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The hope and grinding frustration of Madison’s 2021 election

A few bright moments and a lot of disappointment for Madison’s left.

A few bright moments and a lot of disappointment for Madison’s left.

Tuesday’s Madison Common Council election was something of a bloodbath for a promising slate of left-wing challengers, and with them went a like-minded incumbent. After a year of upheaval that renewed young and/or politically radical Madisonians’ interest in local government, the backlash proved strong.

Movement candidates did score some crucial wins. In District 9, Nikki Conklin ended the scowling 10-term reign of Paul Skidmore. Conklin ran on a platform that emphasized affordable housing and making the community safer through a better investment in services. Skidmore ran on his reputation as Madison’s most pro-police Alder, and his campaign engaged in lies and fearmongering about efforts to defund the police. In District 16, Jael Currie beat out Matt Tramel for an open seat. Brian Benford ran unopposed to replace outgoing Alder Marsha Rummel in District 6. In District 8, UW-Madison BIPOC Coalition co-founder Juliana Bennett beat out fellow activist Ayomi Obuseh to replace Alder Max Prestigiacomo, who stepped aside and endorsed Bennett. Yannette Figueroa Cole beat Mara Eisch in the race to replace one of Madison’s more conservative Alders, District 10’s Zachary Henak, who decided not to run for reelection.

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Even with Skidmore out, Tuesday was still a pretty good night for the kind of politics Skidmore represents—bought-off, committed to the status quo, and largely indifferent to Madisonians’ higher hopes for their communities. Advocates for police accountability got their prime target in Skidmore, but a lot of business-lobby political spending paid off, and the Madison Professional Police Officers Association also got one of its biggest wishes in this election cycle. Incumbent District 18 Alder Rebecca Kemble, who of all the incumbents this time around seemed to have the most ideological common ground with younger leftists, lost to challenger Charles Myadze by a margin of almost 10 percentage points. The MPPOA, the union representing about 500 local police officers, endorsed Myadze in February’s primary, and ranked Kemble dead last in its scoring of incumbents. Myadze has stated that he wants to address police misconduct while also giving police more resources, and has argued that Kemble’s tough stance on police accountability is divisive. 

Most strikingly, the left candidates who offered the strongest contrasts ended up taking the biggest losses. Organizer Brandi Grayson lost out to District 14 incumbent and Common Council President Sheri Carter. District 2 incumbent Patrick Heck beat challenger Benji Ramirez Gomez, and District 12 incumbent Syed Abbas fended off a challenge from Tessa Echeverria. None of these races were even close—each of these three challengers took less than 40 percent of the vote, and in District 12, the split was roughly 75-25 in favor of Abbas. Ramirez Gomez and Echeverria both ran explicitly as democratic socialists, and Grayson has played a leading role for years now in protests against police violence and systemic racism. 

These were largely positive campaigns that dared to ask for big, specific things, and they weren’t all about policing. Yes, each called for abolition or defunding of police and made that a central focus. But none of these candidates were running single-issue campaigns. Echeverria’s platform called for a public buyout of Madison Gas & Electric, better flood prevention efforts, and participatory budgeting. Ramirez Gomez’s proposals included making Metro buses fare-free and providing universal daycare. Grayson called for better support for small businesses and entrepreneurs, and improving opportunities for the public to get involved in development decisions. These are just a few examples. Certainly Abbas, Heck, and Carter have their strong points, but their challengers all pushed us to think boldly and differently about what local politics can achieve.

But more significant than any particular candidate winning or losing is the role that money and opaque influence played in this election. Development and real-estate interests spent big on campaign donations and political messaging in support of candidates including Myadze, Carter, and Skidmore. The anonymous group Community for Responsible Government put up billboards around town that praised candidates including Carter, Abbas, Tramel, and Skidmore, and hasn’t made any disclosures about its funding sources or activities. Apparently this is all legal, but everyone knows it’s corrupt, especially given the crucial decisions the Common Council routinely makes on issues of housing and development.

Alders who gained or kept their seats with the support of developer PACs and shady pressure groups could do a few things to reassure the public. The Common Council should launch an investigation into CRG and groups like it, to better understand not only who’s behind them but how the city can force them to be more transparent in the future. Alders who took money from specific developers should meticulously recuse themselves when those developers have business before the council. And anyone who holds elected office here should either condemn anonymous influence-peddling, or just admit that they’re here to advance business interests over the common good. So far, the beneficiaries of CRG’s billboards have shown little appetite for calling out the group. Carter, for instance, told The Badger Herald this week that she was “appreciative of the recognition of the work that I’ve done.”

Most of the candidates in this election, like them or not, gave us plenty of chances to have a richer discussion about our city. That opportunity was wasted on some corners of the local commentariat. Commenting on Kemble’s loss Tuesday night, Wisconsin State Journal editorial page editor Scott Milfred tweeted that Kemble had “dissed police and State Street.” So, that’s the level of discourse we’re at. Using one’s legislative oversight powers to criticize police and oppose a hasty giveaway to downtown businesses can be best understood in terms of a schoolyard pissing match. The State Street area passes through three of the city’s 20 Common Council districts, and god forbid if it’s not priority number one for the Alder from the good old marshy North Side. As Kailea Saplan so powerfully pointed out last summer, downtown is not actually the center of the universe for all Madisonians. 

What’s especially galling about this laser focus on State Street is that the leaders who position themselves as downtown’s greatest champions don’t actually have a good plan to keep it healthy. (As a side note, it’s surprising that 4th District Alder Mike Verveer ran unopposed again, given the wave of candidates taking on establishment incumbents.) Long before COVID and last summer’s riots, locally owned businesses downtown were struggling with rising rents, and were being forced to move or close to make way for luxury retail and housing developments. That’s because the city has rolled over time and again for developers and failed to safeguard the affordability of downtown. Right now one single large downtown development is forcing several locally owned businesses out of their spaces. One of those businesses is Community Pharmacy, but I’ve heard no concern or reflection from downtown’s supposed great defenders about the loss of such an essential resource and how that might impact downtown residents’ quality of life. Luckily for us East Siders, Community Pharmacy is moving to Fair Oaks Avenue, but there’s a bigger issue at work here. If we’re so concerned about State Street businesses, then let’s have some accountability for the people who created these conditions—this slow-motion diss, if you will.

I’ll confess to feeling a bit dejected and fed up at the moment. Sometimes it seems that Madison is determined to squander the people and things that make it special. That said, we do have some very worthy and forward-looking folks headed to the Common Council (or returning to it, in Brian Benford’s case). We have to get our heads around how we ended up with so many electoral disappointments after a year that, horrible as it’s been, also felt full of transformative power. We also have to hold on to at least some faith that we can still radically change this city, and that people can come around to ideas they at first dismiss as too extreme or unrealistic. This was a rough one, but we have to keep pushing through the frustration.

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