Madison Politics Not Per Usual: Progressives Gaining Power in City, County

By Dean Mosiman 

Published on Sunday, February 20, 2005 by the Wisconsin State Journal

Brenda Konkel, Austin King and their political buddies used to pour their souls out -- mostly in vain -- for the poor and voiceless.

Now their leftist political party, Progressive Dane, is changing Madison, recently helping pass controversial, landmark laws to raise the city's minimum wage, force developers to build lower-cost housing, and ban smoking in bars and restaurants.

"For all intents and purposes, they are the (city's) governing party right now," said Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who joined Progressive Dane when he ran for mayor three years ago and is mulling whether to actively help shape its agenda and tactics.

The party may be gaining momentum, endorsing four candidates in Tuesday's primary and advancing all to the general election in April.

But Progressive Dane is making some prominent enemies, too, especially in big business.

"They're ignoring the people who pay the bills," said former Mayor Paul Soglin. "They're creating an economic doughnut hole in Madison."

Local businesses are being challenged to match Progressive Dane's activism, said Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.

"I think Progressive Dane's agenda lacks some real serious elements -- creating jobs, attracting business, increasing the tax base," she said. "Business people no longer have the luxury of sitting back and not being involved."

Cieslewicz is keenly aware of tension between business and the party. "If we're going to be the long-term governing party in Madison, you can't ignore business," he said. "You can be progressive and pro-business."

Party leaders are unapologetic about their progressive values and maintain that they aren't anti-business. They say they are guided by a broad base of members from all walks of life and they represent the views of a large chunk of Madison and Dane County.

Still, after 12 years, Progressive Dane has reached a crossroads -- act like a feisty bane to the establishment or be a mature insider.

The party is unquestionably at the core of power in the city, a rare achievement for an alternative party, even in hotbeds such as Berkeley, Calif. "Progressive Dane is one of the most successful grass-roots, left-wing movements in America," said Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine.

The party, dubbed "PD," includes Cieslewicz, City Council President Konkel and eight of 20 council members. It claims four of the Madison School Board's seven members, including President Bill Keys, and six of 37 Dane County supervisors. The city's array of committees is peppered with members.

And if all of the party's endorsed candidates are successful in April, it would have true majorities for the first time on both the City Council and School Board.\

Caring or nasty?

Salvation Army Maj. Paul Moore, although not involved in local politics, said PD has made a difference for the most needy.

"It's very difficult for people of low economic means to have a voice in any community," Moore said. "It's nice to know that people are interested and caring about these issues."

But the party, critics insist, can be anti-business, anti-law enforcement, ideologically unbending, and even nasty with opponents, friends and its own members.

"It's power-play politics," said Mark Bugher, president of University Research Park and chairman of the city's Economic Development Commission.

Ald. Ken Golden of the near West Side's 10th District, is a founding PD member, no longer close to the leadership, who has an independent streak but mostly votes progressive. A PD candidate is running against him in the spring City Council elections.

"Why are they going after me of all things?" Golden said. "It reminds me very much of the Bolsheviks between 1905 and 1917. ... I see this kind of purity."

The challenge is about performance, Konkel said, claiming that Golden doesn't always work well with colleagues or keep up with the council's work.

The party, critics claim, also wastes time on polarizing national or international affairs, such as endorsing Ralph Nader for president in 2000, which angered Democrats, or pushing a sister-city relationship with the Palestinian city of Rafah on the Gaza Strip, which upset the Jewish community.

PD members make no apologies about fighting for their beliefs and say the big stir is mostly about their increasing effectiveness.

"Here's a group of rag-tag people who've come together with a commitment to social change," said Ald. Brian Benford of the North Side's 12th District, a PD member. "I think that's a very scary concept."

Hungry to do more

Progressive Dane emerged from the local chapter of the Wisconsin Labor-Farm party, which was patterned after Germany's progressive Green Party.

PD has thrived in liberal Madison partly because local Democrats concentrate on state and national electoral politics. Democrats don't do grass-roots work on leftist social justice causes or issues like low-cost housing, tenant rights and good land use, members said.

The party appeals to "those who are really hungry to do more," said its elections committee chairman Michael Jacob.

At the party's anti-inaugural event last month, rappers, activists and musicians -- even a guitarist with a weird hat and a kazoo chanting, "I hate war," -- took the stage at hip Cafe Monmartre off Capitol Square.

But the event was more than affixing devil horns to George W. Bush.

Speakers were passionate about taking local action for better social services, environmental protection, drug policy reform, food banks and electing fresh candidates to the City Council.

"We are no longer an Isthmus party," party co-chairwoman Konkel proclaimed to the packed house. "We are a party of the entire city of Madison. We are the people. We are the power."

Born and based on the Isthmus, PD is now endorsing candidates in the city's outskirts and has members in places like Stoughton and Sun Prairie, co-chairman Nick Berigan said.

"There's a perception out there that PD is a bunch of wackos. We're not," said Ald. Mike Verveer, an assistant district attorney who represents Downtown's 4th District. "The average PD member is a state employee, schoolteacher, laborer. They're from all walks of life."

The party is far more active on local issues and elections than local Democrats or Republicans. With more than 400 dues-paying members, PD has a $30,000 annual budget, a part-time paid organizer, a detailed data base, and a legion of volunteers willing to make phone calls, distribute literature and knock on doors for candidates, even in the dead cold of winter. It also offers campaign training for candidates and campaign managers, helps with finance reports and can deliver invaluable phone lists and even yard sign locations.

"They're a well-oiled machine," said Ald. Zach Brandon, 7th District, a Democrat who has tangled with PD on spending and tax issues. "(But) they succeed more on organization and technology than their principles or voting record."

The party cherishes candidates who have been active in neighborhoods or social causes and encourages minorities, women and young people.

It helped elect Shwaw Vang, who is Hmong, and Johnny Winston Jr., who is African American, to the School Board. It has now endorsed a batch of fresh candidates making first bids for City Council, including Lisa Subeck and Sarah Ellen King, who advanced Tuesday to the general election, and Chris Kratochwill, Tim Gruber and Lori Nitzel, who are already on the April ballot.

"What was really profound for me was it wasn't about me being connected," said Benford, an African American active in youth and single-parent issues who was elected two years ago. "It was about my right as a person to take this journey."

Leftist vision

The party's sweeping platform is a leftist vision promoting causes such as treating drug abuse as public health rather than law enforcement concerns.

A growing list of successes includes the minimum wage, a zoning law that makes developers build lower-cost housing, the smoking ban, "living wages" for employees on city and county contracts, and a city affordable housing trust fund that's hit $2 million.

PD helped nix a controversial anti-loitering law, improve the public's access to campaign-finance reports, make lobbyists register and forced landlords to put exterior locks on most buildings. The party helped pass the 2003 Madison schools referendum. And last fall it successfully pushed to restore $1.2 million in cuts to the county's Health and Human Services budget, while failing to add another $2.4 million for inflation.

The extra spending for mental health and other programs would have been "the cost of a pizza for an individual homeowner," Jacob said, lamenting, "It's the difference between someone getting help and getting it together and going to jail."

In 2001, at Keys' urging, the School Board shook the community and barred schoolwide recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, which unleashed such a furor that the board reversed its decision.

But Keys never wavered and the party backed him. "They were right at my side," he said.

Party members Konkel and Ald. Robbie Webber, with Golden, are currently negotiating with business leaders on the controversial proposal to regulate so-called "big box" retail stores and other commercial developments bigger than 40,000 square feet on single properties. The council recently gave the sides 60 days to compromise.

Next, the party will help seek more human services money, try to change city tax incremental financing policy, make more landlords accept tenants who get federal rent subsidies, and shape the county's comprehensive plan.

But PD's agenda troubles, even scares, some.

Taking on business

It's "excessive regulation," said James Buchen, vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, part of a coalition suing to erase the city's minimum wage law. "Madison has always had a reputation as being a little business-hostile anyway. This is making the situation worse."

If Progressive Dane won a majority on the council, "we would be very concerned," Chamber of Commerce President Alexander said.

PD members argue that they are not anti-business, maintaining that minimum wage and other progressive laws help people who need it most and haven't hurt economies elsewhere.

"I care passionately about Downtown revitalization and economic development," said Verveer, who opposed the smoking ban and long supported business through facade improvement grants to multimillion dollar housing and office projects.

The party has raised concerns with police, too. Some PD elected officials opposed the anti-loitering law, a Halloween bottle ban on State Street, and accepting a federal COPS grant.

"It almost seems like there's an anti-law enforcement view," police union president Scott Favour said.

Not true, PD member Stephanie Rearick said.

The party, she said, has helped police improve 911 responses for drug overdoses, craft the bottle ban, update liquor license rules and advocated to treat drug abuse as a public health issue.

"We don't think it's anti-police," Rearick said. "It's pro civil liberties, pro-public health."

`The blood oath'

The party takes heat for being too ideological, and for its candidate pledge, called "the blood oath" by outsiders.

Cieslewicz, who joined PD three years ago to broaden his political base, didn't seek its endorsement because at the time the pledge prohibited candidates from supporting people from other parties in other races. "I didn't want to drink the Kool-Aid," he said.

The pledge, relaxed after 2003, now requires endorsed candidates to attend membership meetings, be active in neighborhoods and introduce laws for the party.

"We just want to make sure members have a voice," Konkel said, noting that candidates get a lot of resources from volunteers. "It's a two-way street."

Despite its reputation, PD isn't authoritarian and doesn't march in lockstep, leaders insist.

PD's membership finds issues and votes on party decisions, Berigan said.

The party, in fact, had voted against immediately pursuing a local minimum wage. But three members -- King, Joe Lindstrom and Tom Powell, who has been an alderman and a county supervisor -- independently and quietly organized a referendum campaign, essentially springing it on Cieslewicz and the party. The mayor and PD eventually embraced the effort.

For local Democrats, PD is usually a partner, but relations are now strained, mostly over PD's 2000 endorsement of Nader over Al Gore and supporting candidates running against liberal Democrats for county offices last fall.

"If that's the kind of loyalty they show, why should we be supporting them with our time and resources," county Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Bigelow said.

County Board Sup. Brett Hulsey, Madison, the local Sierra Club president, still fumes about the Nader endorsement, saying it helped Bush win, and recently left the party. "They don't always reward their friends, let's put it that way," he said.

The Democrats now have a rule requiring a supermajority before cross-endorsing someone from another party.

Nancy Jensen, executive officer of the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, which for years has tangled with PD on tenant-landlord issues, said she works productively with members but that the party can be "intolerant" of opposing views.


The fervor among some in PD probably inspired three members -- Patrick DePula, Thomas Dewar and Powell -- to smear political opponents with offensive e-mails, said one of the targets, Brandon.

The trio eventually apologized.

The smears, which led to criminal charges against DePula, shouldn't reflect on the party, leaders said, noting two of the three are Democrats, too.

"The people who did this belong to all kinds of groups," Konkel said.

PD has eased its candidate pledge, didn't endorse anyone for president in 2004 and has demonstrated that it can compromise, leaders said.

The party and apartment association forged a deal on having more landlords accept poor tenants with federal rent subsidies, Konkel said. The sides, in fact, celebrated with beers at a Downtown bar after the council's vote.

And PD worked with Smart Growth Madison, a development industry group, to shape and pass the inclusionary zoning law, which requires construction of lower-cost housing, she said. "It took a while to look at each other's issues ... but we developed a respectful working relationship."

Those examples showed the best of a maturing party, Cieslewicz said.

But King and the party needlessly burned bridges in rejecting a mayor's office compromise with small business on the minimum wage because it had the votes, the mayor said.

"It's easy to sit on the outside and criticize, but it's harder to govern," Konkel said. "It's hard to govern responsibly and stick to your principles. I think it's a challenge for us. But I think we've shown we can do it."

What's next


  • Assessing impacts of new development. 
  • Expanding affordable housing trust fund. 
  • Tightening lobbying law. 
  • Getting adequate county human services funding. 
  • Defending the minimum wage. 
  • Reviewing policy for public subsidies to developers. 
  • Promoting in-fill development. 
  • Making the Madison School Board more proactive.
  • Working on comprehensive plan. 

Voices of Progressive Dane


  • Elections committee chairman Michael Jacob, project coordinator for Covering Kids and Families, which helps low-income people get state BadgerCare health coverage. 
  • Co-chairwoman Brenda Konkel, Madison City Council president, a lawyer, and director of the nonprofit Tenant Resource Center. 
  • Co-chairman Nick Berigan, who works part-time in technology at UW Hospital. 
  • Stephanie Rearick, a musician, owner of Mother Fool's Coffeehouse on Williamson Street, and member of the city's Alcohol License Review Committee. 
  • Johnny Winston Jr., Madison School Board member and Madison firefighter. 
  • Shwaw Vang, Madison School Board member and case manager for the Mental Health Center of Dane County. 
  • Joe Lindstrom, UW-Madison student, State Street outreach worker, and Wisconsin National Guard member now in Iraq. 

Elected Progressive Dane officials


  • U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison.
  • State Rep. Mark Miller, D-Madison.
  • Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.
  • Madison City Council (eight of 20 members): City Council President Konkel, Alds. Mike Verveer, Robbie Webber, Judy Olson, Austin King, Jean MacCubbin, Brian Benford and Andy Heidt. 
  • Madison School Board (four of seven members): Board President Bill Keys, members Winston, Vang and Bill Clinghan. 
  • Dane County Board (six of 37 members): Beth Gross, Echnaton Vedder, Al Matano, John Hendrick, Chuck Erickson and Kyle Richmond. 
  • Dues-paying party member who ran without formal party endorsement. 
  • Elected without party endorsement, but running for re-election with it. 

Progressive Dane successes


  • Living wage for employees of city contractors. 
  • Minimum wage raised for Madison workers. 
  • Support for 2003 school funding referendum. 
  • Restored cuts to county human services budget. 
  • Election of minorities and women. 
  • Lower-cost housing law. 
  • Affordable housing fund. 
  • Reform of public subsidies to developers. 
  • Lobbying registration. 
  • Electronic disclosure of campaign finance reporting. 
  • Scrutiny of campaign finance. 
  • Easier registration to speak at City Council meetings. 
  • Smoking ban.