Madison mayoral candidates Ray Allen, Dave Cieslewicz, Peter MuÃ±oz and Will Sandstrom make their case at the Young Professionals forum on Thursday, Feb. 8.
The scene in Ballroom A of the Concourse Hotel in downtown Madison is typical of what one might expect of a political forum explicitly organized by and for yuppies.
The wallpaper is a dusky toile, the lighting is romantically dim, the round tables covered with crisp white cloths, the portable bar (well stocked with wine, liquor and Milwaukee beers), and the buffet offers chocolate-covered strawberries, miniature éclairs, chicken satay, and, of course, the obligatory spinach dip, cheese, crackers and veggies.
This is the setting for the second debate in two days for Madison's four mayoral candidates, one held in front of a few dozen people in the hotel.
Though the notice for the Young Professionals Forum gives a start time of 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8, the atmosphere in the conference room is decidedly relaxed, with the organization's members working the buffet and bar as the candidates arrive.
All four candidates -- formally attired in their suits and ties -- sit at a table in the front of the room with moderator Sherman Hackbarth. The debate's format is a round robin, and there's nothing particularly new nor noteworthy in the opening statements, though it is interesting to see how much each candidate sticks to his script for these kinds of public appearances.
Allen touts his experience on the Madison school board, and focuses on his primary issue of the connection between poverty and crime. Cieslewicz cites his accomplishments over four years in office, emphasizing the city pool and automated recycling. Muñoz, who worked for former Mayor Sue Bauman, says Madison is a "jewel of the world" and points to the need of maintaining basic services. And finally, Will Sandstrom displays a massive old Bible as he launches into his stump tirade about immigration, organized crime Cieslewicz's failings, and his Finnish heritage.
Because of the format, Allen's comments usually follow Sandstrom, who more often than not has the crowd giggling nervously or laughing outright. More interesting, are the reactions of the other candidates when Sandstrom speaks. Muñoz typically looks down and studiously tries to ignore Sandstrom. Both Cieslewicz and Allen have a harder time keeping a straight face, particularly when Sandstrom hurls some accusation at the mayor. The entire sideshow scene, while contributing little of substance to the debate, certainly is a favorite topic of conversation afterward.
The questions are standard issue. The discussion over the approachability of city government and transportation are particularly rote, with Munoz and Allen once again taking shots at the mayor's championing of trolleys. Cieslewicz joins them in pledging support to Madison Metro. All of them oppose crime, with Muñoz calling for more detectives and a greater focus on helping the mentally ill and substance-abusers, while Cieslewicz points to his boosts in the public safety budget.
More lively is the discussion about perceptions of a bad business climate in town. Muñoz says the perception matters because "where there's smoke, there's fire." Allen hits the city's inclusionary zoning ordinance and says there are too many hoops that businesses must jump through. The mayor, meanwhile, lists his prominent supporters in the business community and the city's renewed focus on economic strategy. Sandstrom, in a moment of lucidity, pinpoints health-care costs as a major hindrance to all businesses.
Also notable is discussion about energy use and the proposed American Transmission Co. power line, which has Cieslewicz emphasizing green building and skepticism about the line. Muñoz cites his energy work with the Bauman administration, while Allen sounds unprepared and calls for more study of future energy demand.
The questions in the open discussion portion of the forum are much narrower and tougher, generally framed from a much more progressive perspective. The candidates are grilled about the community's high incarceration rate for minorities, the perception that the city is unfriendly to minorities, the rising levels of homelessness, and the importance of green business practices.
The candidates stick to their core talking points in their responses and closing statements, focusing on poverty (Allen), achievements and ongoing programs (Cieslewicz), basic services and the Bauman administration (Muñoz), and Finland (Sandstrom). Though this is mostly more of the same for the candidates, their campaign entourages, and attending media, it's not without value. Those attending the forum at least get a first hand look at all four candidates, who in turn get more word-of-mouth vehicles for their message, good and bad.