing the savings on to the schools. "If a city has to make concessions to get a more educated population, I think that's worth doing," he says.
Muñoz, too, when he stops talking about streetcars, has some interesting things to say. He thinks it was a mistake for the city of Madison to buy several buildings on Allied Drive. He doubts the city, with its layered bureaucracy, can fix the troubled neighborhood.
"The city can't solve it all," he says. "Nimble nonprofits and the private sector can respond in a more effective and efficient way."
But Muñoz's main issue is Mayor Dave, whom he accuses of mismanaging the city's finances. Since 2003, says Muñoz, the city's fund balance has dropped from $33 million to about $23 million, while general-obligation borrowing has jumped to $82 million from $33 million. "He's really free with money," sighs Muñoz.
Cieslewicz explains that he used a large chunk of the city's fund balance to refinance the city's pension debt and pay into the city's worker's compensation fund. "All of this was recommended by our comptroller," he says.
And Cieslewicz attributes the rise in general-obligation borrowing to city spending on streets, parks and new libraries. Then he gets angry himself, accusing Muñoz of talking "in the abstract" about the budget and demanding, "Where would he cut? He's got to tell us exactly what it is he would cut."
Former Ald. Dorothy Borchardt, who attended the Dane County Public Affairs debate, underscores the lack of distinction between Muñoz and Allen.
"I go between the two of them, to tell you the truth," says Borchardt, who is volunteering for both campaigns.
The Common Sense Coalition, which used to have first Muñoz and then Allen as its chair, will not endorse either in the mayor's race, says spokesman Dan Guerra. But the group is definitely not backing Cieslewicz. "The sentiment right now is anybody but Dave," says Guerra.
Asked what distinguishes him from Muñoz, Allen laughs and says, "I'm taller." But after a few moments, he decides that what sets him apart is his job with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, his time on the Madison school board and his ownership of the Madison Times.
"Peter and I have different life experiences," he says. "I'm in a high government position, I've done a lot of city activity, I run a business."
Asked the same question about Allen, Muñoz promptly responds, "He's a Republican." And while they share some of the same positions - both think Madison's minimum-wage increase was a bad idea, both oppose a proposal to mandate paid sick leave, and both believe the city's affordable-housing ordinance is a failure - Muñoz insists he's not a member of any political party. "I have no preconceived notions."
Muñoz even refuses to say who is supporting his campaign, suggesting that people may use this information to make "uninformed decisions about what I stand for."
Allen, meanwhile, plays down his Republican ties. "I've been elected three times in the city [to the school board]," he says. "I have been what I have always been."
Which makes the choice for voters like Borchardt a difficult one. "I guess if I could have the best of both worlds," she says, "I'd want Ray to win and hire Peter."