It’s Time for Left-Center to Get Organized

In the year that I’ve been writing YSDA I’ve been contacted by a number of people who lament their lack of political choices, particularly at the local level.

They’re not imagining things. Only four candidates have shown up to run for three seats — two without incumbents — on the Madison School Board. That’s just a dismal, embarrassing showing for a community that likes to think of itself as politically engaged.

Still, there’s a couple of ways to look at this. One is that people are satisfied with the current leadership and direction of the community. Maybe. In the absence of polling outside of election results it’s hard to know. But it doesn’t feel that way from where I sit. I’m certainly not happy with the current state of affairs and I hear from others who aren’t, but here again we have to be cautious. Since people know how I feel I’m likely to hear from folks who agree with me.

The best reading I can find about where we stand is the August, 2020 Democratic primary for the 26th Senate District. That’s a district that covers almost all of Madison and it had been represented by Fred Risser since statehood. It’s fair to count Fred as a traditional, good-government, liberal Democrat. Pretty far to the left, but no Marxist.

So, when he retired in 2020 it was going to be interesting to see who replaced him. The leading candidates were left-center Democrat Kelda Roys and the progressive (I think the term “hard-left” is more descriptive) Nada Elmikashfi, but there were five other candidates.

On the one hand, Roys beat Elmikashfi handily, winning 40% to 26%. But when you look more closely at the results and add in the votes from the other candidates, the hard-left and the center-left pretty much split the vote 45% to 45% with another 10% difficult to define. So, if you want to look at just the head-to-head between Kelda and Nada, it looks like the center-left holds about two-thirds of the vote. But if you look at all the candidates, it’s more like an even split.

Either way, my point is that center-left voters (and look, all things are relative: center-left in Madison is far left anyplace else) represent a big chunk of the Madison electorate. So, why are they almost completely unrepresented on the Madison School Board and way underrepresented on the City Council and the Dane County Board?

It’s anybody’s guess, but my guess is that it goes to lack of organization. Give ’em credit, the hard-left is organized. Progressive Dane and the less well-known organization called Adelante recruit candidates, provide them with advice and help with volunteers. There’s no such organization on the center-left. A loose coalition did come together in the 2021 council races and they were successful in a beating a North Side incumbent and in defending Ald. Sheri Carter on the South Side, but overall the hard-left picked up a couple of seats last year.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem on the local level. I’ve written a lot (probably too much) about how the Democratic Party at the national level has been taken over by a hard-left minority of activists who write checks, hold fundraisers, volunteer in campaigns and work in the offices of elected Democrats. One reason the party is on the ropes right now is that the views and values of those activists are so out of synch with the views and values of the bulk of American voters.

Look, folks, my organizing days are over. I never liked it and I was never much good at it anyway. I won a couple of elections because of how good others were at organizing and they just pulled their reluctant candidate across a couple of finish lines.

But if you’re looking to do something good for your community, I can’t think of anything better. Put together a permanent organization that recruits and supports reasonable, center-left candidates on the local level. It’s too late for this spring, but all 20 council seats and the mayor’s office are up in just 14 months. Plenty of time to get organized.

Welcome to the 336th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

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

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