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Not the candidates you’re looking for

A column from Citizen Dave reveals a lot of toxic assumptions about who belongs in Madison politics.

A column from Citizen Dave reveals a lot of toxic assumptions about who belongs in Madison politics.

Photo of Wisconsin State Senate chambers by Richard Hurd on Flickr.

Former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz has been peddling politics in his regular “Citizen Dave” column in Isthmus for years now, making the kind of stale arguments that are always best beloved by older white men. The gist of a lot of them is plain-old class reductionism, typified by its focus on the economic concerns of “the working class” or “blue collar workers” to the exclusion of discussing the interests of women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color (as if the majority of these people and their interests aren’t also working class). Sometimes Cieslewicz takes a break from that broken-down horse to make “both sides” arguments, suggesting that Democrats and Republicans, the left and the right, have all gone too far in equal measure.

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The thread connecting all of these arguments is thinly veiled disregard for the cares and concerns of people who aren’t straight, cis-gendered white men. Still, it was surprising to see just how far he veered into that territory in his latest article, “Where Have All the Candidates Gone?” in which Cieslewicz decides that of the four candidates who have announced a bid for State Senate in the 26th district, the only one even worth mentioning by name is the only white candidate, Kelda Helen Roys. (An editor’s note mentioning the others was added to the bottom of the piece after readers complained.) He also expressed his regret that Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now decided not to run after all, writing “despite my differences with Ross, I wish he would run. I may not like his style of politics, but he’s smart, energetic and has plenty of ideas. He and Roys could have a very lively debate and voters would get a choice.” 

In short, by “candidates,” Cieslewicz means white men (and possibly the white women they approve of) and he is sad that it looks like he won’t be able to vote for one in this August’s primary. None of this is based on what any of the candidates stand for. In fact, nobody’s ideas are mentioned at all, except for the ideas of Scot Ross (not a candidate). Instead, Cieslewicz obsesses over background as qualification.  

Readers throughout the city were rightfully disgusted by the pointedly racist and apolitical omission of candidates Nada Elmikashfi, Aisha Moe, and William Henry Davis III. Roys’ candidacy, too, receives a flippant and frankly sexist treatment in Cieslewicz’s piece. She herself is smart and energetic, and the idea that she or any of the other candidates would need a dose of White Dude on stage in order to have a lively debate is insulting. It exposes the bankrupt notion at the heart of all of Cieslewicz’s critiques of identity politics, which is the idea that all the constituencies out there whining about their identity-based grievances compose some sort of boring monolith against which you can contrast the ideas of white men. Actually, no identity is monolithic, including white men. We can expect lively debates, diverse and smart perspectives, and good ideas from the four candidates as they stand.  

Elmikashfi wrote an expert response to her erasure that Isthmus published two days after Cieslewicz’s initial oblivious column on the 26th District race, announcing that she “refused to be limited by the unimaginative assumption that the status quo was all Madison could aspire to” and that “the seriousness of a candidate is gauged by their ability to envision a better life for the people of their community—it is rooted in their commitment to change and their dedication to public service.” It was a relief to read. Thank goodness! Finally some real politics in a conversation about a political office!

But maybe we should be a little bit grateful to Citizen Dave, too, for giving voice to a real and unhealthy undercurrent in Madison’s political scene. After all, Cieslewicz is not the only one guilty of totally dismissing most of the candidates in the 26th district’s Senate race. Roys made the same mistake when she announced her campaign (she apologized.) With the exception of Madison365, local media has also been light on coverage of any candidate in this particular race besides Roys’. 

There absolutely are set channels from which “real and viable” candidates emerge, as well as fixed ideas about “waiting one’s turn,” and while they don’t match up entirely with what Cieslewicz seems to think about who can be taken seriously, they reproduce the very stagnant status quo Elmikashfi addresses.

Some of the requirements for seriousness include participation in Democratic Party institutions, like County groups, College Democrats, or maybe Emerge, a program that trains Democratic women to run for office (12 members of our current Dane County Board of Supervisors came through Emerge). Small business ownership and perhaps participation in your neighborhood association, if it’s an active one, are also acceptable pre-requisites. Then there’s the order you should follow. Try for something like County Board Supervisor or Alder first, before attempting the jump to State Assembly. Only those who have been baptized in Assembly waters should make the leap to State Senate (this is why both Cieslewicz and Madison’s entire East side assumed that Representative Chris Taylor would ascend to Fred Risser’s seat as soon as he retired. It’s the natural order!).

There are obviously parallel expectations and requirements around who can be taken seriously as a candidate for federal office, too. It was just two years ago that fourth-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley from New York’s 14th Congressional district believed primary challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was such a joke that he didn’t even bother to show up to two of the debates with her. Shortly after, she trounced him in the primary and went on to take his seat in Congress. Crowley’s pouting after the fact and the mixed welcome AOC initially received in Congress are both indicators that there were rules and she broke them. Her success would indicate that people are tired of the politics produced by these rigid structures. 

I am, too. I don’t think any of these ideas about who can be a candidate and how they must go about it are actually conducive to a healthy political landscape. Put differently, I think that we are currently living in hell on a dying planet and I believe stagnant politics are part of the reason why. The obvious point is that preconceived notions about which pipelines candidates come from and which groups they must affiliate with to be taken seriously means that the field of people who might run for office is narrowed according to who has access to these organizations and who feels welcome in them. 

Having a pre-ordained path into politics also seems to mean that there are people who run for offices like Alder or County Board Supervisor solely because it is the correct stepping stone to the next big thing. This isn’t inherently bad, but it does mean that we are probably electing people who aren’t very interested in the questions facing our city or our county to make decisions that will impact all of us who live here. It also seems to imply that someone with great ideas they’d like to implement as a State Senator, for example, will need to run multiple potentially expensive campaigns and wait for years and years to do it—as if we have years and years to address some of the very urgent crises we’re facing.

But it’s also not clear to me that participating in any of the organizations or programs I mentioned above leads people to develop a particular set or politics, or if it does, that they’re politics to get excited about. I think that’s actually the point. The only stated rules about who can run for State Senator are that you have to be at least 18 years old and you need to have been a Wisconsin resident for at least one year, including residing in the district in which you are running for at least 28 days prior to the election. Why are there all of these unspoken rules that constrict and confine who can run? Why all of the gatekeeping? Because preserving the status quo means keeping out people and ideas that diverge from the current order.

As I wrote last year, voters and the press in our “blue” community take it for granted that any liberal or Democrat must have sound political ideas. Especially at the local level, there seems to be no expectation that candidates say or do anything to discern themselves from any other Not Republican person in the country. Earlier this year I saw a real Facebook ad for a Dane County Board of Supervisors candidate which simply read that the candidate was running because they wanted “to be involved in shaping and growing Dane County in the future,” before jumping right into explaining how you could get an absentee ballot to vote for them. Shape things how? Into a privatized hellscape or something else? I would like to know!

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We need higher standards, harder questions, and sharper debates. So far, the unspoken expectation that candidates will meet particular background requirements or follow a particular order of achievements has not fostered these developments. In the meantime, the unauthorized and insurgent candidates in the 26th district—Elmikashfi in particular—are kicking up critical debates about racism and class, two issues that Madison liberals seem eager to ignore. Maybe it’s a good thing these aren’t the candidates Citizen Dave had in mind.

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