Thursday, January 8, 2009

Lay of the Land

Why? 'Cuz I basically figured, "What good is in-depth coverage without a really lame graphic to go with it?"

And please, don't ask me how long it took me. My photo-shopping skills are not what they ought to be.

I have every intention of updating this feature at least on a weekly basis, or as the story warrants. District two has all the elements needed to make it the most interesting city council race in the upcoming spring election, and I'm thrilled to get to cover it as a reporter and vote in it as a constituent.

And the Deucers will certainly get to do their share of voting. Only two of the five candidates for the second city council district will get to appear on the April 7 spring election ballot, meaning the February 17 primary election will be when the real "rumble" happens.

With the primary just more than a month away, that means there's precious little time to get informed on each of the candidates and their stands on the issues. Fortunately, most of them have already posted websites, and I was able to get in touch with all of them in the span of one day, resulting in an A+ in accessability for each one.

The deadline to declare candidacy is barely two days past, but the race is already steeped in some degree of controversy. Word around city hall had been for several weeks that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was actively seeking someone to run against four-term incumbent Brenda Konkel, and he confirmed it on the record in a newspaper story this week.

There's no love lost between Cieslewicz and Konkel as a result. Anyone who's ever been to a city council meeting has likely seen them butt heads at least once. Konkel has certainly made herself a thorn in the administration's side, and while the Mayor denies he was successful in recruiting anyone to carry out his political hit, he's made it clear he's not displeased to see competition coming out of the woodwork.

Part of the reason Konkel has aroused the ire of the Mayor (and a number of her fellow council members to boot) is the same reason a number of her constituents, including myself, admire her. While I find myself disagreeing with her on some issues, the passion and fire with which she defends the issues she does is unmatched on the council.

Likewise, Konkel wears her dedication to the job of alder and the ideals of democracy on her sleeve. Like a number of alders I could note, she works a job for a living but lives her elected office, spending free time pouring over meeting notes and minute details. Somehow she finds time to constantly update the blog she keeps on city affairs, which has become a resource, not just for her constituents, but for Madison's citizens in general.

As a reporter, her blog sits near the top of my daily reading list (though I do harbor a *little* resentment stemming from the comment about "biased media" in the header).

Most admirably, she welcomes the four candidates that have materialized to try and swipe the seat from under her. "I think it's fantastic for democracy," she told me yesterday, "to see so much interest in a district... and so much youth. I just wish there was this good a turnout in every other district."

In meetings, unfortunately, Konkel's passion is easily construed as combativeness. Her reputation as being obstinate is well-deserved, as much a black mark as a badge of honor. Her attention to detail can be alternately useful and infuriating for her fellow alders. Some constituents, particularly business- and home-owners, accuse her of paying more attention to renters and the homeless than their own middle-class plights.

It's those traits her opponents Adam Walsh, Bridget Maniaci and Sherman Hackbarth are taking aim at now, each in their own way.

"I'm not running the anti-Konkel campaign," Walsh told me. "I respect many of the things she's done. But I think we could do a better job of making sure everybody feels their needs and concerns are addressed -- not just a select minority."

Walsh was the first to declare his candidacy in the second district, and is not, in fact, the missing son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh. I asked. He actually joked with me that the shared name was going to "make it hell for anybody Googling my web page."

Adam Walsh is relatively fresh out of UW law school, recently married and is a new homeowner on the isthmus. While he works as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, he paints himself as a concerned neighbor settling into life as a grown-up, as it were. Walsh and his wife plan to have children in the near future, which he says has instilled in him a desire to see more stop signs, brighter night streets and safer parks in the neighborhood.

Raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Walsh says he's enthralled with the idea of sending his kids to a "neighborhood school" like Lapham Elementary. But the school isn't the only unique feature of District Two he has an interest in preserving.

"We need to pay more attention to those businesses (in the East Johnson Street corridor)," Walsh said. "I want to foster them so they, hopefully, don't leave. There aren't any chain businesses in the entire district, and if one of them leaves, that opens it up for a chain to come in."

Walsh isn't alone in that fear either. Supreme Pizza, Madison Food Mart, Pinkus McBride, Burnie's Rock Shop, Cork and Bottle Liquor Store -- 25-year-old candidate Bridget Maniaci identified them all as unique businesses struggling to get by in a city that normally lauds local commerce. In fact, she says she'll be offering free advertising space to any takers on her campaign literature.

It's just one example of the kinds of outside-the-box ideas she says she would like to bring to city hall. While she may be the youngest candidate in the race, as a former intern to Mayor Cieslewicz, she has plenty of familiarity with city hall, and her experiences working on Wisconsin's Capitol Hill and on the Fair Wisconsin campaign lend her a legitimate grounding in politics.

In light of the mayor's grudge against Konkel, assuming Maniaci was Cieslewicz's's pick to run for the seat is an easy leap to make, but she assured me that was not the case. "I had to wait two weeks to get a meeting with Dave to tell him I was going to throw my hat in the ring," she told me. "He was actually pretty surprised."

Likewise, Maniaci insists that just because she's a former mayoral staff member doesn't mean she'll end up as a rubber stamp for the mayor, if elected. As a staffer in the early phases of planning the revamped Halloween on State Street (editor's note: don't say Freakfest, ever!) celebration, Maniaci says putting her foot down became a regular priority.

A fourth-generation Madison native, Maniaci and her family have watched the isthmus evolve for decades. But recently, she's become more concerned by the mass exodus of the student population from her west end of the district, trickling into the growing highrises near University Avenue. While she says the district two area is one she thinks "families would like to live in," the housing stock is old, and some homes are run down from years of neglect by landlords and tenants alike.

The push-pull of development and preservation is clearly a delicate one, and she says a plan is needed. "I'm very keen on trying to rehab the houses we do have," Maniaci said, "but if they really are as bad as some of the owners are saying they are from previous landlords, I don’t have a problem with them coming down. I would, however, really like to see something of a similar size and scale go up."

The need to differentiate between the areas where massive development is appropriate and forbidden weighs heavily on the second district, and candidate Sherman Hackbarth, a real estate lawyer, says there's room for both. The 31-year-old graduate of both the UW-Whitewater business program and the UW-Madison law school has been long active in campaigning for updates to Madison's decades-old zoning code as a member of the Capitol Neighborhoods Association.

Hackbarth says he fretted over whether or not to run for weeks leading up to the deadline, and chose to file as District Two's fifth candidate the day of. He stakes his campaign on a measured mantra: "planning we can look back on and be proud of, public safety and effective services with an efficient price."

While part of his solution to the verging-on-decrepit homes in district two is to attract more homeowners to the area, Hackbarth also insists the relationship between renters and landlords has become too combative to provide productive solutions to many problems. He says the city should work to encourage more cooperation.

"Landlords should feel great pride in getting a rent check front their tenants," Hackbarth told me. "They should take utmost care complying with all fair housing issues, and they should be held to a high standard. But tenants should also be pleased to give their landlords a rent check, to be provided with a place they can call home."

While injustices move both ways, it's the plight of landlords Hackbarth says goes unnoticed in district two, where the current alder admittedly makes her living fighting against landlords. If elected, Hackbarth says he'll make policy based primarily on the needs and wants of all his constituents.

He paints himself as a man without a party affiliation, and he's certainly not one to mince words regarding his perceptions of the current seat-holder's performance. "I think Brenda Konkel needs to go," he said. "I want to thank her for her service. She's dedicated, but we need to reviltalize this district, to stop the political fighting and take it in a new direction. I see myself as a voice for the district, not a one-sided political agenda."

Thankfully, the race for the second district city council seat is not without a little comic relief. I was unable to reach Dennis deNure as I researched this story, but rest assured I will do an entire feature on him when the time is appropriate. He's a well-known frequent flyer in local elections, with unsuccessful bids for mayor and the state senate under his belt. A brief perusal of his website provides a fair enough assessment of the man to convince some to vote for him.

With the mix of candidates pounding the pavement, it's going to be an interesting race -- far more interesting than any city council race has any right to be. All four candidates I spoke with seemed amenable to the idea of a debate, which I would eagerly attend, and I hope I'm not the only one.

The Deucers should consider themselves lucky to have the palette of candidates they do to chose from this year. I certainly won't be making up my mind until election day.


Erik Paulson said...

Does Sherman Hackbarth have a website yet?

Dustin Christopher said...

Not that I've been able to find, but remember, he's very much a latecomer to this race... Watch for that to come out pretty shortly, I'd imagine.

Emily said...

Fantastic write-up, Dustin, thanks. I'm actually a little bummed this isn't my district to vote it, but I'll be raptly watching the race nonetheless.

Bridget said...

Dusty, I thought I'd actually write about something that means a whole hell of a lot to me... you've got it first (unless Danny's trolling my website at 2am)

Lisa Subeck said...

This struck me as odd:
Bridget Maniaci identified them all as unique businesses struggling to get by in a city that normally lauds local commerce. In fact, she says she'll be offering free advertising space to any takers on her campaign literature.

Is it legal to offer someone free advertising on your campaign literature? It seems to me that it would fall into the part of the campaign finance laws barring candidates from giving something of value to voters. Bridget might want to check with the Elections Board before proceeding with her plan.

Dustin Christopher said...

Ooh... Lisa, good question. If I can find the time Monday, I'll give a buzz up to our friends at the GAB and see what the technicalities of that are... You may be right though, which is kind of a shame... It's a well-intentioned idea.

Bridget said...

I spoke with the GAB, and they said it was fine to list a "buy local, support these businesses" portion on lit pieces, just no coupons or discounts of value, unless I was paying the price difference out of my campaign funds.... and sadly, I don't think I'll be subsidizing any slices of pizza any time soon.