Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is considering a run for governor of Wisconsin, just as Dane County Executive Joe Parisi did earlier this year.
Parisi decided against making the statewide run. But if he had, he would have made an excellent contender.
Soglin is sending signals that he is very interested in becoming a candidate. That’s good, because he too could be an excellent contender.
This notion may surprise Wisconsinites who rely on political punditry to guide their thinking about state politics. According to the more dimwitted of our state’s political commentators, a candidate from Madison or Dane County is not supposed to have any chance in a top-tier statewide contest.
The only problem with this “analysis” is that it is absolutely and unequivocally false.
The idea that a candidate from Madison or Dane County cannot win a competitive race for a major statewide post can be accepted only if we deny the state’s electoral history.
That history tells us that candidates from Madison and Dane County have won and won and won the most important statewide races. Even as Republican spin doctors and their right-wing media echo chamber peddle the fantasy that Wisconsin voters object to candidates from the capital city and its environs, voters from across the state continue to elect candidates from precisely those locales.
The immediate former governor of Wisconsin, James Doyle, was a Madison native who served as Dane County district attorney before being elected attorney general and governor. Doyle won five statewide elections in a row — three races for the state’s top law enforcement job, two for the state’s highest-level executive position — during the period from 1990 to 2006.
Many previous governors of Wisconsin were Madisonians, including former Madison Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman. A Democrat running in a historically Republican state, Schmedeman made the move from the municipal post he had held for six years into the governor’s office after the 1932 election that put Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House.
Schmedeman replaced Madison native Phil La Follette (another former Dane County district attorney) in the governor’s office. Two years later, La Follette replaced Schmedeman. La Follette was elected three times as governor — once as a Republican and twice as a Progressive Party nominee.
Phil’s father, Robert M. La Follette, was a native of the town of Primrose in southwest Dane County; he was elected to three terms as Wisconsin’s governor and then served as a U.S. senator from 1906 to 1925. In addition to repeatedly winning election for top statewide posts, the senior La Follette won the state’s electoral votes when he sought the presidency as a Progressive in 1924.
After Robert M. La Follette’s death, another of his sons, Robert M. La Follette Jr., won the statewide race to succeed him in the Senate. Bob Jr. went on to win three more Senate races as a Republican and then won twice as a Progressive.
Bill Proxmire, a former Capital Times writer and state legislator from Dane County, won U.S. Senate races in 1957, 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982. Gaylord Nelson, a Madisonian who represented Dane County in the state Senate, was elected governor in 1958 and 1960, and then went on to win U.S. Senate races in 1962, 1968 and 1974.
The U.S. Senate seat that the La Follettes and Proxmire won is currently held by Tammy Baldwin, a former member of the Madison City Council and the Dane County Board who represented downtown Madison in the state Assembly before her election to the U.S. House in 1998 and to the U.S. Senate in 2012.
The U.S. Senate seat that Nelson held was won in 1992 by Russ Feingold, who had represented much of western Dane County in the state Senate. Feingold won the seat again in 1998 and 2004.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of candidates from Madison and Dane County. But it should make the point. The notion that a candidate from the capital city or the surrounding county cannot win statewide is simply false.
In fact, a case can be made that Madisonians and Dane County residents have historically been among the best prospects for state office.
Times change. And so do public sentiments. So candidates from Madison and Dane County must always make their cases. But if we consider the skills that Soglin has displayed in pulling together multiple city budgets — not always without controversy, but certainly with more success than incumbent Gov. Scott Walker — the mayor certainly has a claim to consideration.
Does that mean that Soglin would be a better nominee than other candidates in the crowded race for the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nomination? Not necessarily. If Soglin enters the race, he will run on his record and on a platform that addresses the issues facing Wisconsin after eight years of maladministration. Democratic primary voters will have to decide it they want him as their standard-bearer — or if they prefer any of a number of qualified and engaging contenders.
But if Democratic primary voters think they must reject a qualified candidate because he or she is from Madison, they will be disregarding our state’s history in order to embrace a talking point that has no grounding in political reality.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising
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