From the archive: A look at Paul Soglin’s early career

A story from 1985 by Madison writer Doug Moe
From the archive: A look at Paul Soglin’s early career
Paul Soglin appears on the cover of Madison Magazine in March 1985. 

Editor’s note: In celebration of Madison Magazine’s 40th anniversary, the magazine is republishing a story each month from the archive. Over the years, the magazine has written much about Mayor Paul Soglin, who announced his candidacy for governor on Jan. 10. This 1985 profile by Doug Moe is the first offering in the yearlong series of archived stories on various topics the magazine has covered in the past 40 years.

“I just hope there are enough decent people left in Madison so that I’m reelected.” –Bill Dyke, March, 1973

“Bill violated the cardinal rule for all politicians, which is, ‘Never attack the voters.” –Paul Soglin, January, 1985

On his office wall, there is a campaign poster. It is a call to arms on behalf of a Madison alderman named Ellsworth Swenson. “If you don’t vote,” the poster warns, “this student will be your next alderman.” Pictured is a scruffy, dirty young man, a sure troublemaker.

The poster notwithstanding, Mr. Swenson did not win the election. The troublemaker did, and an extraordinary career was launched, a career in politics that included three terms as mayor of Madison. He remained in Madison, but his legend did not. The New York Times wrote about him while he was still driving a cab and the New Yorker profiled him before he was 30. They wrote about his hair, his mustache, his arrests, his rhetoric. To outsiders, he was the hippie alderman, and later, the Red Mayor.

His own history and the city’s over the past two decades are intrinsically linked, and what a long, strange, journey it has been. On the office wall near the Swenson poster are pictures of him with Jimmy Carter, Kenny Rogers, Bob Feller and Fidel Castro. A politician, an entertainer, a sportsman, a revolutionary–in their parts they might sum up his six spirited years as Madison’s mayor. It seems longer ago than it was. The troublemaker is a lawyer in private practice in Madison today, out of the limelight by choice, no longer scruffy and, strangest of all, no longer young. Next month, Paul Soglin turns 40.

He seems to enjoy the relative obscurity this man who for so long formed the epicenter of nearly every important debate in Madison. Try to name a big issue over the past 20 years where Soglin wasn’t heard from, or one he didn’t initiate. It isn’t easy. He had his scalp massaged with a policeman’s nightstick as a leader of the anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. He is in large part responsible for the Civic Center, the Capitol Centre (which Joel Skornicka finished, but Soglin started), the State Street mall, Lake Monona bike path and our much heralded bus system.

Critics of his years in the mayor’s office say his idealism about public transit marked the beginning of the end for Madison’s Downtown (people still drive their cars and they still can’t park) and that the empty store fronts on the Capitol Square are largely his doing. Certainly the Civic Center and its large taxpayer subsidy remain controversial. The current head of the Chamber of Commerce says Madison’s biggest problem has been overcoming the anti-business attitude city government reflected during the Soglin years.

No surprise, Soglin doesn’t agree. Still given his image, it is interesting to hear him say that “the biggest bulk of my clients these past couple of years have been small businesses that need an attorney. Helping them get started, getting them in business, assisting with any problems that develop.” Can it be that the man the New Yorker called the “Red Mayor” has been born again as Lee Iacocca?

Yes and no. Soglin the attorney says that Soglin the mayor was never anti-business. All he did, he argues, is put projects to a test. Was a given project the best use of a particular piece of land, and was there a better place in the city for it?

“Putting something to those two tests,” Soglin says today, “does not mean you’re against development-manufacturing, commercial, whatever. I really resent the people claiming to have a monopoly on the truth on this subject, because they wrap themselves in the pro-business flag, and suddenly everyone else is anti-business.”

Among those Soglin resents are Wisconsin State Journal editor Robert Spiegel and Chamber of Commerce head Bob Brennan, who, he says, blindly trumpet high-tech development at the expense of nearly everything else.

“I keep on thinking about Robert Speigel,” Soglin says. “Spiegel and the attitude he represents show a fundamental lack of understanding about what needs to be done with this city.”

As an example, Soglin points to some people he’s representing who are trying to put together a major housing development on South Park Street. He feels that because it’s not a sexy, big business project, he’s getting little public support for the effort.

“I really believe that this project on South Park Street and others like it, are critical to the city,” Soglin says.

“It’s an in-fill development, basically intended for people over the age of 55. It has some really important concepts. A substantial number of people who move into that development are going to be empty-nesters in the Wingra–South Park area. If they make that jump, it then frees up their homes for couples with children.

“That’s going to have a profound effect on school populations and revitalization of that area,” Soglin continues. “At the same time, for the older people it provides housing in the area where they’ve lived all their lives. To me, all these social as well as economic elements are critical. But I don’t hear any drums beating. We’re trying to package this very difficult proposal, and we’re not getting any help. We’ve got neighborhood support, but it seems like if you’re not high-tech, you’re on your own.”

Clearly, at 40, Paul Soglin still can come out swinging. But during a lengthy, freewheeling interview just after New Year’s, a busy time when he had just changed offices (and law firms), Soglin displayed the abundant good humor of a man who is, in all simplicity, content. Happy.

Partly that may be a function of the times. Robert Spiegel may not know Madison from Des Moines, but could that possibly drive emotions anywhere near the level of the anti-war years? Then, too, Soglin is off the mayoral merry-go-round, out of that spotlight which often seems to exact a steep personal price. (Both Soglin and his successor, Joel Skornicka, saw their marriages break-up either during or shortly after their terms.) Friends say Soglin, no stranger to Madison night life in the past, is developing into a contented domestic. When not working, he is most often at home with his second wife, Sara, and their new baby girl.

Doting daddy is not a role for which he seemed destined. Growing up in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, Soglin learned politics early from his father, a teacher at Chicago City College. The elder Soglin refused to sign the “loyalty oath” demanded of public employees during the 1950s. That defiant spirit was not lost on his son.

The son made good grades in high school and began looking for a Midwestern college that was strong academically. Michigan and Wisconsin stood out, but he decided on the UW because he felt the campus was more liberal.

“I wanted a school I was politically comfortable with,” Soglin recalls, “and I think that apart from five introductory classes, Wisconsin was the only land-grant college in the United States that did not have compulsory ROTC.”

He was comfortable in Madison. Soglin began in pre-med, didn’t enjoy the courses, and ended up
pursuing a bachelor’s degree with an eye toward law or graduate school. His senior year, he applied for both, in Madison and at the University of Illinois.

“Early on, I made a decision that if I got accepted, I’d go to Wisconsin. I was accepted in both law and history, but I didn’t make my decision until registration day. I picked up the history packet.”

Long before graduate school, he’d become active on campus politically. He had served in Wisconsin Student Senate, but of greater significance for events to come, he participated in the earliest protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In 1963, a 29-year-old reporter named David Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches from Vietnam detailing the corrupt nature of the Diem regime and the growing United States participation there. Even so, many Americans had scarcely heard of the country. Most of Madison was surprised when Soglin and a handful of other students marched with picket signs protesting the presence of U.S. advisors in Vietnam. “Even then,” Soglin recalls, “we alleged those advisors had combat roles.”

As the war escalated, so did the movement protesting it. And it wasn’t just Vietnam. Young people were questioning traditional mores at every turn. “The people who got involved with the anti-war movement were not one-issue people,” Soglin says. “Almost universally, they were active in other movements. My principal and really only activity at that time was civil rights.”

Part of the concern among the establishment was that the students weren’t just against the war, they wanted to tear apart the fiber–whatever exactly it was–that held the country together. A small, struggling State Street merchant may have been forgiven for wondering how bricks thrown through his window were going to stop a war in Southeast Asia. Soglin recalls: “When the Committee to End the War in Vietnam was formed, around 1965, that in itself was a major debate. Should there be an organization that was single-issue?”

He always called himself a radical, not a revolutionary, and when he thinks back on the 1960s in Madison what strikes Soglin is how the local anti-war movement managed to preserve its integrity in a way that the one in Berkeley, for instance, did not.

“Madison was different,” he says. “While other things surfaced–a very intense black movement, a women’s movement, interest in Latin America–all the infighting that ripped the anti-war movement apart everywhere else didn’t happen here.”

In 1968, Soglin made a move that some activists viewed as an establishment copout–he decided to run for alderman, in the Downtown 8th District. He calls the decision “a direct result of what was happening politically.”

In the wake of the October, 1967 Dow Chemical demonstrations against the napalm-producing company’s campus recruiting (demonstrations which became bloody riots), neighborhood organizations tried to bring the warring factions together to smoke the peace pipe.

Soglin recalls: “Following Dow, a number of students, myself included, were invited to go around the city and participate in panel discussions. One of the participants was an attorney named William Dyke. They also had police inspectors there. One of the things that became very clear was how isolated we were. All people knew about the anti-war movement was what they read in the newspaper and saw on television. We felt that was a distorted view. And at the same time, there were those of us who were becoming interested in more than the war: city housing and transportation issues.”

Could a student–a radical–actually get elected to the Madison City Council? It’s worth remembering that in the early months of 1968, when Soglin and a few others were considering tossing their berets into the ring, you had to be 21-years-old to vote. Still, in the central city districts there might be a chance…

“We talked it over,” Soglin recalls. “One other fellow wanted to run, and I wanted to run. There was no consensus. We kept talking it over and finally I just said, ‘I’m running.’ And that was it.”

He ran, and on April 2, 1968, the city’s 8th District elected Paul Soglin its alderman. The next day Mayor Otto Festge’s office received a number of frightened telephone calls from residents of the ward–was the sky falling? Had the Bolsheviks finally arrived?

In truth, Soglin’s first year on the Council surprised some people. He did not call for orgies on the steps of City Hall nor did he propose legislation banning haircuts. He did manage to block an effort by city police to secure $8,000 for additional riot control equipment, but more than anything, Soglin established himself as a pro who did his homework. “We wanted,” he says, “to show that there were normal, everyday people who were against the war.” (He received some criticism from left-wing hardliners for “selling out,” criticism that never really abated. By the end of his mayoral years, leftists were Soglin’s bitterest critics.)

By 1969, he was a law student making his money driving a cab, and a Council member whose youth and background were making national headlines. The New York Times did a lengthy piece and Look magazine ran a generally favorable profile titled, “The Boy Alderman of Madison.”

The boy alderman’s voice on the Council floor was becoming a bit more strident, and it had a focus–Madison’s new mayor, a conservative Republican lawyer named William Dyke. Soglin cited Dyke along with U.S vice-president Spiro Agnew as examples of “McCarthy-type repression” in Madison and the country as a whole, further criticizing “what I call the creeping fascism that is taking over this country.”

The next year–in December, 1970–Soglin announced for mayor. Few took him seriously. A Council seat in a largely student district was one thing, but mayor? Soglin was asked recently what led him to enter the 1971 primary–did he have a brain trust plotting his political career?

The question brought a large guffaw. “A brain trust it was not. Entering that primary was basically designed to do one thing, which was to see what the attitudes really were outside the campus area. Did I have any credibility? About six or seven of us sat around, bouncing it back and forth. Talk about running by the seat of your pants!

“We decided to concentrate on what was then the 19th District, the Crestwood area,” Soglin continues. “We wanted to see what would happen in the rest of the city. What the responses would be, what would be the attendance at coffees, what the level of hostility would be. We thought, okay, that area might be a lion’s den, but it would be more sympathetic than some others. And if you look at the vote. That told us we were doing the right thing.”

Later that year, at 27, he became president pro tem of the Council, and he graduated from law school. The anti-war movement was running out of ways to express itself, particularly after the tragic bombing of Sterling Hall. His Council duties, Soglin recalls, “were taking almost all of my time.”

Dyke had won a second term in 1971, and he and Soglin continued to spar. By late November of 1972, Soglin had decided to once again enter the mayoral primary, this time in earnest.

“I came to the conclusion through a series of negative steps,” Soglin recalls. “I looked at the City Council, at the political leaders in Madison, and in terms of somebody who was capable of beating Bill Dyke–and who would be, in my estimation, a good mayor–I didn’t see anybody. And at that point I was convinced I could win.”

It was a four-way primary–Dyke, Soglin, Leo Cooper and David Stewart.

“To this day,” Soglin says, “I think everybody knows the critical factor was my making it through the primary. If the established liberal community had had a candidate, there was no way I would have made it through the primary.”

As it was, Cooper and Stewart split the establishment liberal vote. Says Soglin: “The question I still
can’t answer is, “What if either Cooper or Stewart hadn’t run? What if Cooper’s votes had gone to Stewart?’ Because I only beat Stewart by a thousand votes. I don’t know the answer to that. But I was convinced neither of them could be elected mayor.”

Few thought Soglin could either, but by finishing second to Dyke in the February primary, he got a one-on-one shot in April. As election day neared, Dyke’s supporters waffled between arrogance and fear. They did their level best to make it seem the Anti-Christ had materialized in Madison with an evil eye on the mayor’s chair. A pamphlet, “Lest We Forget,” was published, recalling Soglin’s anti-war verbiage and criticizing his stubborn refusal to visit a barber.

Soglin’s private polling showed he had a real chance to win. He recalls:

“Other than the intense personal reaction to the candidates, there was only one issue. I was running on that issue, and that was the transportation issue. The polls showed that there were actually some people who were making up their minds on the issues. There weren’t a lot of them, and there weren’t a lot of issues they were looking at, but for those people the issue was public transit and I was getting their support.”

At this point in the interview, Soglin was clearly enjoying thinking back on what may have been the most exciting time of his life. His eyes were gleaming. He lit a cigarette, one of half a dozen he charged through during our discussion, and continued.

“It was fun! I was up at 5:30 every morning and going until 11 every night. The energy level was incredible. I think our people were saying, “This is insane, but there is a chance, and wouldn’t it be wonderful, after supporting Gene McCarthy and George McGovern, if our candidate actually
won one.”

Two weeks before the election, the polls showed them behind, but closing.

“Our polls indicated the undecided voter was going to make the difference. There were a sufficient number to swing the election. Normally, as you get closer and closer to an election, the undecided voters break for the incumbent. But because of the types of things they were saying in their responses it was clear they didn’t want to vote for Dyke. They needed something to tell them it was all right to vote for me, because they had tremendous fears of what I was going to do once I was in office. Maybe the ‘decent people’ remark swung it, I’m not sure.”

It happened a week before the election when the candidates staged a debate, with all the marbles on the line.

“It was like a scene out of a movie,” Soglin recalls. “Dyke would not debate me one-on-
one throughout the whole campaign, then finally he did. It was a big showdown at the West High auditorium. It was set for 7:30 and people started packing the place at 6. Dyke arrived late. We took questions from the audience, filtered through written cards and nothing remarkable happened.

“It was time for summation. Bill summarized first, and he concluded by saying he just hoped there were enough decent people left in Madison that he’d be reelected. Then it was my turn. I summarized what I had said that evening, and concluded by saying, ‘I don’t care if you’re decent or indecent, I hope you’ll support me on election day.”

The “decent people” remark hurt Dyke worse than if he’d gone to pieces and started a voodoo chant or rain dance on stage.

“To this day,” Soglin says, “I notice when politicians use the word decent. And they do. In the recent presidential election, they all talked about decency, about decent people. But the way Dyke put it was, ‘If you don’t vote for me, you’re indecent.’ Bill violated the cardinal rule for all politicians, which is, ‘Never attack the voters.’ The next day lawn signs started popping up saying, ‘Another decent family for Soglin.’ And that was it.”

The final tally was Soglin 37,548 to Dyke 34,179. Soglin appeared on the “Today Show” and was interviewed by The Chicago Tribune (“I disavow violence”) and Nicholas von Hoffman in The Washington Post. The New York Times called again and before long so did Time magazine. He was 28 years old.

After the inauguration,” he recalls, “I went into my office and shut the door. I’m in that office all by myself and I’m saying, ‘My God! What are we going to do now? This is scary!’ Then I took a deep breath and thought about it. I thought, ‘There are all these incompetents who have held office all over the country, ruined their cities, what’s the worst I can do? The worst I can do is what they did.’ I’d probably take it on the chin a little more because of the novelty of how I was elected and who I was. But in terms of the job I couldn’t do much worse than the norm. So I just kind of decided to go for it. You only go around once.”

In the end, of course, he went around three times as Madison’s mayor. The years 1973-1979 will always be the Soglin era in this city; his impact on Madison, like him or not, is undeniable. When the Civic Center finally opened, with Joan Mondale in town and everyone congratulating themselves ad nauseum, Channel 3’s Tedd O’Connell introduced Soglin to his viewers as a man “whose fingerprints are all over this city.” It was an appropriate remark-the Soglin style always was gloves off, and damn the consequences.

So it was that, as mayor, he went on Ben Sidran’s Channel 15 show and called President Nixon “corrupt” (the station bleeped it); vigorously lent support to California farm workers’ efforts to unionize; and in the middle of his second term, journeyed to Cuba, where he found Fidel Castro “very warm, very serene and relaxed.” On his office door was the irreverent sign “Hizzoner–da Mare,” and City Hall reporters would remember him as the most accessible mayor, perhaps of all time. They could usually find him in the office, almost never wearing shoes.

He was routinely taken out behind the barn and roughed up by the Wisconsin State Journal, but in the end, his harshest critics were his former soulmates on the radical left. The underground newspaper TakeOver got very ugly in its personal attacks toward the end, accusing him of selling out, and that most heinous of crimes, pragmatism. Undeniably, his supporters during his reelection bids included more people in three-piece suits than sandals. Once business leaders found out he didn’t intend to rip up Monona Avenue and plant a marijuana crop, they warmed to him. It never hurts to have a friend in the mayor’s office, even one who doesn’t wear shoes.

Soglin’s legacy as mayor is one of a man who took chances, gambled and often won. (He is, in fact, a fervent horse race enthusiast.) Tedd O’Connell sums up by saying he was “a centrist mayor who made things happen.” Soglin secured millions of federal dollars for the city, although it should be noted there were federal funds available during his tenure. Today, Madison mayors are faced with keeping Soglin-initiated programs going without the federal support.

Most knowledgeable observers say he was a good mayor, and maybe we can let it go at that. O’Connell, the reporter who probably knew him best, says Soglin’s most underrated asset was that he was simply smarter than a lot of people, certainly most politicians. O’Connell also remembers him as a mayor who, for all his irreverence, worked close to a 60-hour week.

It was the pressure and the lack of privacy that made him finally step down.

“I decided not to run again about two months after the ’77 election,” Soglin says. “One of the things I really wanted was privacy. The’77 election (a bitter victory over Nino Amato, who finished first in the primary) was another major production. More attention. I realized I didn’t want to be mayor for the rest of my life. And then something had happened that previous summer that I hadn’t really thought out. I’d gone out of town to a meeting, arrived in my hotel room, found an urgent message from the city and spent the next three and a half hours on the telephone. I don’t even remember what the ‘crisis’ was. I think the conversation ended with my saying, which was very unusual for me, ‘If that’s not solved, and I have to get on a plane and come back, it’s all over.’ I was really angry that it seemed I couldn’t leave the city for a couple of days.”

He left public life, but he stayed in the city. Happy with his family, content in his law practice, a surprisingly mellow 40, will Paul Soglin ever again run for mayor?

In 15 or 20 years,” he says, “if my law practice is going well, I’d consider running for mayor again. I’d want to be sure my family was secure, and I’d met my obligations to my law partners, but I could see retiring by spending a few years in office. It would have to be on my terms. There’d be some changes, compared to ’73-’79. For one thing, there’d be no talking back, from anybody.”

He was laughing as he said that, but remember one thing. His eyes were gleaming again.

Doug Moe was a regular contributor for Madison Magazine in 1985. He became the associate editor in December 1987 and went on to be the editor of Madison Magazine. He currently writes Person of Interest, a monthly column in the magazine and a weekly blog called “Doug Moe’s Madison” on