40 years of tackling tough topics

Chronic societal problems require circling back
40 years of tackling tough topics

While Madison Magazine celebrates all that’s good about the community, it has never shied away from identifying the serious problems facing this city. The publication’s commitment to place — by definition, Madison Magazine isn’t going anywhere — has allowed it to return to these issues to see if progress has been, or still can be, made.

Substance abuse, gun violence and homelessness are just a few of the chronic problems that have bedeviled Madison. Here’s how the magazine covered those issues and others decades ago as well as more recently. There’s little doubt we’ll circle back again in future issues. Our collective quality of life in this community depends on it.


In “Madison’s Cocaine Connection” (June 1983), an undercover cop told then freelance writer Doug Moe that the people he was arresting for dealing cocaine, most of it brought from Florida, included “a dentist a week ago, an ex-police officer and a vice-president of a large company.” Another officer said cocaine had become prevalent at Dane County Coliseum rock shows attended by teenagers who were somehow finding the money to buy it at $100 a gram on the street. While cocaine was the drug of choice of affluent partygoers in the 1980s, four members of Narcotics Anonymous shared with Moe the cost — in money and lives — of a cocaine habit.

Crack cocaine could be bought “almost anywhere in town” from a nascent gang scene, reported Chuck Nowlen in his January 1992 cover story “Mean Streets.” Nowlen interviewed a number of then-current and former young gang members and even set up, but backed out of, a crack buy for the story.

For his September 1992 story about the federal authority to seize property connected if only tangentially to a drug crime — “Smoke a joint and lose your house: Is a gov’t anti-drug program running amok?” — Nowlen received a commendation from the State Bar of Wisconsin, the fourth time Madison Magazine’s coverage of the justice system was so honored.

There was also empathy expressed for drug addicts in Mary Feingold’s January 2002 cover story “Failing the addict: When will we try what really works?” She lists many reasons Dane County is a great place to live — and many reasons it is not if you have a drug abuse problem. She estimated that 10 percent of county residents, or 33,290 people, were in need of drug and/or alcohol treatment.

That need appeared all the more dire by September 2014 when “Changing the conversation about heroin” was the cover story. In one Madison suburb, Mount Horeb, more than 80 percent of the police department’s resources were spent dealing with heroin-related crime and overdoses in 2011. If not for the thousands of reported uses of Narcan, the drug that can reverse a heroin overdose, far more than 227 Wisconsin residents would likely have died in 2013.

“So many of us still don’t get addiction,” Maggie Ginsberg writes in the piece. “We just don’t see or understand or believe that addiction is a disease, a chronic and progressive brain disease, fatal if left untreated, compounded by stigma and shame, and even further complicated by its tangled relationship with mental health and the fragmented systems serving both.”

A new crop of advocates for the legalization of marijuana make headway by playing up the plant’s medicinal potential and downplaying its relatively low addictive properties. A growing majority of Americans (and most Madisonians, it goes without saying) agree, with recreational marijuana use legalized in six states and medical marijuana available in 29 states (including the six where it is recreationally legal). In the February 2018 cover story “The public is pro pot,” associate editor Joel Patenaude looks into why the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is loath to even talk about the issue.

Gun Control

Before Concealed Carry
For his June 1993 story “Looking Down the Barrel: The Real Deal on Guns in Madison,” contributing editor Chuck Nowlen interviewed, among others, a local gun store owner, a “notorious stick-up man” he called “Bobby” (as well as his son, a 13-year-old gang member in a larger Midwest city) and then-UW-Madison Dean of Students Mary Rouse, a vocal member of Citizens Against Handgun Violence. Rouse recalled the 1989 murder/suicide committed by her older sister, Catherine, who had mental illness, with a pistol she bought at a gun shop near West Towne Mall.

The story was published a couple months after Madison residents narrowly defeated a referendum that would have banned the ownership of most handguns. In 1993, even without the ban, a citizen couldn’t legally buy or transfer a handgun within city limits and getting caught carrying a concealed gun could result in a disorderly conduct charge. In 2011, Wisconsin became the 49th state to legalize concealed carry.

After Sandy Hook and Tony Robinson
Like Nowlen 21 years earlier, Maggie Ginsberg started her June 2014 gun debate story, headlined “Big Bang Theories,” by recounting firsthand the experience of firing a powerful handgun at a target. Ginsberg’s piece came out a year and a half after the Sandy Hook massacre — in which a 20-year-old gunman with a Bushmaster rifle fatally shot 20 6- and 7-year-old children as well as six adult school staff members. Yet, as Ginsberg reported after interviewing more than a dozen people on all sides of the issue, the fight over access to guns appeared as intractable as ever.

It was the March 6, 2015, killing of Tony Robinson, an unarmed 19-year-old black man, by Madison police officer Matt Kenny that seemed to change the dialogue, however temporarily. Six writers are bylined on the award-winning 23-page May cover story, titled “The Days After,” about how the city responded in the immediate aftermath of the fatal shooting. The magazine’s coverage focused less on gun violence in this instance than on racial disparities that many people said they felt undergird such violent flashpoints like this one in Madison.

Homelessness and Mental Illness

State Defers to Communities
“Is Madison taking care of the mentally ill?” asked the headline of a December 1984 story by Doug Moe. The question was prompted by a national trend to “deinstitutionalize” or release people deemed to have mental illness from state hospitals and other facilities. Providing support for those people then fell to counties and communities.

Wisconsin — ranked dead last nationally in mental health spending in 1981 — had discharged a majority of its in-patient population since the 1970s. That included most of the residents of the state-run Mendota Mental Health Institute. Twenty years earlier, the psychiatric hospital housed 970 patients. Moe reported just 21 remained in 1983.

At the same time, an estimated 1,300 people with mental illness remained in Dane County with about 1,000 of those receiving some health services from the county. While that meant some people needing 24-hour-a-day supervision were no longer getting it, others were doing meaningful work and living independently, Moe was told.

In 2010, a proposal to renovate the Central Library was on the table. Not surprisingly, that discussion brought new attention to the homeless people finding daytime refuge at the library. Staff writer Shayna Mace (then Shayna Miller) took the opportunity to talk to advocates at Porchlight, United Way and the Madison Police Department about the issue. They explained why the homeless include a high percentage of people with mental illness. They also emphasized the fact that few individuals in the shelter system had run-ins with police. (Only 6.3 percent of chronic offenders were homeless, according to a joint study by the United Way and MPD.)

First Responders Include Police, Social Services
In her extensive February 2016 cover story on homelessness, Maggie Ginsberg found that families — including nearly 2,000 children — make up nearly half the local homeless population in Dane County. She found working solutions: The United Way and its partners had found permanent housing for nearly 2,000 families countywide over the previous decade.

Madison’s seven or more emergency shelters remained at capacity, however, with limits on how long one could stay at any of them. Although homelessness was down slightly, the problem had become more visible in front of the City-County Building and elsewhere downtown, and had risen on the agenda of Mayor Paul Soglin. Officials continued to insist there’s little correlation between the visibly homeless and those with behavioral issues requiring the involvement of police downtown. While Soglin pushed bans on sitting on sidewalks and sleeping on public benches, he agreed with social service workers that the city needs more affordable housing.

Ginsberg returned in the April 2016 issue with an examination of how the Madison Police Department handles calls concerning citizens with mental illness. For the first time 14 months earlier, a five-member team of mental health officers was formed to deal with as many as 3,000 mental health-related calls a year. “The success of programs like this can be hard to measure,” Ginsberg wrote. But as officers become better at assessing situations and connecting people to service providers, “maybe those jail numbers can drop and this population can get the help it needs. That’s the idea, anyway.”

Other social issues tackled by Madison Magazine (a partial list)

CHILDCARE COSTS “A Complex Equation,” July 2015
COUNTY JAIL OVERCROWDING “Inside Madison’s Powder Keg,” March 1992
HUNGER “The Silent Epidemic of a Food-Rich City,” October 2013
RELIGION “Is Madison Godless? Hell, No,” by Stu Levitan, December 1997; “Young and Pious,” by Doug Moe, December 2017
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE “Second Chances,” by Neil Heinen, January 2018
SEXUAL ASSAULT “Rape in Madison: An Investigative Report,” September 1993; “No More Secrets,” February 2014
UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS “Out of the Shadows,” by Maggie Ginsberg September 2016
VETERAN SERVICES “Soldiering On,” by Maggie Ginsberg, November 2017

For more on the 40th Anniversary of Madison Magazine, click here.