More than a crowded field of candidates with similar platforms, more than a seasoned incumbent unafraid to mince words and more than being arguably the most conservative candidate in an overwhelmingly liberal district of Madison, Sherman Hackbarth had one thing really working against him at the League of Women Voters "Know Your Candidates" taping Friday night: alphabetical order.
On a list of candidates for the second city council district that reads Dennis deNure, Sherman Hackbarth, Brenda Konkel, Bridget Maniaci and Adam Walsh, Hackbarth had the challenge of having to follow up the comments from fan favorite frequent flyer Dennis deNure, who stole the show in terms of entertainment value to say the least.
Asked what he thought needed to be done to tweak the city's Metro bus system, deNure launched into an explanation of his plans to renovate State Street's Peace Park into a carousel park or a ferris wheel park or a cow-petting zoo and the America's Dairyland Museum. At deNure's conclusion and a nod from the moderator, the camera panned to Hackbarth, who paused for a moment, blinked, then managed a noble "...okay..." before getting his legs back under him and continuing with the segment.
It seemed a cruel trick of his birthname that Hackbarth should have to repeatedly follow a man whose opening statement began, "Do not vote for me. Vote for one of the others. Button man here even has a button that says 'Don't vote for me!' My goal is to create a forum for the best downtown plan imaginable, the museum mile program."
Then, he proceeded to list off a sleugh of museum concepts he would like to see settled along State Street. The notes I took from my seat in the audience read verbatim as follows: "Plans for a whole lot of different museums... Seriously, presented like 60 different museum ideas... The guy really likes his museums..."
But for all his oddities, the other three challengers to Brenda Konkel's four-term seat on the city council could take notes on two of the features of deNure's presentation: the formulation of a palpable plan and an ability to make it stick out in an observer's memory. I guarantee there will be people tuning into the city channel's broadcasts and webcasts of the segment just to view and re-view deNure's response to a question about working with neighborhood associations, "At my blog you'll find pictures of Josh Groban. I'm a big fan. I can't wait 'til he plays at Overture Hall."
I'm not saying that Hackbarth, Maniaci and Walsh should all act insane. I'm saying they're up against an established, recognizable, respected firebrand of a candidate with a long record of achievements with the city, and whichever one of them stands out the most will likely survive the primary to face off against Konkel in the general election.
In all likelihood, Konkel is going to carry the most votes in the February 17 primary. While the criticism often levelled at her is she alienates too many people, she has a solid base of support in and outside the district. While I haven't personally made up my mind in terms of who to vote for, I admire her passion and dedication and would like to see her make it through the primary.
She certainly didn't try to play down her record of butting heads, which her opponents have criticized. "I think I've worked hard, I've been strong-willed and strongly opinionated from time to time," she said during the taping. "But I think a strong, passionate experienced (alder) is what we need right now."
It seems likely a lot of uncommitted voters will justify voting for her in the primary just to ensure she has a chance to defend her seat mano-a-mano.
This leaves three very similar, qualified candidates vying for one slot on the April ticket.
I half-joked earlier that Hackbarth is the most conservative on the ticket, but truth be told it would take a microscope to determine who falls further to the right or left on the spectrum. Maniaci and Walsh seem to fly their "lefty creds" higher and louder than Hackbarth, but the latter does live in a co-op. You can't exactly slap a "Ronald Reagan" label on that.
Not that this (or any) race should be about left versus right anyway. What the candidates need are their own "museum miles," a handful of issues and the specific plans to back them up the candidates can hang their hats on.
Walsh has captured some attention by championing the cause of declining enrollment at Lapham Elementary School, saying the neighborhood needs to draw in more young families to fill the school. It sounds great in principle, unless it means driving UW students, young professionals (like myself) and other renters out of Tenney-Lapham like Alder Julia Kerr has tried to do in the Vilas neighborhood.
Likewise, a lot of people admire Maniaci's pledge to rejuvinate businesses along East Johnson Street, turning it into a thriving economic pocket like Monroe Street. But if increasing foot traffic to the businesses entails decreasing speed limits, switching to two-way traffic (as Konkel has suggested) and generally obstructing East Johnson and East Gorham, she could lose a lot of support real fast from people who live in the neighborhood, enjoy what the neighborhood has to offer, but also like being able to get out of the neighborhood in a hurry when they have to for work or other reasons.
Hackbarth, for his part, has shied away the least from criticizing Konkel's combative style, but otherwise has staked his campaign more in vague promises of "effective, efficient public services." It's understandably tough to lay out a point-by-point action plan when one is pledging to act as a conduit of the people's will, but unless a candidate defines which people and what will he's channeling, the electorate is liable to be mistrustful.
Nobody is going to argue with any of these three causes on principle -- they're good ideas for the neighborhood. Rather, where the questions come up is on how to best execute them and which causes to prioritize.
Of course, all these questions would be most easily answered by a substantive debate. Coincidentally, the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association is holding a two-hour candidate forum Thursday, February 5th, 7:00 PM at the Lapham School, 1045 East Dayton Street. While not as specific in answering some of the questions voters might have as would be desirable, the Know Your Candidates forum provides a good primer for the neighborhood forum, as well as some grand entertainment from deNure.
As the candidates and their platforms continue to evolve, the answers to Deucers' questions will most assuredly become more specific. While Maniaci, Walsh and Hackbarth each hold similar views, the candidate best able to connect the dots from where district two is to where district two could be will have the biggest leg up in the race to challenge Konkel.
Special thanks to Emily Mills at the Lost Albatross for developing a Rumble in the Deuce graphic that doesn't suck.