Last week, Madison Ald. Brenda Konkel wrote a lengthy post on her blog that began, 'Mayor Dave is a nice guy. Or so they say.'
Konkel was once a strong ally of Dave Cieslewicz. Her support during the 2003 mayoral race helped deliver the lefty votes Cieslewicz needed to beat Paul Soglin. And during Cieslewicz's first year in office, Konkel almost single-handedly pushed through an affordable housing ordinance, which Cieslewicz now cites as one of the highlights of his term.
But last week Konkel revealed that things have gotten so bad between her and the mayor that they seldom speak. When they do, she wrote on her blog, 'he often just yells about what he wants and how he wants it done.'
Konkel admitted she and Cieslewicz agree '95%' of the time, but said they've parted ways on some significant issues. The mayor, she complained, is willing to fund streetcars, but not the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. He's disdainful of the 'Madison process' of debating ideas and spends too much time 'campaigning and obsessing over what the media reports and what people blog.'
But there was one notable omission from Konkel's post: The line where she says, 'And so I announce my candidacy for mayor....'
'I wish,' says Konkel. 'It's just not winnable.'
Mayor Dave, she notes, comes across in public as likable and funny. And the problems with his administration ' like a lack of communication with the Common Council and a lack of oversight of city staff ' are not sexy enough to resonate with voters. 'He didn't screw up anything,' she says.
At least, not enough so that voters have an obvious reason to dump him. Even the city's ongoing problems with water quality, including the recent discovery that the Water Utility failed to treat drinking water from an east-side well for more than a month, hasn't harmed him. And while some city wells were found to contain high levels of manganese, which causes neurological damage, and carbon tetrachloride, a carcinogen, Cieslewicz had no trouble getting the city council to renew David Denig-Chakroff's $113,000 contract as the utility's general manager.
This prompts one former alderperson to call Cieslewicz 'Mr. Teflon' ' because nothing bad ever seems to stick. The mayor has survived several vicious battles over the citywide smoking ban, including a failed recall campaign. His proposal to merge the Equal Opportunities Commission with the Affirmative Action Department stirred a fuss, partly over his lack of communication, but now everyone seems happy with the new Department of Civil Rights. And despite complaints that his plan to charge revelers $5 to walk down State Street on Halloween was a violation of civil liberties, it worked. There were no drunken riots, smashed windows or mass arrests this year.
A number of people ' including Konkel, EOC commissioner Bert Zipperer and Centro Hispano's Peter MuÃoz ' toyed with the idea of running for mayor. But with less than a month to go before the filing deadline for next spring's election, only one challenger has emerged: Ray Allen.
On paper, Allen seems like a strong candidate. He's a moderate conservative, the publisher of the Madison Times and a former Madison school board member, which proves he can win a citywide election.
But, as a mayoral candidate, Allen has been a failure. His campaign has been slow to start and has made silly mistakes, such as accusing Cieslewicz of supporting mandatory paid sick leave, which he did not.
Allen says the mayor's biggest vulnerability is his own record, especially on the issue of job creation. The Economic Development Commission released a report in 2004 that recommended a number of ways the city could be more hospitable to business. According to Allen, the mayor did nothing with it until this year.
'The bottom line is, Madison needs leadership that will take issues like job creation seriously all the time, not just during an election year,' he says.
Unfortunately for Allen, one of Cieslewicz's close allies is Mark Bugher, chair of the Economic Development Commission. And Bugher has no problem with the work Cieslewicz has done on the report.
'We're pleased with the effort the mayor has made,' he says, noting that the city is reorganizing its Planning Department to streamline the approval process and to create a 'one-stop shop' for businesses. 'The EDC didn't get 100% of what we asked for,' acknowledges Bugher. 'In this city, 75% is pretty good.'
And Bugher dismisses Allen's complaint that Cieslewicz sat on the EDC's report for nearly two years. As a member of former Gov. Tommy Thompson's administration, he says, 'I've been in government long enough to know that you don't snap your fingers and do things overnight.'
One area where Cieslewicz may truly be weak is in attracting new jobs to Madison. By his own admission, the downtown is now 'overbuilt' with new condos, while there's been little commercial development.
But he nonetheless defends his record, saying he's set up a 'rapid response' team that springs into action whenever a local business is considering leaving the city. In 2004, Cieslewicz met with the CEO of Schoep's Ice Cream to convince the company not to build its new freezer facility outside of Madison.
'They wanted to move, and I intervened personally,' he says. Schoep's eventually opened its new facility on the far east side.
But when asked what new businesses he's lured to Madison, the mayor pauses, then has to admit he can't think of any offhand.
'One thing I want to do in the future is take a closer look at our policy on tax incremental financing,' he says. In the past, the city has given millions of TIF dollars to housing developers for condos, but Cieslewicz wonders whether the aid shouldn't be going to industrial development. The East Washington corridor is ripe for commercial redevelopment, he says. 'That might be a good way to focus TIF.'
Bugher agrees and says Cieslewicz has proved he's an adept business leader: 'The business community I work with is pretty pleased with the way things have gone so far.'
If there's one area in which Cieslewicz has disappointed, it's his lack of revolutionary ideas. Many of the city's big policy initiatives during the last four years ' the smoking ban, the minimum-wage increase and the affordable housing ordinance ' were not his ideas, although he jokes that he gets 'the credit or the blame' for all of them.
Cieslewicz claims other accomplishments but says they haven't grabbed headlines, because he's learned to avoid controversy by building support first. 'We try to do our homework so it doesn't become a big fight,' he says.
For instance, when Cieslewicz proposed switching to wheeled recycling carts, he talked to every single alderperson to make sure the plan would pass. 'It didn't get a clash,' he says. 'That's a sign of success.'
Cieslewicz admits he didn't always operate that way. When he was first elected, he expected the city's political process to operate more like the state Legislature ' someone proposes an idea, then it's debated. Instead, people in Madison want to first debate an issue, then come up with proposals.
'It took me awhile to figure out that city government is different,' he says. 'I could never figure out why everyone was offended if I just initiated something.'
But while Cieslewicz says he's 'adapted' to the system, not everyone agrees. Konkel complains that the mayor excluded the public from the reorganization of the Planning Department. The city held a public hearing on the plan on Nov. 28 ' two weeks after the city approved a budget that included funding for the reorganization.
When Konkel proposed referring some aspects of the reorganization to other city committees for more discussion, she says the mayor was 'pissed off.' But, she says, 'I feel like there's got to be a discussion about this.'
If he's re-elected, Cieslewicz wants to continue the work he's started on redeveloping Allied Drive. And he's interested in addressing the root causes of crime ' such as homelessness and poverty. He's especially concerned that the Raymond Road area near Elver Park is starting to go downhill. 'We've got to get out in front of that so it doesn't become a new Allied Drive.'
He will, of course, push for his beloved streetcars. But he also wants to explore creating a regional transit authority, with funding from all the area's municipalities. And he believes Madison should continue to support the Collaboration Council, which promotes economic development throughout Dane County. 'We need to think of ourselves as a region, not just warring fiefdoms,' he says.
All of these issues are not necessarily sexy or revolutionary to voters. But they are important, says Cieslewicz. 'It's the nuts-and-bolts stuff. But it's up to me.'