David Michael Miller
The DMI Three: Alders Ledell Zellers, David Ahrens and Marsha Rummel have all found disapproval from Downtown Madison Inc.
Ald. David Ahrens wanted to have buttons made for himself and his colleagues Marsha Rummel and Ledell Zellers that read the “DMI Three.”
The buttons, it turns out, were more expensive (75 cents each) than a small-city politician can afford, but Ahrens nevertheless takes some pride in the designation. “For me, it’s a badge of honor,” he says.
The honor comes not from being supported by the downtown group, but from its disapproval. Although none of these three council members face opponents in next Tuesday’s election, DMI nevertheless declined to endorse them.
Ahrens calls DMI “an imperialist organization” that tries to impose its will on all parts of the city. While he says that no city can thrive without a strong downtown, he adds, Madison’s is doing just fine.
“It’s not like we’ve got a downtown on life support. It’s doing quite well,” he says. “My message to my constituents is, now let’s turn the attention to the communities not doing so well.”
All three council members have found themselves battling the mighty group, which frequently lobbies on behalf of developers.
Ahrens fought against subsidizing the massive Judge Doyle Square project and also pushed to have large building owners disclose energy usage — a proposal DMI opposed and is still being considered. The proposal would not require owners to make any investments.
“A third of all energy use comes from commercial buildings,” Ahrens says. “They’re concentrated downtown. For an organization that uses the rhetoric of sustainability, they’re the most rigorous opponents on getting information about their energy use.”
Susan Schmitz, president of DMI, says one reason the group didn’t endorse Ahrens is that he didn’t respond to its requests for an endorsement interview.
Ahrens counters this is because Schmitz was recruiting his old opponent, Hawk Sullivan, to run against him. “Why waste my time so they could put on a show interview?” he asks.
Sullivan confirms that Schmitz — whom he calls a friend — did ask him to run, but notes she wasn’t the only one. He adds, “[Ahrens’] constant complaining about projects downtown might have something to do with DMI not wanting to endorse him.”
Rummel and Zellers have also opposed DMI at times.
Zellers fought — and won — a battle against a proposal by Steve Brown Apartments to replace the Highlander, 127 W. Gilman St., with brownstone-style apartment buildings that would be much bigger in mass than the building it replaced. That project was endorsed by DMI. Although she wasn’t on the council yet, Zellers also fought against the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment project that DMI backed.
Rummel fought — and lost — a fight against a DMI-supported project, a six-story apartment at Williamson and Blount Streets by developer Marty Rifken.
Schmitz says Rummel’s and Zellers’ stances on historic preservation and development played a role in DMI declining to endorse them.
“Not that we are anti-historic preservation, but we’d like to see investments put into these historic districts, instead of preserving them in glass,” Schmitz says.
Zellers counters that she’s invested heavily in her own home, the 1856 landmark Van Slyke House on North Carroll Street, including some exterior renovations that were more modern.
“DMI seems fine with demolition of contributing buildings in historic districts,” says Zellers, adding that only 1% of city land is in historic districts. “I feel we have so few [historic buildings] that we should go out of our way to protect what we do have. Does that mean [demolition] should never happen? No, but it should be extremely rare.”
Zellers is also confused by DMI’s opposition to her, since her votes have been consistent with those of downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, whom the group endorsed. And she says that she’s taken up many pro-development stances, including voting to allow taller building heights and higher density.
DMI’s definition of downtown is larger than most — it considers everything between the Yahara River and Camp Randall as downtown. That area includes or overlaps five council districts, including both Rummel’s and Zellers’.
Does it hurt the organization to have two of those seats represented by people it is at odds with? Schmitz says: “With any issue that happens downtown, there’s still 20 votes, so we look for support from all the alders.”
Ahrens questions DMI’s priorities.
“What is the downtown? Whose downtown is it?” he asks. “Is it the downtown that belongs to the biggest property owners and developers, is that the downtown? Or does downtown have other social and economic functions.”
Although DMI endorsed every other council member running for reelection, it did slight one other notable incumbent. DMI picked Scott Resnick over Mayor Paul Soglin. Schmitz admits that opposing an incumbent isn’t easy and carries some risk.
But she says, “We’ve not had an ongoing positive relationship with the mayor’s office.... We’re not always welcome [by the mayor] in the discussion.”