Slightly before 9 pm Tuesday night, the group huddled around incumbent District 2 Ald. Bridget Maniaci grew abruptly quiet. Though they were camped in a corner of an East Johnson Street storefront, the rest of the room's eyes were trained on them, and all conversations ground suddenly to a halt.
A lone hand went up, and a voice followed not in celebration, but in anticipation. "Wait," said Maniaci, as if anyone were doing anything but. The crowd of a couple-dozen district residents from neighborhoods to the north and east of Madison's Capitol Square was comprised equally of twenty-somethings and middle-aged couples.
But Maniaci had long ceased working the room. In what was at once a testament to the indeterminate nature of the race and a reflection on our new digital democracy, she'd compulsively checked her smartphone as the minutes wore on, waiting for messages from volunteers at the polls, then inputting the data herself on a makeshift results spreadsheet. Now, with three of her district's four wards decided, it appeared that she had received a text message that would make or break her chances to remain on Madison's Common Council.
There was a brief pause - perhaps for effect, perhaps for mental math - then a joyous "Yeah!," as the cafe erupted in the happy recognition that she had beaten her challenger, Sam Stevenson, a UW graduate student and member of Progressive Dane.
Maniaci's first term was rocky to say the least, and she acknowledged that fact in a short speech to the assembled supporters. "I have not had an easy two years," said Maniaci. "I don't know of any alder that's had two years like this, let alone a 25-year old freshman alder. And it's really because of the love and support and positivity of all of you that, I think, I stand here today."
Maniaci referenced the Budget Bill protests of the past month and admitted to worrying that municipal issues might be lost in the shuffle. "I realized how much folks were not looking at what was going on in the neighborhood in front of them."
Maniaci's opponent had a different take on the events at the Capitol. Speaking from his election night gathering at Baldwin Street Grille on East Washington, Stevenson noted the influence of Manciani's name recognition after two years on the Council. "In a municiple race like this, especially as a challenger, it would have always been difficult. We worked as hard as we could to reach as many voters as possible."
But because of the State Supreme Court race being framed by some as a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker, Stevenson said, "There were a lot of voters who weren't fully engaged in municipal issues. And the power of the incumbency may have been a little exaggerated as a result."
Moving forward, Stevenson says his life will be "back to as it was before I started the race. I'll certainly continue work on my activism, and I'll redouble efforts on completing my master's." Stevenson says he'll put the skills and experience he gained from the campaign into staying active in other roles within the community.
For Maniaci, the next two years look to be a test as the city grapples with the tightened belt of a revamped budget. But, she said, "It's important to be, in our small way, in our district, that beacon of light." And she concluded, before raising a glass to the victory, "We're going to fight the good fight and we have a fantastic community here, and I'm so proud that I can represent it for the next two years."