By: Neil Heinen
What's up with Soglin?
I've heard that question more in the last couple of months than any time in the thirty-four or so years I've known and written about our three-time mayor and unquestioned Madison legend.
Describing Paul Soglin has never been easy. Yes, he's an iconoclast, kind of, and a non-conformist, sort of, and ... well, it's just not that simple. And when people try to make it easy it's usually wrong. Cranky is a word that comes up pretty regularly and I guess he's always had a bit of a cranky side to him. It's never really seemed to bother people who are close to him.
But for some reason, Soglin's been coming across crankier than usual lately and it's beginning to get under the skin of some folks. A lot of folks. "What's up with the guy?"
Ever since he was elected—again—in 2011, Soglin has complained about the mess he says he inherited, about the degree of decline he's seen in civic affairs in the city and about the difficulty of making things right. He dug in his heels against an agreed-to TIF deal for the Edgewater Hotel, predicted the demise of Overture Center for the Arts, railed against sidewalk sign-boards in front of downtown businesses and bristled at those who disagreed with his budget priorities.
Some of that seems cold and some of it seems insensitive. But what really seems to have moved some community leaders from frustration to anger is how quickly Soglin suggests Madison isn't the shining star so many of us believe it to be. As a lot of folks work hard to keep businesses here, to attract start-ups and entrepreneurs and young, creative talent, is that really the message we want to be sending? Even if there's some truth to it, wouldn't it be prudent to make such public pronouncements a little more … nuanced?
Actually, Soglin's never really embraced nuance in any form. He says what's on his mind, unfiltered. That can be a strength for an elected official in some cases, and I think it's part of what we've always liked about Soglin.
But at a recent meeting with the WISC-TV editorial board, Soglin sat down, rolled out a litany of problems and blamed everyone from former mayor Dave Cieslewicz (which was getting a little old a year and a half ago) to County Executive Joe Parisi to city council members and more. He seemed cranky.
However, then there are other sides to the mayor.
A week or two later, he was on my Sunday morning program on WISC with three other folks talking about homelessness, and he was thoughtful, compassionate and engaged. A couple of weeks after that he was at a breakout session at the Urban League of Greater Madison's innovation in education summit, working hard at achievement gap issues about which he cares deeply.
That's the Soglin who has an emotional attachment to families in Madison who are struggling and who he believes have rights to housing, food, safety, transportation and a good education—and he believes in the city's role in providing those things. He just has very specific views on how those services should be provided and paid for.
Soglin spent some of his years away from the mayor's office at both the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW, and he was very much influenced by both. He absolutely loves government theory, especially municipal finances, and he's confident in the systems he thinks work best. Very confident, if you know what I mean.
But I would say our mayor needs to be a little careful. There's a tension that he may be comfortable with, but others are not. They feel like the mayor is working at cross purposes with them and sending the wrong messages about this city and where it's heading. And that's a real problem right now.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine
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