Paul Soglin says he can get things done if he wins another term as Madison mayor

February 2, 2019

Madison has never seen anything like Paul Soglin.

Campus radical. Mayor for 22 years off-and-on over nearly half a century, his influence stenciled on landmark achievements like the Madison Civic Center, State Street Mall and Monona Terrace. Lawyer, lecturer, blogger. Articulate, blunt, charming or acerbic, depending on his audience. His relations with City Council members range from collegial to terse.

Now, after choosing Soglin as mayor for 14 years in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and then two straight four-year terms ending in April, the question is: Do Madisonians want more?

In July, Soglin didn’t think he did, announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election amid an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, where he eventually placed a distant seventh in the August primary.

But in October, Soglin entered the mayoral race, saying he had been encouraged by many to run, was enthused for a campaign, wanted to continue to promote racial equity, economic development and entrepreneurship, and had unfinished business such as the Madison Public Market.

The mayor cites studies and rankings that highlight the city’s appeal and success, and is bemused by opponents who profess a love for Madison but, through their criticism, seem to depict a horrible place.

“I’m not saying we’re perfect,” he said during an interview in a cozy booth at Nick’s Restaurant on State Street, a frequent out-of-office meeting spot. “(But) we can be the best. If I’m given the opportunity, I’ll get things done.”

Supporters see a sometimes misunderstood man, a caring husband and father who’s ideal for the job.

“He’s a wonderful, wry, warm person,” said Mary Berryman Agard, an activist and education and arts consultant and longtime friend. “He’s got this city in his blood and his bones. Paul, in my opinion, has the most nuanced grasp of the issues I think are facing Madison.”

Others say voters are ready for change.

“Soglin’s candidacy is a sad ending to an otherwise reputable, but overrated, tenure as mayor,” said Ald. David Ahrens, 15th District, who is supporting Raj Shukla.

“While Soglin often appears angry and brusque, more than anything, I think he’s utterly bored with the job. Why is he running? I think the only thing that Soglin dislikes more than being mayor is someone else being mayor.”

Activist to mayor

By now, Soglin’s past is the stuff of local lore.

Born in Chicago, his mother was an activist who backed the civil rights and peace movements and fought the proliferation of nuclear weapons. His father was a school teacher committed to public worker labor unions.

While still in high school, he supported a national boycott of Woolworth’s, spurred by black college students who were refused lunch at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Soglin came to UW-Madison in 1962, earning bachelor’s and law degrees. In the mid-1960s, he protested the presence of military advisers in Vietnam, raised money for Freedom Riders going to Selma, Alabama, and joined an open housing movement in Chicago. He was arrested twice amid anti-war rallies.

In 1968, Soglin was elected to the City Council. He lost a first mayoral race to William Dyke in 1971 but ousted Dyke in 1973, becoming the city’s youngest mayor at age 27. He served until 1979, when he didn’t seek re-election and practiced law. After a divorce from his first wife in 1979, he married Sara Ann Falconer in 1982. They have three adult daughters. The Soglins live on the Near West Side.

In 1989, Soglin defeated Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner to regain office. He was re-elected in 1991 and 1995 before leaving office two years early in 1997 following an unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 1996.

During early terms, Soglin put a personal stamp on the mayor’s office, dressing casually and giving a key to the city to Fidel Castro. He championed big projects, warmed to the business community, and confronted crime and drug problems in poor neighborhoods. He failed to annex the town of Madison, build a public pool at Olin Park or pass a handgun ban.

After leaving City Hall in 1997, he worked for Lincoln Financial Advisors. In 2003, he joined a crowded field challenging Mayor Sue Bauman but narrowly lost to Dave Cieslewicz in the general election. Soglin became a project manager at Epic Systems in Verona, where he worked until 2008. He started a blog and consulting business, became an adviser for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and taught graduate school seminars.

Then, he recaptured the mayor’s office.

Clashes with council

In 2011, he edged Cieslewicz in the primary and general elections, returning to office with fervor. He challenged initiatives of predecessors — especially on finance — and wrestled with a more assertive and cohesive council.

Among dustups, he eliminated $16 million in tax incremental financing (TIF) for The Edgewater hotel redevelopment, which was completed without city financial support. He tried to reduce funds for the Overture Center for the Arts but was twice rebuffed by the council.

Soglin pushed completion of a new Downtown Plan, zoning code and TIF policy and has presided over a building boom that’s boosting the city’s tax base. He emphasized food policy and re-imagined a public market as “a breadbasket for food production,” with the city now poised to begin the project. He has promoted partnerships on out-of-school time, youth internships and jobs, teamed with others to combat inequities in city government and launched an affordable housing initiative strongly supported by the council to create 1,000 low-cost units in five years.

In 2015, Soglin got 72 percent of the vote to clobber his general election challenger, then-Ald. Scott Resnick.

Soglin’s current term has seen a continuing saga with the massive Judge Doyle Square project Downtown, the mayor recently negotiating a deal with the developer approved by the council that lets the project move forward but with lingering questions about cost and timing.

The city made advances on homelessness and affordable housing, with its first two Housing First projects helping some of the city’s most vulnerable get off the streets but also resulting in police calls to the sites. Soglin cites increases in income and decreases in unemployment for African Americans; expanding community center, library and other services; and movement toward a green fleet.

The mayor tangled with council members on how to deliver contracts for peer support to address troubling levels of gun violence, but contracts are now in place and the council approved much of his proposed increase for the initiative in the 2019 budget.

The council, meanwhile, continued to assert independence, increasing staff and overriding mayoral vetoes on liquor licenses. In 2016, two council members proposed changes to the city’s governmental structure that would have eroded mayoral powers. A task force is now studying the city’s governmental structure.

Soglin touts the city’s response to flooding this summer, noting he kept the city open and residents informed and followed up with engineering efforts to combat future events.

The mayor sees relations with the council improving, including a better rapport with recent leadership and some of his most severe critics resigning or not seeking re-election.

He acknowledges he can come off as professorial, with his preference for data-driven, evidence-based decisions, but he rejects the “grumpy” label. “The occasions when my mood changes, either a journalist is trying to bait me or a politician is (expletive) with me,” he said. “It doesn’t change to grumpy. It changes to my being very direct and not glossing over.”

The future

So, after 22 years as mayor, now what?

Despite doubts this summer, Soglin says he’s fresh and ready for a race, buoyed by supporters, motivated by the promise of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ election and eager to “institutionalize certain practices” and finish things he’s started.

If anything, he said, he’s too into his job.

“Sometimes I wake up at 4 a.m. and I don’t help myself by going back to sleep because I’m worried about how to pass an RTA in the state Legislature or how we can build another 5,000 units of affordable housing or how to negotiate an agreement on Judge Doyle Square,” he said.

Soglin said his focus is on housing, transportation, quality child care, education, careers and health care — including behavioral health, substance abuse and nutrition.

His current top priority, he said, is engaging with about 80 to 120 youths, mostly African Americans, who are involved in stealing cars, break-ins, violent assaults and other crimes. “We have to put an end to it, make significant changes in the lives of these kids,” he said.

The mayor also wants to establish better budget practices, especially on borrowing, persuade the state to allow regional transit authorities to raise revenue for strained transit systems and continue efforts to get people signed up for health-care coverage programs.

Asked if it’s all still fun, Soglin leaned back in a black vinyl booth at Nick’s and without hesitation, nodded and said, “Yeah.”