On election night, April 5, I was covering Supreme Court candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg's non-victory party at the Edgewater Hotel. Around 10 p.m., the results of the Madison mayoral race flashed on a large-screen TV with no sound.
Dave Cieslewicz was addressing his supporters, smiling and waving. Then there was Paul Soglin, standing glumly before a microphone, looking as though he had lost not just an election but a loved one.
But of course, Soglin was the victor that night. The Wisconsin State Journal ran a front-page photo the next day in which Soglin appears to have a wisp of a smile - no teeth visible, just a slight upturn at the corners of his mouth. According to one writer who was present, capturing this apparently split-second non-dour look was a photographic achievement akin to getting a clear shot of Sasquatch.
"I didn't see a single smile," attests the writer, Dean Robbins.
Ah, Mayor for Life Soglin, Madison's sourpuss-in-chief. Here's a guy who seemingly shifts between two phases of existence: being unhappy about not being mayor, and being unhappy about being mayor. See if you can spot the common theme.
Already, just six weeks into his third stint as mayor, Soglin is once again proving his predilection for peevishness. In early May, in an appearance on Stu Levitan's "Access City Hall," Soglin groused about the city's approval of the Edgewater redevelopment, saying he would prefer a smaller building and reduced city subsidy while admitting that renegotiating the deal at this late stage may be "mathematically and physically impossible."
And so, Madison may be stuck with a $98 million redevelopment project associated with Mayor Dave. As Soglin put it, "Whether I can come up with something better, I don't know."
Levitan asked: "Do you hope the project goes through, as currently constituted?" Soglin replied, "As currently constituted, no."
Only if the project's failure creates an opportunity for Soglin to work his magic will this deal be desirable.
It's tempting to think Soglin's downbeat pronouncements are on some level calculated, maybe even politically savvy. Consider how he came into office declaring that work on the new Central Library couldn't begin until the funding was all lined up; then, a few days later, he decided everything was hunky-dory.
Crisis averted. Paul Soglin saved Mayor Dave's faulty library plan...from Paul Soglin.
But Soglin's recent comments on the Overture Center seem, from every possible perspective, misguided. He told Capital Times editor Paul Fanlund that the new management structure approved for the facility last December was doomed to fail.
"The best I can do is put the community in a position that when this plan fails we might be able to right the ship," he said. "I do not know if we can. It may be too late by then."
Soglin added that because the majority of the Common Council backed the new structure, "the best I can do is just wait for this to crash and burn. It is going to be pretty horrible."
And this: "The best I can do is wait for this to collapse and then just hope that the problem doesn't take down the rest of city government."
First of all, any mayor who says the best he can do is to wait for a city-threatening catastrophe really ought to be trying harder.
Second, Soglin served on the ad hoc committee that reviewed the city's Overture options. The committee chair, Mark Bugher, told Isthmus that Soglin was "frustratingly unpredictable" and at times seemed more interested in "rolling a grenade across the floor" than reaching workable solutions.
Still, former Council President Mark Clear credits Soglin with hatching the idea of creating a private nonprofit to oversee the center, even if the final concept did not meet his full approval.
In a blog post last November, Soglin called the proposed plan "a bold and favorable step in the right direction for the short term, but [one that] does not provide a long-term solution." He felt Overture's workers should remain city employees and urged more studies regarding various aspects of the center's future.
But Soglin did not say the plan was destined to crash and burn, possibly taking the rest of the city with it. He waited until he became mayor to roll this grenade.
Indeed, Soglin is publicly bashing the Overture deal as though he were still a blogger pounding away at a keyboard in his underwear, not the city's chief executive.
"It's like if Biddy Martin said the Badgers are going to have a terrible season and Bret Bielema will be fired at the end of it," chides Clear, who fears Soglin's disparaging remarks could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
"Overture is at a very critical stage, both in terms of employee transition and fundraising," says Clear. The foundation set up to run the center must raise at least a half-million dollars in transition funding and then about $2.5 million each year in private funds.
Clear considers this an achievable goal. But Soglin's bilious comments "make it extraordinarily difficult."
"What donors want is viability," notes Clear. "They don't want to invest in something that's going to fail."
Soglin says it's too late to stop the transition but wants further study. Maybe he can find some way to tweak the plan, and thus avoid the otherwise inevitable crashing and burning. He'll be our hero and savior, again.
Just don't expect him to crack a smile over it.