Asked how his governing style will differ from that of Dave Cieslewicz, whom he's just beaten to secure a third stint as Madison mayor, Paul Soglin seems disinclined to answer.
"I'm not focused on doing anything differently," he says tersely. "That's not how I think."
It's an odd stance coming from a man who throughout the campaign criticized Ciesleswicz's handling of city finances, his dealings with city management and staff, and his approach to major projects. But in fact, as many commentators have observed, the two men differ little on politics and policy. The main distinction is personality: Soglin, who will turn 66 next week, is dour and deliberative; Cieslewicz, who's 52, is spry and congenial.
Soglin, who will be sworn in on Tuesday, April 19, does intend to lead the city in new directions, as in his goal of reducing poverty in Madison. Besides job training and job creation, Soglin contends the poor in Madison need access to resources that allow them to hold steady jobs, such as transportation and childcare.
"We're going to collaborate more with partners in the nonprofit sector," he says, citing the shuttle service the YWCA offers to get people to work as a model program.
But mostly, Soglin's focus is on changing how city government tackles issues, instead of which issues it tackles. He says that in recent years, the Common Council has spent much more time debating policy, with much less information.
"There is a lot of contention about proposals," Soglin reflects. "A lot gets passed, but it's very painful."
Does that mean the council should have more than two full-time staff to help alders research and analyze policy, as outgoing Ald. Michael Schumacher has suggested? No, says Soglin. What is needed is not more resources, but a mayor who directs staff to do better research and provide the council with better options.
"The [current] system worked well for decades," says Soglin, who does not see the council as lacking power. In fact, he has written that Madison government comprises a "weak mayor" and a "strong council."
Ald. Mike Verveer, who has served on the Common Council under both Soglin and Cieslewicz, sees Soglin's election as an opportunity for better relations between the executive and legislative branches.
"Paul is a former alder and always had at least one former alder on his staff," says Verveer. "Dave never had a former alder on his staff. He and his staff did not come from the institution of the council."
Although the departure of two conservative alders means the council will shift slightly to the left, it is not yet clear who in the chamber will establish strong working relationships with the new mayor. Only two alders, Verveer and Tim Bruer, remain from the last Soglin era, which ended in 1997.
"It will be interesting to see the dynamic between the council and Soglin, to see if new [alliances] emerge," says TJ Mertz, the former co-chair of Progressive Dane who unsuccessfully ran for the council this spring. "I really don't have a read on that, I don't think the alders do, and I don't think Soglin does."
The current council president, Mark Clear, a strong ally of Cieslewicz, is stepping down next week. And while one likely successor, Ald. Lauren Cnare, is also a Cieslewicz backer, it seems likely that Soglin's election will give rise to new council alliances.
As former Ald. Brenda Konkel gleefully noted on her blog, "The reign of Mayor Dave/Tim Bruer/Mark Clear/Lisa Veldran will be over."
Soglin, for his part, talks about cooperation, not who has the upper hand. "The first person I will discuss [proposals] with is the council president," he says. "I would hope the person elected is a leader."
More than one commentator has described the difference in style between Soglin and Cieslewicz by ruminating that Soglin is the kind of guy who will "punch you in the face," while Cieslewicz is more likely to "stab you in the back."
Views differ as to which is the preferable approach.
Some believe Soglin's upfront approach will improve working relationships not just within government but with city committees and neighborhood groups, many of whom felt neglected by Cieslewicz, most notably during the debate over renovation of the Edgewater hotel.
Judy Karofsky, a longtime community activist who was mayor of Middleton during Soglin's first mayoral stint in the 1970s, believes Soglin is more appreciative of the members of the city committees, and more interested in their input.
"A lot of the people on the committees were with Paul on the streets years ago," she says, referring to his days as a student activist. "He has kept in touch and kept those relationships."
Indeed, neighborhood activists made up a sizable portion of those in attendance at the Soglin victory party on election night.
But of course the major challenge facing Paul Soglin is how he deals with Gov. Scott Walker, whose proposed budget includes deep cuts to shared revenue for Madison and other cities.
Soglin, who has boasted of his ability to negotiate with Republican governors, such as former Gov. Tommy Thompson, admits that Walker might be a completely different breed of politician.
"I don't think he's capable of understanding what has happened here [at the protests]," he told Isthmus during the demonstrations in February. "We've got to get to a lot more than Scott Walker. We've got to get to those Republicans in the state Senate and the Assembly. We've got to get to the people who wrote the checks that put him in office."
Soglin has already announced he will be hiring a full-time legislative liaison to deal with state and federal government, rather than continuing the contract with private lobbying firms to represent the city's interests in the Capitol.
The new lobbyist will seek support from some Republicans on issues important to Madison, such as preserving the state recycling program, which Gov. Walker wants to end but Madison officials insist saves the city money.
Saving money will likely be an overarching issue for Soglin, given expected cuts in state and federal aid. One possible solution is to take advantage of historically low interest rates to fund major projects.
But Soglin has effectively foreclosed that avenue, arguing during the campaign that Madison's debt has already reached alarming levels ("Soglin: The Debt Ceiling Is Rising!," 2/3/11). Now, asked about the city's debt, Soglin is stumped: "I don't know what we're going to do at this point." He eventually suggests axing some capital projects to lessen the city's debt burden.
That has implications for the long-planned renovation of Madison's Central Library, a project Cieslewicz has shepherded to its final planning stages, as well as one of Soglin's own longtime goals - establishing a Madison historical museum. Admits Soglin, "It's not on the top of the list."