Members and guests of the Dane County Public Affairs Council trying to discern the major differences in the campaign messages of Madison mayoral challengers Ray Allen and Peter MuÃoz weren't left much to chew on Wednesday morning.
The two major challengers to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz explicitly noted agreement with one another at least five times during an 80-minute forum at the U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown Madison. At one point, MuÃoz even jokingly quipped, "that's my line" to Allen, when the latter said the city's message to businesses should be, "We're here to support your job creation and development programs."
Both candidates were on message at this conservative-minded group. Prominent attending members included former alders Dorothy Borchardt and Ron Trachtenberg, as well as former UW regent Fred Mohs.
Allen and MuÃoz both expressed concern about the future of the city, each citing basic services and fiscal responsibility as their priorities. There were a couple of differences, though.
Allen, a former Madison school board member, emphasized the issue of poverty, saying he wants greater cooperation between the city government and the school district in seeking solutions.
MuÃoz, who arrived about 15 minutes late citing confusion over the start time, noted his concern over the Madison's contingency reserve fund, which he said had fallen to 12% of the city budget while general-obligation borrowing has increased from $33 million to $82 million over the last four years.
They also found many areas of agreement while answering questions from forum attendees.
The two challengers concurred on immigration, an issue that has not yet played a significant role in debate over the city's future, but was the subject of repeated questions at the forum. Allen and MuÃoz said that it is primarily a federal issue and both think undocumented workers play an important role in sustaining the Madison economy. But they also indicated that they would support a change in police policy on checking the immigration records.
"I think we need to validate people's status if they're arrested," said Allen. "If they're illegal, we should work with the appropriate state and federal agencies to address that issue."
Both candidates supported the regionally focused Collaboration Council, particularly in terms of encouraging economic development and building Madison's reputation as a place to do business. Allen though expressed disdain for the joint city-county gang task force, suggesting that its work was "meaningless."
Both candidates reiterated their strong opposition to the mayor's support of downtown trolleys and his belief they would spur economic development.
"I don't believe a trolley system is appropriate for the city," said MuÃoz, citing traffic difficulties and high costs. "It's just totally unreasonable."
Allen simply said "no trolleys" to laughs, before criticizing the proposal as a massively misplaced priority. "Crime is up, your water is bad," he said. "It's totally ridiculously expensive."
MuÃoz agreed: "I think this is nuts."
They shared thoughts on the location for a new Huber work-release center for jail prisoners. "I would love to leave it right there [on Rimrock Road]," said MuÃoz, who praised the Huber prisoners for their volunteer work with Centro HispaÃo. Munoz is on leave from his job as executive director at Centro HispanÃo.
"I agree with Peter for where it's at," said Allen, "but I think we need to have a discussion about how we treat people there."
Both candidates expressed skepticism about the "best value" contracting proposal, which would require qualified bidders for city contracts to have a training program or commit money to training in the trades.
"I'm really, really tired of mandating requirements," said MuÃoz. "I'm concerned we have a habit in the city to throw requirements out there without thinking of the consequences."
Allen concurred, despite his early role in promoting the program with the Common Sense Coalition. "Mandates are not an economic development program," he said, "I would want to take a very close look at how this has evolved."
The most-discussed topic of the meeting was crime. Here, too, the candidates were largely in agreement. Each supported more spending on the police department and better use of the mayoral bully pulpit to make it clear that crime is not tolerated in the city.
Allen tried to make crime and its underlying causes his signature issue. Presenting the same concerns about joblessness and disaffected youth that former mayor Paul Soglin and former county executive Jonathan Barry have been voicing lately, Allen said he supports a two-track approach.
"I will do everything to provide opportunity, but I'll also send clear messages that we'll 'blue blanket,' we'll send police into these areas and arrest them," he said. "I'm going to send a clear message that Madison is a bad place for criminals."
MuÃoz recounted an experience living in apartments on the near-east side in the late '90s where he observed rampant illegal drug use and prostitution. "I totally agree with Ray," he said, "you really do need to be tough on crime."
Allen and MuÃoz did have one major area of disagreement, though, when it came to law and order. Allen supports a reinstated loitering ordinance while MuÃoz does not.
Allen said the ordinance would not be discriminatory: "The police will do things in a fair and equitable manner.' MuÃoz differed. "It's just a patch," he said -- something the police use to move people around. Munoz also complained that the Downtown Safety Initiative introduced by the mayor on Tuesday was "just in time for the election."
Both Allen and MuÃoz received a warm reception from the room, with one attendee drawing applause and laughs when joking about hopes that both of them get through the Feb. 20 primary.
The mayor was not present at the forum, having declined an invitation. The fourth candidate, Will Sandstrom, arrived shortly after the meeting began, interrupting Allen's opening statement and passing out literature to attendees before turning to the donut box in the corner.
The organizers allowed Sandstrom time for a brief statement at the end of the meeting, when he gave a characteristically rambling tirade tying together mail delivery, smelt fishing and conspiracy theories.
Note: Ray Allen clarified his remarks about best value contracting to The Daily Page on Wednesday afternoon. He wrote: "As I stated, I support the best value contracting. What I do not support our the mandates which have been promoted by city government. The concept of best value is to obtain the most qualified bidder on city projects in order to reduce cost to the city and taxpayer. It is not designed to be a mandate."