Ald. Michael Schumacher is fired up.
Last week the Madison Common Council revisited the Edgewater Hotel project, at Schumacher's request. And although, as Schumacher wanted, the $93 million expansion was kept alive through referral, he is fed up with how things have played out.
"We get so stuck on procedural issues that we sometimes lose sight of the bigger issues facing the community," he says. "And I'm a process guy."
Over the last year or so, Schumacher has often been in the limelight, both because of the many initiatives he's tackled and the persistent rumor that he's eyeing a run for mayor. But his greatest triumph has been in potentially saving the Edgewater expansion.
Interviewed a day after last week's meeting, Schumacher is in rare form, grousing about a political system he sees as sometimes petty, inefficient and vindictive. Some of what he says about his colleagues is sprinkled with choice epithets.
"This is a political body, and you've got to watch your back in there," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that as long as you don't lose sight that we're here to serve the people."
Schumacher is upset by what he sees as agonized hand-wringing over what should be a no-brainer - approving a $93 million development in the heart of a city during a major recession.
He describes as "bullshit" the criticism he got for asking for reconsideration, because he and two others missed the initial vote. He notes that reconsideration is a progressive innovation developed to prevent legislators from passing things when their political opponents aren't around.
"Every leader will have moments when you hold dear the process but recognize something bigger is at stake," he says. "I got criticized for asking for reconsideration, but [this] led to the referral that everybody was happy with."
He says his own role in the project was small. "I have no interest in being a white knight riding in to save the day - it would only backfire," he says. "My only role was to set things back in motion."
While he's glad that five alders - Lauren Cnare, Marsha Rummel, Mike Verveer, Bridget Maniaci and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff - met with developer Bob Dunn the night before the council meeting to help bring about referral, he says the real heroes are Council President Tim Bruer and Pro Tem Mark Clear because they convinced Dunn not to give up on the project.
Schumacher knows many council members have mixed feelings about Bruer, who spent most of the Jan. 5 meeting wandering around the chambers, seemingly oblivious to the public testimony. But he offers only praise for the council veteran.
"Tim Bruer gets what he wants, and people don't like that," he says. "I wish some alders wouldn't fight ego battles. Tim Bruer has an ego to get things done."
Talking to Michael Schumacher can sometimes feel like getting a private mini-lecture. He loves to branch off into theory about management techniques and organizational methods, sprinkling in folk tales or literature to make a point. He drops names like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, cultural critics who were leaders of the Frankfurt School.
The son of an Iranian father and German mother, Schumacher, who turns 48 later this month, was born in Germany during the post-World War II reconstruction. The country was ground zero for the Cold War. Conflict was a given, and life was often hard.
"Germany was occupied," he says. "For the first seven or eight years of my life, we had no hot water."
But his childhood was formative in many ways, he says. Growing up in that environment forced him to be a problem solver and ignited his obsession with process. He came to the United States at age 18 in 1979 to study political science at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Schumacher later interned with the federal Government Accountability Office. He did his doctorate at the UW, focusing his dissertation on city government, during Paul Soglin's administration. He praises Soglin's management skills, and jokes, "I had more access to city information doing my dissertation research than I do now as an alder."
Schumacher thinks Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is doing a good job too. "But I think what's missing from the mayor is a bolder vision. He's achieved a great number of things. This is now the time for him to articulate a bold vision."
Schumacher owns three companies, employing two people as well as subcontractors when needed. Solaris Management offers human resources services to small companies and nonprofits. Solaris Consulting oversees large-scale-change projects for companies. Solaris Enterprises (his newest venture) offers logistical support to companies.
Since he started asserting himself on the council about a year and a half ago, rumors began circulating that Schumacher is planning to run for mayor. He brushes this off with a smirk: "People say that to undermine my motives." He adds that his involvement in citywide issues makes him look "like mayoral material."
Schumacher says he has no plans to run for mayor, and he certainly wouldn't challenge an incumbent like Cieslewicz.
Council colleagues respect Schumacher's hard work, though some dislike his style.
"Michael's smart, and he really likes to engage on policy issues," says Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, whose district borders Schumacher's. "Very few things deal with policy issues in his district, so I think that's spurred him to look citywide."
The two alders have occasionally clashed. "I often don't agree with him," says Rhodes-Conway. "But I respect that he's engaged in policy issues and trying to make things better. That's what an alder should be doing."
Still, she adds, "I definitely think the way he gets things done could be more polite and inclusive."
A few days after venting about council politics, Schumacher backpedals on much of his criticism of colleagues and urges Isthmus not to use it. "I don't want to add to the negativity that's out there."
He says he wishes that personalities wouldn't dominate the political discussion. And he's frustrated because so much of what the council does gets treated like a football game.
"It's easy to be a political combatant," he says. "That's almost prescribed as a tool you're supposed to use. But that perpetuates the status quo. People have to immediately assess who is ahead or behind. It makes the act of compromise a political act."