A campaign forum on racial and economic disparities -- sponsored by WORT-FM and Isthmus at the Rev. Alex Gee's Fountain of Life Covenant Church -- injected some much-needed energy into the Madison mayor's race Wednesday night.
Candidates took shots at each other, and members of the crowd demanded answers from the five candidates: incumbent Paul Soglin and his four challengers, Richard Brown, Christopher Daly, Bridget Maniaci and Scott Resnick.
Soglin was the second candidate to give an opening statement, explaining how he decided to run for mayor again in 2011 specifically to address growing poverty in the city. "We have a long way to go, but from 2011 to 2013, we've had significant progress in closing disparity in unemployment and income," he told the crowd. "I'd like four more years to work with you to further this job."
But Brown, a former Dane County supervisor and the only African American in the race, lit into him: "Our racial disparities are not better. We've got 1,000 babies homeless in our schools. I don't know what Paul is talking about because when he started, we only had 700 and something. These are our babies. We've got to do something, and that's why I'm running."
There were other sharp jabs through the more than two-hour event, as well as sporadic chants from the crowd of roughly 300. Several members of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition were on hand, shouting between questions "All power to the people," "Fill the people, not the jails," and others.
Soglin was sort of in a bind. He's been elected mayor seven terms over four decades, and he's proud of his record. But he was facing largely a crowd frustrated with the status quo and craving immediate, systemic change. It seemed little comfort for them to hear him talk about his past achievements, some of which dated back decades.
At one point, when Soglin claimed credit for starting a community garden in Brittingham Park, people yelled "We did that" back at him. The mayor supported the project, but it grew out of neighborhood efforts.
But Soglin did demonstrate knowledge of the issues and took some jabs at Resnick and Maniaci -- his closest rivals, at least in terms of raising money. He called them both out for voting for more funding for the Overture Center and $17 million in tax incremental funding for the Edgewater Hotel, instead of pushing for projects that could serve poor communities.
Resnick and Maniaci, in turn, accused the mayor of not doing enough to address the issues, failing to act on a homeless shelter, and not working well with others.
In contrast to Soglin, Daly's responses got some of the best reception, because his campaign advocates for wide-scale systemic change. He's called for establishing a public bank, closing the jails and promoting urban agriculture.
His answer to the question of how Madison -- a relatively wealthy community -- has such terrible poverty and disparity got some of the loudest applause and cheers of the night.
"The capitalist system depends on slavery to survive," he said. "It always has. It's up to us now, our generation, to dismantle this system, which is based on genocide and oppression of entire groups of people and the exploitation of workers. We have outsourced that exploitation to other countries. There are people suffering in factories in China to make the shit we buy that we don't need."
Daly also occasionally raised a clenched fist in solidarity with the crowd when they chanted "All power to the people."
For the first hour, a panel of three -- Gee; Nino Amato, vice president of Dane County NAACP and president of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups; and Erica Nelson, program director of the Race to Equity Project -- asked questions. For the last half hour, candidates took questions from the audience, sparking some of the more interesting exchanges.
Members of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition pushed the candidates for more specifics about what they'd do. Their questions often started with long preambles about their own experiences. It was clear they were happy to have a venue to voice their concerns and ask questions. But they didn't think much of the candidates' responses.
"There's a disconnect between what you believe to the be the issues and what the issues are," said one woman. "Our systems are not broken. They are fixed." She then asked what they'd do to addresses the group's specific demands, including releasing inmates from the jail and closing solitary confinement.
Bridget Maniaci responded by saying, "Step one is don't piss people off if you want to get things moving here. We have to have good conversations."
The comment brought heckling from the crowd.
Unlike a mayoral forum last week sponsored by Downtown Madison Inc. -- which saw people walking out before it was over -- this debate went on for an hour past the scheduled hour-and-a-half broadcast, as audience members had more and more questions.
A replay of the forum can be viewed here.