[Text by Jonathan Thompson and Pierre Clavel, March 26, 2017]
Paul Soglin, after an initial mayoral victory in Madison in 1973, held the mayoralty on three separate occasions: 1973-79, 1989-97, and 2011-. Soglin’s career in Madison politics began when, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, he was elected alderman in 1968, hoping to bridge the student – town divide in the wake of campus protests. He served six years as mayor, stepped down in 1979 to practice law, ran and won again (1989-1997), ran and lost in 2003, then won a third period in office in 2011 – still in office  after re-election in 2015.
Soglin’s mayoralty was marked by radical values and “pragmatic” reforms. He won notoriety among conservative critics by visits to Cuba and support for the “left” on social issues, but eventually won general approval for the reorganization of the city police department, renovation of the city bus system and support for affordable housing. In 1975 the city hosted the first national meeting for what became the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies that was being set up by Lee Webb and Derek Shearer. Soglin assistant Jim Rowen was a key figure in that, and wrote a keynote article on “Radicalism as Common Sense.” [The Nation, July 3, 1975]
In his second period in office in the 1990s Soglin governed as a centrist Democrat, but was able to look back on his 1970s mayoralty for a number of reforms that later formed the center of Madison politics, noting responsibility for downtown improvements, a city day care program, public transit improvements, housing programs, and the significant gender diversity in the city’s fire and police departments.
In 2003 Soglin ran for a third period in office, but was defeated in a close race by a next generation “progressive,” Dave Cieslewicz, who held office for eight years, enacting such reforms as inclusionary zoning, new recycling programs and an anti-smoking ordinance. Nationally, Cielewicz gained a measure of prominence leading the creation of the New Cities Project that brought together a set of mayors that sought progressive policies in a manner reminiscent of the Conference Soglin had hosted in 1975, and whose twice-yearly meetings were at least a backdrop to the more dramatic victories beginning in 2013.
But even in the 1990s, Madison had been gearing up for a progressive “second act” as a third party force, called Progressive Dane, elected nine of 20 city council members, creating a progressive-centrist balance. So the 1970s could be thought of as a transitional period in Madison. Soglin came in as a radical, governed toward the center, and helped move the council to the left.
In 2011 Soglin challenged Cieslewicz again, this time winning. He saw the city, now with a larger minority population, in need of new fiscal discipline; but once in office he fought vigorously against Governor Scott Walker’s moves to limit the power of unions. According to a New York Times account, he “marched virtually every day, and slept in the Capitol one night. . . He acknowledged that his pro-business stance had sometimes created ‘suspicion among my friends on the left.’ But he added, ‘If you want to bring about change, government needs to have a healthy tax base.’”
Further Reading, Attached Documents and Links
Sources on Soglin include various retrospective comments found in news articles. See for example: “The Third Paul Soglin,” Editorial, Capital Times, August 28, 2002; and “From Firebrand to a Bit of a Grump, a ‘Hippie Mayor‘ Evolves.” New York Times, September 10, 2011.
Also see Jonathan Thompson, whose notes we relied on for parts of this summary. Thompson’s own account is “Progressive Innovation in the 1970s – Madison, Wisconsin and the Conference on Alternative State and Local Public Policies,” Progressive Planning, (Winter 2007), pp. 22-25. Thompson has also uncovered additional work on Madison, including a dissertation and article: Levine, Myron A. “Goal-Oriented Leadership and the Limits of Entrepreneurship,” Western Political Quarterly 33, (1980), pp. 401-16.
Soglin’s radicalism may have been pragmatic locally, but he did claim a certain international cachet in a biography posted on the internet: “…In 1975 he was the first mayor and the fourth elected public official from the United States to meet Fidel Castro.” Accesed at: http://psoglin.typepad.com/about.html.
These and other Madison sources are listed in the “Finding Aid” for the Progressive Cities and Neighborhood Planning Collection at the Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections: http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/EAD/htmldocs/RMA03414.html#s9 .