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It must be absolutely infuriating: Tone Madison’s top political stories of 2020

How we covered a year of conflict and civic reckoning Madison.

After a generation of slow erosion, Madison’s sense of progressive exceptionalism imploded in 2020. Local organizations rooted in neighborly support and radical politics launched admirable efforts to help Madisonians get through a pandemic and fight systemic racism amid a nationwide wave of protests after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. Meanwhile, the city’s most prominent business and political leaders responded to the crises of 2020 with short-sighted maneuvering, denial, and downright contempt. The year could well change local politics for the better: Young people got surprisingly fired-up to participate in local government, and a range of leftist candidates have already launched campaigns in this spring’s Madison Common Council elections.

Covering these shifts at Tone Madison has been a challenge and a privilege. This is a tiny, small-budget publication that could easily have folded under the pandemic’s economic pressures. But with the support of our readers, we provided vital reporting and commentary that brought adversarial, left-of-center voices to the forefront. If you want to help us do more in the coming year, please consider becoming a Tone Madison Sustainer—we depend primarily on donations from readers, and that money helps us pay our journalists and literally keeps the site online. 

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Let’s look back on some of our best political stories of this year. 

Perhaps more than anything else, 2020 has been a lesson in Madison’s political myopia. The “we’re already progressive enough” bloc shed many a tear over a couple of statues, and Mia Sato brilliantly unpacked the hollowness of their mourning. Activists successfully pushed for some policing reforms, including the long-awaited creation of a civilian oversight body for the Madison Police Department and the removal of police officers from four local high schools. But Madisonians, from everyday citizens to powerful leaders, spent a lot of time trying to convince themselves that we’re somehow insulated from the problems that police inflict upon other communities. Meanwhile the Common Council failed to muster the political courage to ban MPD from using tear gas.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway masterfully demolished whatever goodwill she may have built up in any corner of the policing debate with a disingenuous video message to police, ultimately unearthed through a deranged pro-cop Facebook group that declared it somehow not sympathetic enough. “It must be absolutely infuriating to stand in heavy gear outside while listening to people constantly insult your chosen profession,” Rhodes-Conway said in the initially secret video, and indeed the fury was widespread. Paradoxically, the only people who be-clowned themselves harder than Rhodes-Conway this year were the right-wingers trying to recall her.

The many shocks of this year often threatened to overshadow the fight over basing F-35 fighter jets in Madison, one with profound implications for housing, race, and environmental protections in Madison. Oona Mackesey-Green’s special four-part series and audio documentary, Flight Path, which detailed how a group of North Side activists pulled together to oppose bringing more jets to Truax Field, in the face of elected leaders’ indifference and lobbying from business groups including the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. One of those activists, Tehmina Islam, wrote a guest column in March detailing how the F-35s would harm the families she cares for in her work as a midwife. In February, Dayna Long detailed how the military presence in Madison has contributed to PFAS contamination in local waters. As the year comes to a close, Wisconsin’s Republican legislative majority is attacking even the most basic restrictions on PFAS.

As the reality of a lockdown hit home in March, mutual-aid groups and labor advocates got to work. Alice Herman reported on the struggles of workers at the city, at “essential” businesses, and at health-tech giant Epic Systems to fight for safe working conditions and sane re-opening plans. Sam Harrington reported on a group in Cross Plains that initially formed in response to the 2018 floods and adapted its resources to provide community support during the pandemic. Dayna Long covered the fast-moving mutual-aid efforts of Madison’s radical political groups, called out business groups’ inappropriate influence on public health policies, and held Dane County officials accountable for the spread of COVID in the downtown jail. This year, city officials also rolled over for Amazon as it endangered workers around the country, as John McCracken detailed in a deep report on a new Amazon facility on Milwaukee Street. As Madisonians struggled to pay the rent, Reid Kurkerewicz reported on the frustrations and missteps of tenant organizing. Guest columnist Maggie Di Sanza explained how the pandemic has made it harder for marginalized people to access menstrual products. Anna Meier condemned the lack of leadership at UW-Madison, as UW System campuses around the state became super-spreader disasters.

Madison, along with communities in all 50 states, erupted in protest as police murdered more Black people, including Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Alice Herman was on the ground for the first weekend of demonstrations and riots from May 30 to June 1, showing that Madison police (with help from other local police agencies and the Wisconsin National Guard) brutalized unarmed protestors with tear gas and riot-line charges. She later traced police targeting of Black activists, one of whom embarrassed MPD Acting Chief Victor Wahl at an impromptu town hall in the middle of Stoughton Road. 

We know that riots and property destruction happen when people are shut out of the political process and pushed to their breaking point, and we know that a hostile police response often escalates protests into riots in the first place—but predictably, the prevailing narrative was about supposedly “senseless” property destruction and the cost to (admittedly already suffering) local businesses. Some businesses kept things in perspective, while others threw an anonymous pity party. Kailea Saplan found a revealing dynamic in the struggle over city funds for downtown businesses. Downtown shops put up plywood and artists covered it with murals—which spanned from bold statements to bland platitudes. Sannidhi Shukla examined the murals’ complex political implications and Jenie Gao questioned the economics and legacy of the project from the perspective of a working artist.

Protests, broken glass, and the movement to defund the police also revealed some key fault lines in Wisconsin’s media landscape. Supporters of Freedom Inc., wrote a guest column calling out the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Daniel Bice for a predictably asinine piece about the apparently scandalous fact that Freedom Inc. receives state funding and pays its staff well. (Like many misguided commentators, Bice seems to interpret Freedom Inc. co-executive director M. Adams’ maxim “Stop murdering Black people, and your glass will be safe” as a threat, not as a factual statement that reflects the long history of race riots in America.) 

Wrongheaded portrayals of Freedom Inc. also prompted a witch to place a curse on Wisconsin State Journal political cartoonist Phil Hands’ dick. Local reporters caught on to the increasing tension between young lefties and more staid moderate Democrats, with mixed results. Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz claimed in his Isthmus column in May that there wasn’t a competitive Democratic primary for retiring State Senator Fred Risser’s seat and that Kelda Roys was “the only serious contender.” In fact, there were already several other candidates, in what turned out to be a crowded race. One of them, Nada Elmikashfi, gave Roys a serious run for her money, as Andrew Sernatinger noted in a breakdown of votes and fundraising. Roys won, but Elmikashfi garnered 26.8 percent of the vote to Roys’ 40.2 percent, and Elmikashfi clinched key endorsements from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, Ilhan Omar, and teachers’ unions. The ensuing fallout was angry and comical and, Dayna Long pointed out, indicted the conventional wisdom about who gets to be taken seriously in local politics. To its credit, Isthmus made something good of the whole fiasco: Elmikashfi now has her own column, which has the dubious honor of running alongside Cieslewicz’s “Citizen Dave” column as he pivots to cringe-worthy satire.

All that, and we’ve barely touched upon the many horrors of state-level politics in Wisconsin this year. In this April’s elections, Republicans used COVID and the dangers of in-person voting as a new weapon in their ever-escalating voter suppression strategy, as Alice Herman explained. While the right lost a crucial Wisconsin Supreme Court seat in that election, voters — many unwittingly— approved a Wisconsin version of “Marsy’s Law,” which is very bad. Guest columnist Tamarine Cornelius put Wisconsin’s Foxconn debacle in perspective, laying out why it’s not a good way to grow the state’s economy. Still, even Cornelius cannot argue with a nifty orb.

In the face of a deadly pandemic, police violence, and murderous right-wing vigilantes, Wisconsin’s most prominent elected Democrats tacked boldly middleward, yielding wishy-washy leadership and policy outcomes that are barely worth defending. Wisconsin Republicans still want you dead. Oh well. At least the worst person in Congress got coronavirus.

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