Daly: 'A lot of people feel powerless because they feel like they can't make a difference.'
After Chris Daly graduated from the UW-Madison with a degree in communications in 2012, he kept hitting the books. He spent his free time scouring the Internet to learn whatever he could about everything from human health to financial regulations to environmental issues. All of it was done with an aim to figure out how life could be better in Madison.
Everywhere he went Daly shared his newfound knowledge with anyone who would listen -- and some who would rather not.
"I just started talking to people all the time about, 'This is the way this is set up and this would be a better way,' and people were normally like 'Okay?'" says Daly. "You're on the bus or at a bar and you're talking about this scientific study or that scientific study, and people are like, 'Where'd you come from man?'"
Finally, his family asked him, "What are you going to do about it?"
Daly's answer: run for mayor.
The 25-year-old, who has never run for political office before, has a slim chance of winning. But he joins a tradition in Madison of outsider candidates running for mayor.
In the Feb. 17 primary, he faces off against four other candidates, incumbent Paul Soglin, Ald. Scott Resnick, former Ald. Bridget Maniaci, and former Dane County Supv. Richard Brown. The two candidates with the most votes will square off in the April 7 general election.
Daly has raised $180 through gofundme.com, exempting him from having to submit a campaign finance report. In contrast, Soglin had raised over $19,700 (PDF) as of last July (the next campaign report is due Jan. 20). This funding disparity hasn't deterred Daly from thinking up big ideas, and he remains completely confident that he can win.
Daly is approaching the race earnestly, in hopes of engaging people in local politics.
"It takes some of the pressure off of me to broaden the conversation," Daly says, referring to his running mates. "This race is a litmus test for the liberal spirit as it lives today. We have the old guard represented, we have the neoliberal youth economy, and then there's me."
Daly currently works as an attendant at the Madison Senior Center, doing administrative duties at the front desk. But his passion is civic involvement.
His primary goal in running for office is to make people feel powerful again. He's disappointed by how few people get involved in local politics. Turnout for the 2014 governor's race in Madison was 69.5%, but for the 2011 Madison mayoral race only 54% of the electorate voted.
"When you delve into the stuff that's distressing or really needs changing, there's a point where you feel powerless, and I think a lot of people feel powerless because they feel like they can't make a difference," Daly says. "I think we're reaching a boiling point now where people are being forced to get involved, and we see it with the Black Lives Matter protests."
Along with participating in Madison's Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition protests -- including a recent die-in at West Towne Mall -- Daly sees the attention being paid to the Race to Equity report as a step in the right direction. The report, published by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, looks at the extent of racial disparities in Dane County.
"I'm really glad the Race to Equity report is being talked about, and that we're looking at the relationship of the police to people of color," Daly explains. "But we see now with the body-cam debate, what good is it if grand juries still refuse to indict? We need to be talking about different approaches to community policing."
One of Daly's solutions is to shut down the jails.
"I think that even the presence of jails leads to mental illness and bad behavior," says Daly. "I'm affiliated with the No Dane County Jail Working Group, and I think that's where we should be headed. We should be talking about dismantling this system that basically profits off of people's misery."
Daly recognizes that closing the city's jails can't happen overnight, but it's something he would pursue as mayor.
In place of jails, Daly suggests work-sentencing programs focused on growing food. According to Daly, the city would need to build several partially submerged greenhouses that could grow food year-round. In addition to being an alternative to jails, the greenhouses could help Madison become more self-sufficient.
"Madison should be the model sustainable city, and that involves producing our own food and energy, and a high level of civic engagement," says Daly. "That's my real goal."
Several things would have to change to make his vision successful, including reducing the workweek to 21 hours, something Daly thinks would foster greater civic participation.
"We are a naturally creative species; we like to play and explore, and it gets schooled out of us," Daly says. "If you give people enough time, they'll gravitate towards their interests -- tinkering, art, music -- those are the things that make people feel most alive."
Still, Daly says, none of these changes would work without a major overhaul of the current economic structure. To avoid what Daly sees as an inevitable repeat financial crisis, he suggests switching from a private banking system to a public one. While the two are relatively similar, a public bank would keep money in Madison. Instead of interest going to shareholders like in a private bank, it would go to municipal services. And a public bank could invest more in local businesses, instead of private banks investing in large, low-risk chains.
"We can't continue to depend on the same old private ownership model that we have," Daly says. "If we want to talk about getting out of debt and really lifting Madison up, we need to put money in people's pockets, and I see this as the fastest way of doing it."
On the fringe
According to former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, candidates like Daly play an important role in local politics.
"They can raise issues that mainstream candidates either don't want to raise or just don't," Cieslewicz says. "They can add some levity, and if they do it right they can make a pretty powerful point while kind of mocking the process."
Cieslewicz faced outsider candidates in his three runs for mayor, including Will Sandstrom, Davy Mayer and Dennis de Nure. Cieslewicz says most fringe candidates don't think they can win, but run to bring to light an important issue or just to have some fun.
Daly thinks his chances are good, and sees his lack of experience as an opportunity. "As far as the people who have been in [politics], they've got a solidified idea of how things should work, but we need real systemic change," says Daly.
Although he doesn't think Daly will win, Cieslewicz does think Daly's ideas can affect the discussion.
"Somebody said that campaigns are supposed to be the conversations of democracy. It sounds like Daly's going to add to the conversation," Cieslewicz says. "He's going to raise issues and propose ways to deal with them. Even if they might not be practical, that's going to change the conversation."
[Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect that Dennis de Nure, who had declared his intentions to run for mayor, did not submit his nominating papers by the Jan. 6 deadline.]