On the eve of the 2005 City Council elections, Progressive Dane, Madison's homegrown political party, was hitting its organizational stride. In the two years since the previous election, Progressive Dane members on the City Council grabbed headlines for weeks with a successful push to create a local minimum wage that was significantly higher than the state's. With the help of a new mayor, they also won a pitched battle to create an ordinance requiring developers to create affordable units in new housing developments.
After seeing all eight of its endorsed candidates elected in 2001 and all six endorsed candidates elected in 2003, the 13-year-old party for the first time was endorsing enough candidates to constitute a majority of the 20-person City Council. Its numerous political volunteers, known for their vigor, were sought after for all sorts of local campaigns.
Those who did not share in the party's populist, pro-worker platform were shaken, particularly the business community. Jim Hopson, then the publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal, wrote an editorial days before the 2005 elections that sounded a "wake-up call." He urged Madison voters to prevent the party from taking control of the council by showing up to the polls to beat the "far-left political party with clout disproportionate to its actual size."
The party still did well, capturing seven of the 11 seats with competitive candidates in all of the races, but it failed to win a majority and its influence has seemed to wane ever since. Opposition from the business community led to the failure of a Progressive Dane-backed mandatory paid sick leave policy on a close vote of the council in 2006, the same year the state passed a new minimum wage that overrode the city's higher one. Progressive Dane's affordable housing triumph - inclusionary zoning - was adjusted to include a sunset clause ending the policy this month. Meanwhile, several prominent members of Progressive Dane have left the city or the party, creating a leadership gap.
Now, just a few months before City Council elections in April, Progressive Dane will lose at least one and up to three of its six seats. Two party members are leaving the council without replacements in their district and another, former council President Brenda Konkel, faces four challengers at a time when most incumbents are unopposed.
At a recent membership meeting attended by about 20 of the party's 300-some members, an attendee expressed concern about the party's inability to recruit a candidate in the District 5 race near campus, which is held by retiring Ald. Robbie Webber, a Progressive Dane member who is also a Democratic and Green Party member. The seat is currently being sought by two Democrats, Hamilton Arendsen and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff.
An even more telling sign of the party's struggles came when party co-chair Jacque Pokorney mentioned that she had asked for volunteers to knock on doors for Konkel the previous weekend and got no one to help the former party leader. Konkel is still the favorite to emerge from the Feb. 17 primary as one of the two finalists in her east side district for the April 7 election.
Those within the party insist the lull in local activity is a temporary effect of a long, exciting presidential campaign and an overall decline in Madison's civic participation, marked by the fewest number of council candidates since 2001. Some observers outside the party say the party's low profile may be fallout from the economy and greater concern about bread-and-butter issues like crime and snow plowing, while others say its history of conflicts has damaged its brand beyond repair.
Dane County Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Bigelow said that in districts outside the isthmus - which is generally seen as the most left-wing area of the city - a Progressive Dane endorsement can often be "an albatross" around a candidate's neck. While Bigelow has been a strong critic of Progressive Dane, he saidits reputation is more attributable to the work of a few confrontational members than the party as a whole.
"Because of a couple of people, people sort of look and see they've got baggage if they run or join" Progressive Dane, he said.
Bigelow didn't name names, but Konkel would be a likely bet as one of those he had in mind. Known for her thorough research and articulate arguments, she has also battled with many on the council and famously with Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who left Progressive Dane a few years ago. The mayor even tried unsuccessfully to recruit opponents to run against her this year.
Progressive Dane's reputation can be a turn-off, even for candidates who are like-minded.
Near west side Ald. Brian Solomon, who was elected in 2007, said while he supports much of the Progressive Dane platform, he also knew there was a community perception that party members vote as a bloc. Although he says now that he sees that isn't true, he accepted the endorsement of the Democratic Party in his 2007 race because it has a less strident image.
"It's a good question if the perception of PD were different, if everybody just recognized that PD is just another party and obviously they have a very progressive platform, but that people in PD do speak with their own voice and vote their conscience and vote their own way and there isn't some PD conspiracy going on," said Solomon, who is running unopposed this year. "If that wasn't there, I don't know how that would affect my feelings, to be honest."
I n a city as politically liberal as Madison, the most significant divide isn't between Republicans and Democrats, but rather between left-of-center Democrats and those further to the political left, like Progressive Dane. The two camps have clashed with increasing frequency this decade.
When Progressive Dane chose to back the Green Party candidates for county treasurer and district attorney in 2004, the Democratic Party of Dane County began to make its own endorsements, eventually pitting moderate and liberal Democrats against Progressive Dane members on the City Council level. Around the same time, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce also became more politically active, backing many of the more business-friendly Democrats. Since 2005, the Democratic Party has endorsed between four and seven candidates for each City Council election, and many of the Dems' choices have landed in office.
This year alone, the Democrats have backed candidates in each of the City Council's four races without an incumbent, including two that had been Progressive Dane seats until this year. They have also offered unofficial support to candidates running in District 2 on the near east side challenging Konkel.
The resurgence of the Democratic Party on a national level may also have something to do with Progressive Dane's current lull, observers say.
Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, who is running unopposed for re-election on the city's northeast side, said the work many Madisonians, including Progressive Dane members, did on the presidential race drew energy and attention away from local issues. She is a member of Progressive Dane as well as the Green and Democratic parties.
"With there being a two-year presidential campaign, no matter who you supported, that's a long time to be working on something and caring about something to the exclusion of state or local politics," Rhodes-Conway said.
Despite the fact that many members of Progressive Dane support the Democratic Party on the national level, County Board Chairman and Dane County Democrat Scott McDonell said the prominence of Democrats nationwide has likely hurt Progressive Dane's chances to recruit candidates in the local races who would have to oppose Democrats.
"Both Progressive Dane and Republicans have suffered because of George Bush, the greatest advertisement for the Democratic Party," he said.
Others say the decline in Progressive Dane's profile has more to do with declining partisanship on the City Council as a whole.
Council President Tim Bruer, who has never sought a party's endorsement in more than 20 years on the City Council, said one of his goals over the past year was to put an end to partisan bickering that has been common in recent years.
"I think what you're finding is when the economy is good and flourishing, I think the average voter has a higher tolerance or acceptance of ... issues outside the fringe of the city taxpayer's agenda," he said. "But during tough times, the voters tend to drift toward the center to ensure the critical foundation of the city is sound. As a result of that, I think whether there are people to the far left or far right, I think they may be out of sync with the challenging times."
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz agreed, adding that operating without a citywide platform like Progressive Dane's has allowed council members to be more responsive to the "grassroots" issues in their districts.
"I think people were just sort of getting tired of that growing partisanship at the local level," he said. "I think we didn't see it as very productive, and I think the council has moved to a place where it's much more collegial and the council members tend to try to evaluate each issue on the merits."
Others on the council, both inside and outside of Progressive Dane, disagree that the council has adopted a nonpartisan, "back-to-basics" agenda. Solomon, who considers himself a progressive, said the council has adopted a very limited, middle-class definition of basic services and has become more conservative in the past two years.
"If you ask a person in Allied what a back-to-basics agenda would be defined as, they would define it 180 degrees differently than the way the media and the council and other elected officials have been defining it," Solomon said of the city's low-income Allied Drive neighborhood. "They don't care about potholes because they don't own a car."
Konkel agreed, adding that factions on the council are even stronger than in past years, and that meetings have become shorter not because of decreased partisanship, but because members come to meetings with votes already decided. But she added that after 11 years in Progressive Dane, she thinks its current lull is not out of the ordinary and can be easily overcome.
"I think that given everything that's happening in our economy, we're headed towards an upswing in our membership and in our activity," she said.
Progressive Dane Co-Chair Pokorney agreed that the party is going through a low-profile period. In particular, it has had to overcome the loss of Austin King, one of Progressive Dane's strongest voices during his four years on the City Council. King, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for part of his two terms, was the main sponsor on the party-endorsed living wage and paid sick leave ordinances. He left Madison in 2007 to go to New Orleans and work for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which aims to reform loan and banking practices for the benefit of low-income people.
"I think we've been going through this restructuring, reinventing ourselves over the last couple of years," Pokorney said. "I think when Austin King left the city, we had a lot of PD members and we had PD elected, but we kind of lost some of our stronger voices, and I just feel that we are kind of refinding ourselves."
P art of that refinding has involved expanding the party's reach and weighing in not only on city, but county and Madison School Board issues. Progressive Dane has recently endorsed a resolution at the county level condemning the sheriff's policy of notifying federal authorities about undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. The party also recently made an unprecedented move by endorsing state superintendent of schools candidate Todd Price, a former Madison resident and party member who now lives in Kenosha.
Progressive Dane has set goals for 2009 ranging from the general, like supporting a regional transit authority and promoting green jobs, to the specific, such as opposing construction of a North Mendota highway north of Middleton. In particular, the party has begun to weigh in on city issues again, most recently on the bus fare debate, coming down strongly against Cieslewicz's proposal to raise bus fares.
Ultimately, Pokorney said she would like to see Progressive Dane maintain its strong progressive voice and platform, but also be seen as a party that will work with anyone on issues it considers important.
"I would like to see us working together, but also that doesn't mean that PD isn't ready for a fight about important issues," she said. "I want to absolutely work better with the more moderate voices on the City Council, but we are going to still stand our ground when we need to."
Those outside the party are also convinced that there is a place for a Progressive Dane-like party in Madison, even if the party itself - which was once known as the Labor-Farm Party - goes through a more dramatic renewal.
Ald. Michael Schumacher, who is not a member of Progressive Dane, said he expects the progressive causes of the party to carry on in the future, particularly if the Democrats at the national level fail to live up to expectations and people are again drawn to third parties.
"I'm a person who believes that life is fairly cyclical, meaning what's down today may be up tomorrow and so forth," he said. "I really see Progressive Dane as a so-called party not doing so well, but that doesn't mean Progressive Dane ideas are dead and gone. I think in Madison, they always will have a strong constituency."
Even Cieslewicz, whose public break with Progressive Dane in 2007 was widely noted, said the causes the party fights for are important and that the political forces that created Progressive Dane are unlikely to ever go away.
"I don't know what the future of Progressive Dane is, but regardless of that structure, the progressive impulse in the city is not going to go away, and so we're always going to be responding to that," he said. "It's part of who we are as a city."