You have to like Dave Cieslewicz as mayor.
He seems almost the perfect fit for a progressive-minded city filled with gently graying baby boomers. He's funny in a self-deprecating way. He's calm and reassuring when he speaks to civic groups. He knows the city's history. He extols its quirkiness. He bikes a lot. He's green-minded. And, like everyone else in Madison, he's an amateur urban planner.
He sounds perfect, but for a nagging concern: Dave Cieslewicz seems to play the role of mayor better than he performs its duties.
It's not that he lacks accomplishments. But after he's logged nearly eight years in office, I'm prompted to ask the Peggy Lee question: "Is that all there is?"
Cieslewicz's performance as mayor is mixed, and despite his pitch-perfect reading of the cool Madison vibe, he may not be the right mayor for the difficult times that seem just around the corner.
...or maybe he is.
I equivocate because the answer depends, in part, on who steps forward to challenge Mayor Dave in the spring election.
Whoa, you're thinking, talk of the mayoral election is way premature. The fall campaigns haven't even hit their stride yet. This is true, but within a week of the Nov. 2 election, the spring election will be under way. A mayoral candidate needs to float a trial balloon by November and declare by December.
That means now is the time for would-be candidates to start weighing a race. Are they prepared for the personal sacrifices of running for office? Do they have support? Does he or she grasp the critical issues?
Former Ald. Noel Radomski is on the maybe list; so is civic activist Stuart Levitan. Others need to consider the plunge.
My hunch (admittedly, no one I've talked to agrees) is that the advent of the four-year mayoral term in the early '90s drained the juice out of local politics. It's suppressed the healthy debate keyed by a two-year term and given license to inept incumbents to linger in office. (See Bauman, Sue.)
By most measures, Cieslewicz will be hard to beat. He's unabashedly liberal, which in the cozy confines of Madison politics makes him a centrist. This gives him room to feint left or feint right as circumstances dictate. If he's challenged by the Progressive Dane left, he can take two steps to the right; if he's challenged from the chamber of commerce right, he can take two steps to the left.
Fact is, Cieslewicz gets some things right. He's mainstreamed green thinking in the city's operations and, most recently, he was shrewdly standoffish while the Overture Center went through its ugly but necessary financial convulsions, perhaps a first step to putting the arts complex on a sustainable footing.
His partnership with Gov. Doyle, meanwhile, produced $810 million in federal funding for a high-speed rail link to Milwaukee. This is huge. The new train station, proposed for the Department of Administration building on East Wilson Street, could be a transformational project for the downtown.
The problem is that Cieslewicz is weak on exactly the things that will weigh heavily in the next four years: economic development and urban vision.
Time and again, he's failed to grasp the notion that public investment like the train station works best when it leverages private dollars for spin-off development.
The collapse of the grand library plan to a simple but expensive rehab of the existing building is a painful example of his shortsightedness. The Villager Mall redo is a smaller missed opportunity. Far worse is the Edgewater Hotel debacle.
It's an enduring mystery why so many Madison bigwigs think it's a good idea for the city to pour a $16 million subsidy into a $98 million project that will produce a) low-wage hospitality jobs, b) short-term employment for construction workers who largely live outside of the city and c) almost no opportunity for spin-off development. This is weirdness squared.
Cieslewicz's highhanded performance on the Edgewater is reason to worry that he'll botch the train station. He just doesn't see the big picture of using the station as a catalyst to link the Capitol Square to Lake Monona and the Williamson Street business district, as Kenton Peters and the Downtown Design Professionals Workgroup are boldly proposing.
Madison needs that sort of expansive thinking in the face of the coming bad times. By spring, the downtown's greatest asset - thousands of public jobs - will probably be shrinking, thanks to the Great Recession draining state and local coffers.
Expect no sympathy from our likely new governor, Scott Walker, whose stern message to public employees will be to accept a rollback in compensation or face major layoffs.
For a government town like Madison, this is a dreadful prospect. It's why we need a mayor focused on cultivating private-sector job growth.
Given Madison's political realities, that imperative best translates to a mayoral challenger who's a businessperson with unimpeachable liberal credentials. If she's cool and funny, that would help, too.
She might even win.
Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.