Paul Soglin, Madison’s Unapologetically Liberal Mayor, Hopes to Lead a Blue Wave Across the State

Paul Soglin has been mayor of Madison, on and off, seemingly forever. Will that help or hurt his bid for governor?

At 73 years of age, 21 of which he’s devoted to serving as mayor of Madison, Paul Soglin is training for a fight. He takes occasional BodyPump classes at a local gym, a workout program involving weights, and also does some cycling. In the car, he listens to Creedence Clearwater Revival and the solo works of singer John Fogerty. It’s hard not to get pumped up listening to CCR.

photo via AP Images

In January, Soglin joined a crowded Democratic field for governor that plans to lay siege to Republican Gov. Scott Walker this summer and fall. Out of 17 campaign announcements, Soglin’s drew the sharpest response from the Walker camp by far, when it circulated a photo showing him greeting Fidel Castro, president of Cuba, to whom he presented the key to Madison in 1975. “Did I shy away at all when he attacked me?” says Soglin, who acknowledged that in years past, a copy of the photo had stood on display in his basement study. “Bring it on. Why did he trash me that way when they didn’t trash anybody else?” he says. “Maybe I’m the opponent they fear the most.”

One of Soglin’s first targets will be the Foxconn deal. According to Politifact, Walker’s signature pact will pay the Taiwan-based company between $219,000 and $587,000 per job, depending on how many are created at the Racine County facility. “This contract is so over the top,” Soglin says. “One of the great unanswered questions is how could anyone do such a horrible job.” He says he’d rather spend $500 million to expand high-speed broadband service statewide – current speeds are too slow for business needs, he argues.

Soglin contrasts the Foxconn deal with Madison’s own with Exact Sciences, a cancer diagnostics company that could bring up to 1,000 jobs to the city, with a public subsidy Soglin estimates at $6,000 per job. Exact Sciences has pledged to pay the workers at least $15 an hour and provide health insurance and a retirement plan.

Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, is widely seen as the front-runner among Democrats, and Soglin agrees. His campaign’s internal polling has placed him in second place but still ahead of Walker, even when pollsters listed negatives for the current governor and Soglin. The survey described the latter as an aging “tax and spend liberal” who was an “aggressive antiwar demonstrator in the ’60s.”

A joiner in the Act 10 protests, Soglin wants to repeal the legislation that limited public sector unions in the state but wouldn’t stop there. “We have to look at raising the minimum wage,” he says. “We have to look at, in the construction area, re-establishing prevailing wages and project agreements.”

His campaign is billing itself as the “Supper Club Campaign,” and recently, he and his family drove an hour and a half north of Madison to one such establishment, sat down at the bar and “started talking to people on both sides of us,” he says. “When other people saw that I was open, they came over,” struck up conversations and offered to buy him drinks (he refused).

But others scoff at the notion that Soglin could break through the outstate barrier. “The thought of Paul in a supper club is comical,” says former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who lost his quest for a third term in office to Soglin. “He’s a very serious guy and loves the sound of his own voice.”

In recent years, he’s had a strange fixation on the city’s homeless encampments. While he was instrumental in a long-term solution – a city effort to build new housing for the homeless under a “housing first” ethos – he also gruffly threatened sanctions against volunteers who served meals to the downtown’s homeless people.

“He’s grumpy,” says Cieslewicz. “He’s generally regarded as not a nice guy, but there’s a feeling that he’s competent.”

‘Sog It To Me’ appears in the May 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.