David Michael Miller
When Madison residents head to the polls on April 4, most won’t have a choice on who represents them on the Common Council. Although all 20 seats are up for election, only five of the districts will have more than one candidate on the ballot. The other 15 council members are running unopposed, the fewest number of contested races since 2001.
“It’s very disappointing,” Mayor Paul Soglin tells Isthmus. “I can’t understand why in such an activist city as Madison — where virtually everyone has an opinion on every subject — that we should find an extremely low number of contested races. It is disturbing.”
Soglin worries that if council members aren’t challenged at the ballot box, they will become complacent. He calls it “dangerous” for elected officials to run unopposed.
“It gives [council members] the false sense that they are right about everything,” says Soglin. “As much as it’s a strain and a challenge to go through a grueling election — and I’ve been fortunate to experience a good number of them over the years — I think it’s not only good for the community, it’s good for the candidate.”
Alds. Rebecca Kemble and Paul Skidmore agree. Neither face opponents this year but they aren’t celebrating. Skidmore says he was hoping for a spirited toe-to-toe with a challenger.
“Opponents stimulate a conversation,” says Skidmore. “It’s kind of sad because we have all sorts of issues that need discussing.”
“Competitive elections are good for everyone,” adds Kemble. “They help all candidates clarify their thinking and positions, especially when the community organizes public debates and candidate forums.”
Ald. Mark Clear sees two contradictory forces driving the lackluster number of opponents: “Jadedness and disgust” felt by voters about politics in general, and satisfaction with how local government is being run.
“Despite the mayor’s claim that the council is irresponsible and clueless, I think actually the council has functioned well,” says Clear. “That’s reflected in the fact that there is not an urgency to replace incumbents.”
Voters have at times ousted alders — even some well-entrenched ones — seeking reelection. One of the biggest upsets came in 2013 when John Strasser unseated longtime council member Tim Bruer, who had represented his southwest-side district for 29 years. Strasser served for one term, but then lost his reelection bid to Sheri Carter in 2015. That same year, Samba Baldeh won his east-side seat by defeating incumbent Joe Clausius, a four-term veteran.
Carter now faces her own challenger, college student Jose Rea. Ald. Barbara McKinney will face IT manager David Handowski for her far-west-side district. Near the UW campus, Ald. Zach Wood is running against John Terry Jr., a homeless activist. And Ald. Maurice Cheeks is up against state business analyst Steve Fitzsimmons for his west-side seat.
Ald. Tim Gruber is the only council member stepping down. Gruber promised not to run for reelection when council leaders appointed him to serve out the term of former Ald. Chris Schmidt, who resigned last January. Policy analyst Arvina Martin and consultant Bradley Campbell are vying to replace him in the west-side seat bordering Shorewood Hills. There will be no council elections on the spring primary ballot (Feb. 21) because there are only two candidates in each contested race.
Council president Mike Verveer says the lack of open seats may account for the historically low number of council candidates.
“I think that is clearly one reason why there are so few contested races. Typically, there are more candidates when there is an open seat,” says Verveer, who last faced an opponent in 1999. “The lack of challengers — you’d like to think — is also because incumbents are doing a decent job.”
Brenda Konkel, former alder and election chair of Progressive Dane, says running for Common Council can be daunting for a newcomer. To wage a competitive campaign, a candidate needs to knock on thousands of doors in the dead of winter and raise upwards of $10,000.
“There is a high interest in running,” says Konkel. “But when you actually talk to someone about what it takes to run, it drops off real quick.”
Alders’ unwillingness to rock the boat is also a factor, says Konkel.
“In the past, alders pushed contentious issues forward. So people challenged them. This council sort of sits back and responds to things. They let the mayor do a lot of the work.”