Could the Madison City Council steal majorities from national Democrats? This may seem incomprehensible, but the council is about to move further to the left, and that bodes ill for the Democratic brand everywhere.
The council has long been liberal, reflecting the progressive politics of a college town, but the current council is widely regarded as the most liberal ever. And the results of last week’s primary elections now pretty much guarantee that it will move still further leftward.
At least two seats held by left-center moderates (“moderate” only in the context of Madison politics) are almost certain to turn over to new hard-left alders.
Ald. Paul Skidmore, the long-time alder from the west side’s 9th District and the leading defender of the Madison Police Department, barely survived a primary and is not likely to win again in April. He got only 28% of the vote while challenger Nikki Conklin won with 31%. That may not seem like a big advantage until you realize that the most of the remaining 41% that went to other candidates will likely go to her in the general election.
Skidmore is not being treated fairly. He has been accused of uttering a gender-based insult at a late night council meeting. He vigorously denies the accusation. In the fall, the council authorized a voice analysis to determine who said what, but that analysis, which was due in November, has still not been produced. So, the accusation hangs over Skidmore. If he said it, he deserves to lose. But, if he didn’t or if the evidence is inconclusive, then he should have this taken off his shoulders. No matter, though. The accusation alone is probably enough to end his service.
In the 16th District on the east side, retiring left-center Ald. Mike Tierney is stepping down and it is almost certain that he will be replaced by hard-left candidate Jael Currie. She received 48% of the vote in the primary and her nearest opponent Matt Tramel got only 19%.
In April, there is only one incumbent hard-left alder with a chance to be defeated. In the 18th District on the north side, Ald. Rebecca Kemble faces a stiff challenge from Charles Myadze. But Kemble did get just over 50% in the primary, so she has an advantage.
And the left could even pick up yet another seat. Council President Sheri Carter, who is widely respected for her even-handedness, is facing a challenge from hard-left activist Brandi Grayson in the 14th District on the south side.
Now, of course, more voters will show up in the April election and they could reverse the indications in the primary, and there are some sensible left-center alders coming back. Incumbent Alds. Barbara Harrington-McKinney and Mike Verveer are running unopposed and Gary Halverson, who is also running unopposed in the 17th District, looks promising. But right now it seems likely that the hard-left majority on the council will see its numbers increase.
So, what does all this mean? Well, we could look to Seattle and Portland. As liberal New York Times columnist Timothy Egan has written, the Biden Democrats could forge a new long-term majority. What’s in the way? “What could doom Democrats is fellow Democrats,” Egan writes. ” (The Seattle) City Council is never far from a bad idea. A recent proposal would make it the first city in the nation to appear to incentivize misdemeanor crime. Assaults, trespass, stalking — all could be excused if their offense is linked to poverty or a behavioral health disorder.”
Yet, this is exactly the kind of thing we could see coming from the Madison City Council this year. The current council has already voted down aid for State Street businesses simply because there were no Black owners, never mind that two-thirds of businesses on the street are owned by women or people of color. And they voted to spend a half million dollars in the midst of a city budget crisis to form a police oversight board whose specific purpose is to harass (that’s a fair word) a police department widely regarded as one of the best in the nation.
And, of course, Portland is a Democratic nightmare with nightly widespread violence last summer that its liberal government seemed unable or unwilling to control. In their largely ineffectual defense of Donald Trump, the one political blow his attorney’s landed at his Senate trial was when they showed Democratic politicians defending violence in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.
In the November elections the Republicans successfully tied Democrats to that violence and to the party’s left-wing. Trump lost mostly because of Trump, but Republicans picked up a dozen seats in the House when they were expected to lose about that many. They lost the Senate by the narrowest of margins and, there again, mostly because of Trump. And the Republicans won every statehouse that the Democrats had targeted to take back.
Simply put, hard-left local politicians are aiding and abetting the party of Trump, if not Trump himself. So, what happens in cities like Seattle, Portland and Madison will be used to further tar the Democratic brand, no matter how moderate the specific candidate might be. Extremist policy proposals and rhetoric out of Madison could help defeat Democratic moderates in districts hundreds of miles away.
In this way, that hyper-local, low turnout February primary in our mid-size Midwest college town blew an ill-wind for any hope of a sustained national Democratic majority and all the good it might do over the long haul.
After last Tuesday, I am growing in my feeling that the far left will ruin any chance for sensible, center-left progress after the next year or so. I hope I’m wrong.