When Madison voters on Tuesday unseated a popular two-term mayor, it was a referendum on how the city handled a contentious development project, allies and critics of Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said.
Paul Soglin, who has served on and off as Madison’s mayor for 14 nonconsecutive years, defeated Cieslewicz by a slim margin — 44,542 votes to Cieslewicz’s 43,829 votes — based largely on Soglin’s criticism of how the mayor handled a $98 million hotel project on the city’s Lake Mendota shoreline, election observers said.
While few issues separated the candidates during the campaign, Soglin took several opportunities to blast Cieslewicz for pushing through the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment, which included a $16 million tax subsidy. When the city’s Landmarks Commission rejected the project, Cieslewicz publicly criticized the panel and pressed the Common Council to override the vote, which it did.
The Edgewater project, Soglin said recently, is a “giant cloud” that “sidestepped formal city committees, sidestepped neighborhood groups, and I think it didn’t serve anyone well.”
Soglin and Cieslewicz did not respond to requests for comment by deadline Wednesday.
Animosity toward the project also helped Sam Stevenson come close to unseating Alderwoman Bridget Maniaci, whose district includes the Edgewater. Maniaci won by a narrow margin of 151 votes.
“It’s not so much that the Edgewater is happening,” said Alderwoman Brenda Konkel, who used to represent Maniaci’s district. “I think it’s the way it’s happening and the amount of money that makes people wary. That was a huge part of why a lot of people came out strongly on one side or the other.”
Stu Levitan, a Soglin supporter and member of the Landmarks Commission, said it was Cieslewicz’s prerogative to achieve success on the Edgewater in any way possible, but Levitan added it’s just as fair for voters to exercise their opposition.
“The Edgewater debate did not arise in a vacuum,” Levitan said. “People who were offended by what the mayor did on Edgewater were the same people who gave Cieslewicz his march to victory over Paul Soglin eight years ago. That was a very critical voting block the mayor alienated by those kinds of internal process-oriented actions.”
Levitan, who is mostly complimentary of Cieslewicz’s record, said of the Edgewater that Soglin would have “facilitated a more widely accepted solution rather than putting all his chips on the developer’s proposal and pushing it through.”
But Susan Schmitz, a Cieslewicz supporter and president of business advocacy group Downtown Madison Inc., said it’s unfair to aim complaints at Cieslewicz over problems with the Edgewater proposal, which languished for months in city committees.
“It’s easy to blame the mayor. He’s the leader of the city. But there were many other people that had a part in taking that off course,” Schmitz said, declining to elaborate.
While Schmitz applauded Cieslewicz for helping business and development in Madison, she said Soglin also will usher in new building projects.
Developers, Schmitz said, “have a relationship with (Soglin). It’s kind of a surprise that an incumbent was unseated, but basically at their core, there isn’t a huge difference between the two of them.”
In fact, Levitan said, voters who chose Soglin out of anti-development sentiment stemming from the Edgewater could be disappointed in how the mayor-elect proceeds. Soglin supported the Edgewater project, Levitan said, but not the manner in which it was approved.
“When he was in private practice, Paul was lobbying to lift height restrictions in the Langdon neighborhood,” Levitan said. “People who thought Mayor Dave was too pro-development might find themselves with some ironic developments. Paul Soglin is going to be supporting developments that people voting for him might be opposing.”
Soglin’s tenure, and the certain controversies to come, Levitan said, “will make for years of more wonderful Madison stories.”