Paul Soglin was describing to me a recent gathering of mayors and assorted social movement leaders — perhaps 30 in all — at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the meeting’s host, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City.
On hand were advocates for affordable housing and affordable health care, leaders representing African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos, plus mayors from cities of various sizes.
“We went around the room and we each had about 10 minutes to identify ourselves and the interests of our organization,” explained Madison’s longtime mayor. “I gave very careful thought to what I was going to say because I felt it needed to be said, but I was fearful that it would not be aligned with the focus of the meeting.
“So I said I’m as responsible as anyone for the divisions that took place in this country following the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam, which splintered off a large segment of working-class white Americans from our focus on racial, social, and economic justice.”
Soglin, of course, earned youthful notoriety as an anti-Vietnam protestor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and entered local politics, first as a City Council member. He was first elected mayor in 1973.
“I said we have to understand that as we talk about these issues on employment and jobs and housing that there are a significant number of hardworking whites in this country who suffer the same plight,” Soglin told me recently in his conference room at the City-County Building.
“If you were to say to them that they were the beneficiaries of white privilege, they — with all sincerity — would look you in the face and say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’”
He added, “As we organize our agenda, we have got to understand what has transpired in this nation and that it’s not just race but it is also class.”
To his relief, he said, others picked up and expanded on his theme and cited recent books on the subject.
Soglin, it seems clear, sees himself as having the benefit of experience and an understanding of historical context. He also has the self-image of a proven leader capable of connecting across class divides and whose intermittent terms as Madison’s mayor have helped build and extend the city as the most economically vibrant pillar of Wisconsin’s economy.
He seems to also see himself as a pro-union, pro-civil-rights everyman who was a populist before the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders made populism, well, cool, or at least politically expedient.
Republicans, in contrast, prefer to connect Soglin to assorted negative stereotypes they peddle about Madison — that we are a bastion of ultra-liberal elites who sneer at the “real hard work” performed by so many outstate. They want voters statewide to regard Madisonians such as Soglin as insulated from economic danger by their proximity to the state’s major university and seat of government.
Those competing narratives appear particularly relevant given what else Soglin said. We had completed our wide-ranging chat and I realized after I left that I had neglected to ask him his latest thought on seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
Expecting a hasty “we’ll see” in my follow-up call, instead he stepped me through why he would announce a decision later and then said this, which turned into a news story: “I’ll have an announcement after the first of the year and it is most likely I will run.”
As I pondered his joining an already crowded field of Democrats hoping to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker, it occurred to me that there are other unflattering narratives about Soglin within the city. Some see him as cranky and inflexible and, to some, the 72-year-old mayor represents the best of the past, not the hope of the future.
Yet as someone who has watched Soglin through decades of permutations, it would be a mistake to underestimate his effectiveness as a candidate, especially speaking extemporaneously on the stump or in debates.
And he is someone at home with conflict — he even seems to relish it — and we all know that conflict flourishes most around state and national affairs, not the placid city budget review going on now.
That harsh political environment and his constituents’ fatigue with it were evident when I asked him what people are telling him on the street these days. The most frequent comment, he said, reflects battle-weariness after years of attacks on Madison by Walker and other Republicans and the spectacle of the Trump presidency.
“This has really never happened in my career and it’s only happened in the last two or three years,” he said. “But people simply come up and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing,’ sort of acknowledging that the job never ends, there’s always some difficult issue or another.
“ … That is what I hear more than anything else — in the supermarket, walking down State Street, waiting for a plane at the airport, whatever.”
He continued, “Probably the value of the work I do is no greater today than it was in the ’90s, or the ’70s for that matter, but the appreciation of it (has increased) because it’s juxtaposed with the Walker and Trump administrations.”
Much has been written about how in an era in which the GOP dominates both in Washington and in many state capitals, it is mayors who form a bulwark against further setbacks and advocate positive change.
“There’s no question that mayors are the center of innovation and that is where progress is being made,” Soglin said, “but we can’t sustain that forever. There has to be change at the state and federal level and they have to once again become our partners.
“We cannot build a transit system in Madison without support from Washington and the state government and that’s true in Louisville, in Albuquerque, in Tacoma. We need the state and federal government as partners.”
Soglin laments how today’s bitter political culture discourages many from seeking office: “There’s no question that that toxicity has dampened involvement in the public process and unfortunately, in too many instances, left it to the worst characters who are those who enjoy that environment and the ghastly system of raising campaign funds.
“The environment is a killer,” he added. “There are dozens of mayors who choose not to run for re-election, and then you’ve got to wonder about all the people who never showed up as candidates because they simply didn’t want to enter that environment.”
Hard to imagine Soglin shying from the fight, however toxic.
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