Madison, WI - March 19, 2015: Protesters in the Barrymore Theatre with Mayor Soglin preparing for the debate.
Thursday night's mayoral debate between incumbent Paul Soglin and challenger Scott Resnick was marked by sharp hostility -- both between the candidates, and the candidates and the crowd.
The debate -- sponsored by Isthmus, WORT-FM, the Homeless Services Consortium of Madison and five neighborhood groups -- was held at the Barrymore Theatre. The 6:30 p.m. start time was delayed slightly by protesters demanding action after the March 6 killing of Tony Robinson by a Madison police officer.
The protesters, many from the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, marched into the theater holding a "Black Lives Matter" banner and chanting: "If we don't get it, shut it down" and "Hey hey, hey ho, these killer cops have got to go."
The debate was intended to focus on neighborhood issues like development, affordable housing, historic preservation and homelessness. But with the shooting dominating headlines and attention, much of the forum instead focused on police tactics, racial disparities and violence.
Resnick began his opening statement with a dig at the mayor, saying, "Ideas of the past are not going to solve the problems of the future."
But Resnick offered few of his own ideas during the debate, beyond having "conversations" and "working together."
The first question referenced both the Robinson killing and the Paul Heenan killing in November 2012, by another police officer in the same neighborhood. The candidates were asked how they would address the issue.
Resnick responded: "Right now there is an issue with the status quo. I believe we can make progress here, but it's going to take working together, it's going to take new voices at the table, it's going to take solutions from everyone in this room."
He added, "Right now, I am listening. I may not have every solution, but I know our community can have results."
Soglin bitterly attacked his opponent for being vague: "The city of Madison has to choose whether it wants to engage leadership that talks about talking or actually goes out and listens and performs."
The mayor also seemed frustrated and hostile to the crowd. Many in the theater heckled the candidates, shouting their own responses to the questions. When Soglin was interrupted, he often stopped talking and sat down. At other times, Soglin snapped back at the audience.
When asked about how he would deal with racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the use of force by police, the mayor gave a lengthy response explaining what he saw as the problem. Afterwards, several people yelled: "What are you going to do about it?"
The mayor sat down, but then grabbed his mic and shot back: "I've said we've got the restorative court in the south police district. Aren't you listening?"
Resnick countered that the city needs to be helping minorities before they're arrested. He complained that the city isn't open enough when it comes to sharing data about arrests or policies.
"If we're going to be accountable to the public, we need to have a transparent system in place," he said. "When it comes to restorative justice, the program isn't online yet in south Madison."
One of the few moments when the crowd reacted with cheers was when the moderator, Renee Lauber, read a question from Robinson's grandmother, Sharon Irwin: "What are you going to do to stop this extreme violence?"
Resnick responded, saying there would be an independent review of the shooting and a review of city protocols. "The reality is we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to ensure that everyone feels safe in this community and we rebuild that trust."
The crowd chanted: "Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail, the whole damn system is guilty as hell."
Resnick's response: "We need to come together in this community," which prompted laughter.
Soglin's response was also short on solutions: "I find it very, very difficult to address this subject in the context of a mayoral debate, of the context of some of the anger in this room.... The larger concern in the community, where parents are concerned about well-being of children, we're all concerned about our neighbors."
Soglin went on to talk about other moments of violence that have occurred in Madison, but the crowd shouted at him: "What about Tony?"
Soglin, sat down and didn't finish his answer.
The election is April 7.
A replay of the forum can be viewed here.