Liberal v. Liberal

Madisonians decisively rejected the idea of a full-time city council by a 58-42 percent margin in an advisory referendum on April 6.

But the geography of that vote is interesting and it represents a subtle change in how Madison votes. The full-time council idea lost in every part of the city with the exception of the near east side and the downtown and student wards. 

What’s particularly interesting is the difference between the near west and near east sides. Both remain solidly liberal. The Democrat-backed candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, Jill Underly, got over 90 percent of the vote in both areas. 

But there was a marked difference on the full-time council vote. It was supported by 59 percent of voters in the second aldermanic district (Tenney-Lapham) and by 54 percent in the sixth (Marquette). But it got only 47 percent support in the district 13 (Vilas) and just 44 percent in the fifth (Regent). 

Whole Foods liberals still hold serve in Madison.

That pattern also held last August when mainstream liberal Kelda Roys defeated challenger Nada Elmikashfi in the Democratic primary to replace Fred Risser in the state Senate. Elmikashfi, an Isthmus columnist, ran strong on the near east side, Roys prevailed on the near west side and the rest of the city went for Roys. 

Not so long ago, we could reliably think about the city with a core and an outlying area. The core, roughly from Hilldale to Olbrich Park, went one way and the rest of the city went the other. That held up pretty well for my three runs for mayor in 2003, 2007 and 2011. 

But now there’s a more pronounced split between the vote-rich near east and west sides. 

What’s the cause of the difference? I think it’s primarily about the intensity of feelings about race and identity. Elmikashfi is a woman of color who made addressing disparities the centerpiece of her campaign, and the primary argument for a full-time council was that it would open those seats to more people of color and to lower income people. 

I didn’t think that those arguments were very strong since the current council is more diverse than the city as a whole and it actually just added more people of color in yesterday’s elections. It’s also hard to imagine a low-income person being able to raise the kind of money needed to be competitive in a district twice the size as those we have now. 

Still, the argument linking the full-time council to more diversity was the one advanced by the task force that promoted it and it seemed to resonate more strongly on the east side. 

This mirrors the split among Democrats nationally. Something along these lines happened in San Francisco this January after the school board there dropped names from 44 public schools because of various real and imagined misdeeds of their namesakes. Liberal Mayor London Breed blasted the move and the blowback was so strong that this week the board reversed the changes. The New York Times headlined one of their stories on the dust up, “It’s Liberals vs. Liberals.” 

In Washington this is mirrored in the gentle (for the time being) split between the more traditional Biden-style liberals and more outspoken progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York). Both sides talk sincerely about social justice, but the intensity of feeling about it is stronger with the progressives. And younger progressives seem more willing to vote primarily on the basis of race. 

It comes down, culturally, to the kind of liberals who shop at the Willy Street Co-op and read The Progressive and the kind of liberals who go to Whole Foods and read The Atlantic

I am most definitely a west side, Joe Biden, Whole Foods (well, actually Costco) left-center type of guy. I am not on board with the revolution. And, for now at least, it looks like that’s where most of Madison is as well.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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