Happy Birthday Progressive Dane: Lefty party looks back on 15 years of stirrin' things up

Published in The Isthmus on Thursday, December 6, 2007

By Vikki Kratz 

One day in 1994, Michael Jacob decided to attend a meeting of the local Democratic Party. The Madison resident did not feel welcome.

"I remember sitting at a table, trying to make conversation and feeling like, I haven't been here forever, so I can't join in," he says.

Jacob went next to a meeting of Progressive Dane, then just two years old. Jacob's reception was much different: "I had a small group of people charging at me to welcome me."

Progressive Dane will celebrate its 15th anniversary this Saturday, Dec. 8, at the State Bar and Grill. The event, which starts at 7 p.m., will include an hour-long documentary on the left-wing party's origins.

"There have always been a lot of progressive movements in Madison," notes Dane County Supv. John Hendrick, one of PD's founding members. Most come and go. He credits Progressive Dane's longevity to "being very principled, but also practical. And being willing to do the work and make compromises to get things done."

Progressive Dane backed ordinances passed by Dane County and the city of Madison requiring contractors to offer a living wage. It spearheaded Madison's inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires developers to include affordable housing in their projects. Most recently, the party got Dane County to ban landlords from discriminating against Section 8 tenants.

There have been failures as well. In 2005, Progressive Dane was widely expected to win a majority of seats on the Madison Common Council. Instead, the party lost four races. Currently, its members hold just six of 20 seats on the city council and six of 37 seats on the County Board.

Mary Anglim, the party's treasurer, recalls that members once hoped the party would expand statewide. But branches in Milwaukee and the Fox Valley faded away.

"We found it was a lot more work than we realized," says Anglim, adding the party is more successful locally. "That's where we can make a difference."

Hendrick says the party's greatest strength has always been its ability to bring people into local politics.

"It's not just introducing ordinances and getting votes," he says. "It's changing the community with our public meetings and discussions."

County Board smorgasbord

It could be a relatively quiet election this spring for the Dane County Board, with only a handful of open seats. So far, the only incumbent who's announced he's not running is Ashok Kumar in the student-populated 5th District.

County Board Chair Scott McDonell thinks two others – Vern Wendt in Dist. 28 in Black Earth and Dale Suslick in Dist. 24 in Monona — are also likely to leave. He says both have attended only about half of the board's regular meetings in recent months and skipped all of its budget hearings.

"That's usually an indication someone's not running," says McDonell.

The board's liberal majority will try to pick up extra seats in Democratic-leaning districts, including Ruth Ann Schoer's on Madison's west side. "It's our job to have those seats," says McDonell. Schoer, first elected in 1992, is presumed to be seeking reelection.

Housing advocate Lisa Subeck is running for Richard Brown's seat on Madison's southwest side. Brown is also rumored not to be running. Subeck, who lost a bid for the Madison city council in 2005, says her neighborhood has gotten a lot of attention lately from the city because of high crime. But she says it needs more from the county, which administers human services.

"We need more police, but we also need a real focus on youth programs and gang prevention," says Subeck. "The southwest side is pretty silent on the county issues. I want to be the representative who changes that."

The deadline for candidates to file papers is Jan. 2. Candidates not seeking reelection must disclose this by Dec. 21.

Tough choices

Members of the East Isthmus Neighborhoods Planning Council want to know why one of their alders, Larry Palm, tried to remove nearly $160,000 for planning councils in the 2008 budget. Several have asked Palm, via the planning council's listserv, to explain. But Palm refuses to post a public response.

"There seems to be a motivation other than general inquiry," he tells Isthmus, adding that those mailing the listserv on this issue are all members of Progressive Dane. Palm, who beat a PD-backed opponent last April, has responded individually to constituents who are "truly interested."

So why did he try — unsuccessfully — to cut the funding?

"I had to make some tough choices," he says, citing his support for $118,000 to expand hours at the Hawthorne library on East Washington Avenue, "right smack in the middle of the neighborhood that all the people are yelling at me about."

And Palm doesn't consider planning councils a priority: "I have other things that I think are more worth spending city tax dollars on." He urges people to "get out of the mentality that [planning councils] automatically should get that money."

Talking the talk

Last year, Aldous Tyler was one of the Mic 92.1 fans who helped convince Clear Channel Radio - Madison not to switch the station from progressive talk to sports.

"As soon as we announced the Mic was saved, the news spread like wildfire on the Internet," says Tyler. A day later, he was contacted by someone from Columbus, Ohio, who said that community was also at risk of losing its progressive talk radio station.

So Tyler formed NonStop Radio, a nonprofit group dedicated to keeping progressive talk on the air. He's currently working on nearly a dozen campaigns in cities that have lost progressive radio stations, including San Diego, Boston and Austin.

"Right-wing radio is dedicated to lies, and the mainstream media is too lazy," says Tyler. "There needs to be a balance, so people get the facts."

Tyler is organizing a national symposium on progressive talk next August at the Alliant Energy Center. And last week, he got word that the Columbus station was returning to the air. "We got ourselves a win," he says. "It's important to bring balance back to a swing state."

Bar none

The state Legislature is considering amending an obscure law that prohibits city council members from selling any product or service to people with liquor licenses. The law, a Prohibition-era relic, subjects violators to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

The law has prompted some resignations of city council members from around the state. These include an insurance salesman in Racine whose clients include bar owners and a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Stevens Point who sells to businesses including bars.

"The law is so broad, it impacts potentially anyone who has done business with a license holder," says Rep. Louis Molepske Jr. (D-Stevens Point), the amendment sponsor. "It forces them to go out of business, leave the city council or face prosecution." Molepske wants alders to follow the state ethics code instead.

Many Madison alders own businesses, including Ald. Michael Schumacher, who does business consulting. None of his clients have liquor licenses. He calls the law "draconian" and says, "It doesn't prevent real fraud."

In fact, says Molepske, the law does more harm than good: "It can be used by a political opponent to knock you off the council or sway your vote."