With the fall elections (mercifully) behind us it's time to look forward to local elections next spring. As we get ready for that, Isthmus editors have asked me to state why I think it's important that I share my criticisms of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. So, here goes.
Any democracy works best when there is a loyal opposition. That is someone or some entity that keeps close watch on those in power and offers criticism and an alternative vision. In fact, Soglin himself has played that role each time he has been out of office. He was critical of Mayors Joe Sensenbrenner and Sue Bauman and, of course, he was critical of me when our roles were reversed and I was the mayor and he was the blogger.
Still, this wasn't my intent when I left office in 2011. I intended to be mostly silent about the mayor and to offer help on an issue here and there if asked. In fact, I left a personal note to that effect on my desk for Paul when I left my office for the last time.
But, surprisingly to me, Soglin kept up his criticism of me even though he had won the election. Specifically, immediately after taking office, he attacked my management of the budget. I thought that was both ungracious and strange. Strange because I had gotten the city through the worst recession since the Great Depression with its triple A bond rating intact and about $30 million in the bank. Basic indicators like street pavement conditions and the number of potholes were improving fast. In fact, we counted potholes and about 100 other indicators of city performance in a "Madison Measures" management program that I had started. I thought it was clear that we had managed the city very well over the previous eight years. I didn't expect Soglin to say "thank you" -- that's not in his nature. But I also thought his criticism was way off the mark.
So, I had a decision to make. I could take it or I could fire back. I understood that fighting back would cause some to accuse me of just having sour grapes about losing the election. But I did it anyway, in part because I wanted to set the record straight and in part because I didn't see anybody else stepping up to play the role of the loyal opposition. It appeared to me that Soglin was intimidating the press and his opponents on the council and in the community at large. I thought I was in a unique position to be the opposition because I knew the mayor's job as well as anyone in the community could, and because I wasn't afraid of him.
Now, with at least two well-qualified opponents in next year's election, and with a council that has seemingly had it with the mayor's bullying ways, all this might change. But he still remains by far the most powerful man in the city. It's the role of the press (and that includes bloggers like me) to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With all the powers of incumbency, it's the role of the press to be critical of the powerful as a check on their power.
Moreover, to give the public a real choice, there needs to be alternative visions of the city's future presented.
I have made it clear since the spring election night back in 2011 that I would never seek the mayor's office again, and I haven't wavered about that since. I think it's time for someone else, time for some fresh ideas and some new energy. In my view, the next mayor should not be me, but it also should not be Paul Soglin.
So, from time to time, you'll continue to read criticisms of the mayor in this blog. You know my history with Paul, and so you can take what I write with a grain of salt if you'd like or just discount it altogether. Or you can take it for what I intend it to be: an effort to impose some balance in a conversation that is otherwise dominated by a powerful and intimidating incumbent.