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A new — and old — challenger for Madison Mayor Cieslewicz

By James Briggs

Controversial development proposals that languished for months in Madisons approval process have prompted a two-time mayor to seek his third stint as the city’s top executive.

Paul Soglin, Madison’s mayor from 1973 to 1979 and again from 1989 until 1997, has injected new life into what seemed last week like an easy re-election bid for Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Soglin, 65, also ran against Cieslewicz, 51, in 2003, but lost.

Paul Soglin

Soglin is running again, he said, because of what he perceives as the city’s mishandling of such major projects as the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment, the city’s Central Library and ownership issues regarding the Overture Center for the Arts.

The Edgewater proposal concerned Soglin the most, he said, as it slogged through the city’s plethora of committees. While the city has approved the overall project, some elements await approval, and there is a lawsuit against Madison sparked by what many critics called the city’s subversive process of ramming the project through.

“It’s not the Edgewater itself, but the process,” Soglin said Wednesday. “There’s the giant cloud, which is the agonizing process that evolved for more than a year, which sidestepped formal city committees, sidestepped neighborhood groups, and I think it didn’t serve anyone well.”

The city’s Landmarks Commission rejected the project at one point, requiring a supermajority two-thirds vote by the Common Council to overrule the decision. That, in part, led Cieslewicz to call for a review of the city’s approval process, including the recommendation of limiting power to some committees.

Those efforts are misguided, Soglin said.

“I have tremendous trust in the citizen committees for making recommendations and how they will evolve,” Soglin said. “I don’t impose my own will, and that produces a different and better result.”

Cieslewicz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

While Soglin’s presence has generated excitement, it also created discomfort for city officials and business leaders, many of whom have ties to Soglin but already expressed support for Cieslewicz.

Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., an advocacy organization that promotes business growth in the city’s urban center, could only laugh at first when asked about Soglin. Schmitz a few weeks ago stood behind Cieslewicz as he announced the start of his re-election campaign.

But Soglin, during his most recent tenure as mayor, appointed Schmitz to a group that helped open the Monona Terrace.

“I know Paul from my past life,” Schmitz said, “but I do not know him well.”

Still, Schmitz said, it’s tough to overlook what Soglin accomplished for Madison’s downtown, including creating the State Street pedestrian mall and the construction of Monona Terrace.

“I think history speaks for itself,” Schmitz said.

DMI will not officially support any candidate until after the Feb. 15 primary, Schmitz said. The general election is April 5.

Alderman Michael Schumacher, who already endorsed Cieslewicz, said he’s having second thoughts. Schumacher shares concerns about what he called Cieslewicz’s “top-down” management style.

Regarding Cieslewicz’s vocal criticism of the Landmarks Commission, Schumacher said he told the mayor, “‘Look, if you disagree with a city committee, then say it. But you don’t attack the body that did their work.'”

Cieslewicz’s determination to push Edgewater to the finish line ushered in greater struggles for the city, Schumacher said.

“You have people that came out of the woodwork fighting the Edgewater because they were upset about the Landmarks Commission’s treatment,” he said. “Why create that additional confrontation?”

Soglin also criticized the public war of words Cieslewicz has waged against Gov.-elect Scott Walker since the U.S. Department of Transportation reallocated to other states Wisconsin’s $810 million in stimulus high-speed rail money. Cieslewicz blasted Walker following the U.S. DOT’s decision and has continued to direct harsh words through the mayor’s blog toward the governor-elect.

“I believe in subtle escalation,” Soglin said, adding, “I would have been more patient. I don’t know if I would have been more successful.”

Soglin, pointing to his 10 years of working with Republican governors, said he expects to have a working relationship with Walker.

Schumacher said he talked to several other city officials who aren’t sure who they will support in the mayoral race. Soglin — not Cieslewicz — endorsed Schumacher when he was elected to the Common Council in 2007.

But, Schumacher said, “I don’t hold a grudge. In politics, the world shifts constantly. In some ways we’re blessed. I think we can’t go wrong with either mayor. We’re not looking at one great one and one bad one or two lousy ones.”

How will Madison choose between two popular candidates? Schumacher has his strategy.

“I may go home,” he said, “and toss a coin.”

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