The Paul Soglin era’s days may be numbered.
The longtime Madison mayor faces several challengers this year, each with their own ideas on how to move the city forward. Two alderpersons, a community organizer, an environmental activist, and a stand-up comedian are all vying for the chance to unseat Soglin, who’s been in office for 22 non-consecutive years.
He’s spent much of the last year trying the patience of his constituents. In July, during his spectacular failure of a gubernatorial campaign, Soglin announced that he wouldn’t run again for city office. But then he pulled a Brett Favre and decided a couple months later that hey, you know, maybe he will give this mayor thing another shot after all.
Here’s a quick look at who’s running on Tuesday, Feb. 19, when primary voters will get the opportunity to narrow the playing field. The top two vote-getters will compete in the April 2 general election.
Let’s start with the incumbent, the irascible Red Mayor. Unfortunately, the Red Mayor hasn’t been the shit-stirrer he used to be for quite some time now. You may have previously noticed the glee I take in dunking on Soggy. Truly, I am out of control and must be stopped.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the 73-year-old Soglin is, in fact, running for a ninth term. Yes, during his stints as mayor, Soglin has done some great things. For example, he spearheaded a hiring initiative that’s led to more women and people of color in local politics. And he led the charge on transforming State Street into the family-friendly commerce center it is today (which may explain his weird fixation on whether or not a Taco Bell serves liquor).
In recent years, Soglin has developed a reputation as a sour and bullheaded politician, more concerned with the completion of his increasingly strained Judge Doyle Square project than passing any meaningful legislation. Sure, Soglin may tout that unemployment among African-Americans is down, but it doesn’t make Madison any less segregated. And Soglin’s refusal to even consider the larger conversation is problematic.
Maurice “Mo” Cheeks
The 10th District alderman is probably the next most recognizable candidate; he’s seemed destined for a mayoral run since he was first elected in 2013. And Cheeks, 34, seems like the perfect choice: a young, charismatic guy who’s full of energy and highly engaged on social media. And to his credit, he’s done a lot of good work in just five years.
He championed the city’s first paid family and medical leave and was the architect of a policy that made it easier to vote in Madison. Those are all great things, but on the campaign trail he’s been somewhat vague, sticking to broader inspirational strokes. Cheeks loves to discuss Madison’s limitless potential, but hasn’t really identified how he intends to fulfill that potential.
That said, Cheeks has a long history of championing social projects to help combat Madison’s racial disparities. It’s a major issue facing this city, and it makes Cheeks a voice worth hearing out in that regard.
A former alder and current director of UW’s Mayors Innovation Project, Satya Rhodes-Conway is in an interesting position. She was effectively endorsed by one of her opponents: Paul Soglin. (She is “eminently qualified,” Soglin said in his I’m-not-running press release.)
Rhodes-Conway, 47, worked under both Soglin and ex-mayor Dave Cieslewicz, with the former naming her as his preferred successor during his failed gubernatorial bid. Now she’s running against him, bringing to the table some of the good things about Soglin but less of the bad.
She’s brought up the same policy issues as the other candidates (racial disparities, green jobs, transportation), but she’s done it with an actual insider know-how of exactly how the mayor’s office could accomplish them.
“You can’t just transplant solutions but you can learn — and I have over a decade worth of experience — about what works in cities,” she told The Cap Times last spring, “and I’m here to bring that to bear in Madison.”
If you’re following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, then you may also want to follow Raj Shukla.
As director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, Shukla is one of the state’s leading environmental advocates. He chairs the Sustainable Madison Committee, which is currently working alongside the city council to make Madison the state’s first city powered by 100% renewable energy.
Naturally, Shukla plans to push environmental initiatives as mayor — in addition to affordable housing and transportation, among other things — but perhaps Shukla’s greatest trait is his endless positivity. And approaching change less skeptically is key to Shukla’s strategy.
“We can tackle really difficult problems if we commit to bringing a whole range of new voices to the table,” the 42-year-old told The Cap Times last summer.
I’m no Nate Silver, but I’m pretty sure Nick Hart isn’t going to win. The stand-up comic (who last year appeared on Conan) ran in 2011, and he didn’t win then. And I don’t see him winning now, even with a key late night talk show host endorsement. Hart likes to think of his candidacy as a cautionary tale.
“I’m a teachable moment,” Hart recently told Isthmus. “You better get involved or else you’ll get somebody like me.”
In that same interview, Hart, 39, did go on to outline some of his proposed policies. They’re pretty wild, like having the police operate more like the fire department, spending their downtime in the station rather than on patrol.
“Let them play ping pong until there is a call,” he said. “So unless there is a problem, they can stay out of our business.”
The city’s first racial equity coordinator, Toriana Pettaway’s campaign has not been without its hiccups. Namely, 87 of the 200 petition signatures required of her to make it on the ballot were deemed ineligible. This led to a very public war of words with the city clerk’s office last month.
So Pettaway won’t be on the ballot and is asking voters to write her name in, saying she’s the social justice and equity expert the city so desperately needs. And while all the candidates (except Soglin) have made some mention of the racial disparities in Madison, few have addressed it in such a head-on manner as the 48-year-old Pettaway.
“Madison craves white leadership and male leadership; and these don’t represent our most marginalized,” she wrote in a Cap Times op-ed last week.
As combative as that might come off, she isn’t wrong. Madison’s racial disparities are deep-seeded, and though all the candidates want to address it in earnest, few have the on-the-ground experience that Pettaway does.
Madison has always been a progressive city, and many mayoral candidates have outlined bold, progressive visions for its future. Paul Soglin has had a legendary mayoral career, but perhaps now is the time voters will tell him to hang up his mustache and give someone else the opportunity to lead.
The mayoral primary will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 19, with the general election set for April 2. You can find your polling place here.