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Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is joining the crowded field for the Democratic nod to face Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November.

In an announcement Wednesday, Soglin made official what he has foreshadowed since last summer. Among 17 Democrats eyeing a run for governor, Soglin becomes one of the most widely known and, potentially, among the most formidable.

Whether he gains traction statewide may hinge, in part, on whether Soglin’s longtime leadership of Wisconsin’s capital city and liberal stronghold becomes an asset — or as Republicans contend, a liability.

Soglin made the announcement in an early morning statement, then planned to meet with voters and media outlets across the state this week and next, starting Wednesday in Waukesha.

Speaking to reporters in Madison on Wednesday, Soglin cast himself as Walker’s superior in knowing how to grow the state’s economy.

“I’ve got 25 years’ experience in the private sector,” Soglin said. “What does Scott Walker have?”

Soglin also vowed to spend much of his campaign outside Madison, where he has served in city government, off and on, for five decades.

“This is going to be known as ‘the supper club campaign,’” Soglin said. “That’s the best way to campaign in Wisconsin, is to go where the people are in a basically unstructured environment where everyone can be open and speak their minds. And I’ll be listening.”

Soglin’s announcement statement tied Walker to President Donald Trump, criticizing the governor for supporting the Trump-Republican federal tax overhaul on grounds that it offers permanent tax cuts to the wealthy and more modest cuts that will eventually expire to others. He also criticized Walker for signing a voter ID law that makes it harder for minorities to vote, and for failing to sufficiently expand high-speed internet access.

Soglin emphasized his opposition to the nearly $4 billion in tax breaks, including $3 billion in state tax credits, for electronics manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group to locate near Racine. Soglin said the money could’ve been better spent on schools, universities, roads or small businesses.

Elected first in 1968

Soglin’s career in public office began in 1968, when he was elected to the Madison City Council. He served three stints as mayor: 1973–1979, 1989–1997 and 2011 to the present. Between the mayoral terms, Soglin worked in the private sector, including for software giant Epic, and as an attorney and consultant.

Soglin first found prominence as a student at UW-Madison in the 1960s, leading demonstrations on behalf of the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War.

At 72, Soglin becomes the oldest current candidate for governor.

Walker responded to Soglin’s announcement by slamming not just Madison’s mayor, but the city itself — even as the governor’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is touting Madison’s culture and economic opportunities in ads urging young professionals to move to Wisconsin.

In a Twitter post, Walker wrote that “the last thing we need is more Madison in our lives.”

Soglin “is the latest extreme liberal who wants to take our state backward — just like he did in Madison, where businesses have left and murders have gone up,” Walker wrote.

Madison set a record in 2017 with 11 homicides, up from 8 in 2016 and 7 when Soglin took office in 2011. In the last two decades, Madison’s murder rate typically has been lower than the state’s, and much lower than the nation and other cities of similar size, FBI crime statistics show.

Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant, one of the city’s most iconic employers, closed in 2017, putting 1,000 employees out of work. But the city’s economy remains strong: its unemployment rate in November was 2.1 percent compared with 3.2 percent for the state.

Soglin responded to Walker by saying the Madison area is pacing the state in economic growth.

“We are the ones that are making (Walker) look good, and he’d better say ‘thank you,’” Soglin said.

Walker has refused to give Soglin credit for Madison’s strong economy, saying it’s due to the presence of state government and UW-Madison. Walker also has attacked Soglin for giving a ceremonial “key to the city” to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1975.

No interest previously

Soglin had previously insisted he had no interest in becoming the state’s chief executive. He did an about-face in June, at the 2017 Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention, acknowledging he was considering running.

Soglin said then that the surprising appeal — nationally and in Wisconsin — of the 2016 presidential candidate he supported, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, was part of what changed his mind.

Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, easily won the state’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary with a big boost from Dane County voters. Soglin’s left-leaning politics, age, rumpled appearance and blunt demeanor have led some to compare him to Sanders.

Walker picked up on the comparison Wednesday, sending out a fundraising email shortly after Soglin’s announcement titled “Not another Bernie.”

Walker, who is seeking his third term this fall, has also described Soglin as an “unabashed throwback to the 1960s radical liberal.”

To win statewide, Soglin must demonstrate appeal outside Madison, where many of Wisconsin’s most liberal voters reside.

He said voters across the state will appreciate his mix of public and private sector experience and his role leading the state’s most economically successful area.

In addition to Soglin, eight other Democratic candidates for governor have paid campaign staff. They are state Superintendent Tony Evers, former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee-area businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell, former state Rep. Kelda Roys, of Madison, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, and state Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire.

In such a crowded field, Soglin said he believes the primary could be won with 20-25 percent of the vote.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.