Last week, Capital Times editor and publisher Paul Fanlund wrote a nice review of my book, Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority. With his permission we repost it here.
By Paul Fanlund
When you’ve been a journalist in Madison as long as I have, you’ve seen the gamut of personality types who seek and hold elected offices.
From governors to members of Congress, mayors, county executives, state legislators, alders, county board and school board members, there are those who are dynamic and charismatic and those who are, um, neither.
But when it comes to funny, few in my recollection can match Dave Cieslewicz, the self-deprecating former mayor of Madison.
Newcomers may not be familiar with “Mayor Dave,” who was elected in 2003 and defeated in 2011 by Paul Soglin, a historic and intermittent mayor who himself was defeated in 2019. (Madison does not seem to like its mayors beyond two consecutive four-year terms. We’ve never had one for more than eight years in a row.)
After joining The Cap Times in 2006, I began writing this weekly column. In those first years, I wrote regularly about Cieslewicz, enjoying the repartee in his City-County Building office. He struck me as a smart, center-left mayor who loved the job.
Soglin unseated Cieslewicz with jarringly caustic attacks on the incumbent’s competency. I recall moderating one mayoral forum and later wrote: “I was struck that Soglin started almost every answer by criticizing Cieslewicz, often sharply. Some points seemed a stretch. Cieslewicz responded each time, but hardly returned any rhetorical fire.”
That was a mistake on Mayor Dave’s part, because if the intervening decade has proven anything, it’s that vitriolic politics works.
Through the years, I’ve kept in touch with Cieslewicz and follow him on “Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos,” the website he created that promotes itself as “a safe place for moderates in a polarized world.”
In the foreword to his new book, which I will get to, he explains its name.
“The title, which virtually nobody got, was a self-mocking reference to liberal Texas populist Jim Hightower’s famous (well, I thought it was famous) quote that, ‘the only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.’
“I am a middle-of-the-road Democrat, a very dangerous place to be, for sure. But I’m not dead and I hope I’m not yellow,” he wrote.
These days, Cieslewicz is working on a biography of former Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Earl. Cieslewicz emailed recently to tell me he agreed with my column that day that argued Democrats need to focus on pocketbook issues over the very real threats to democracy in order to win elections.
And also to tell me about his new book available on Amazon. “I’d provide a free copy if I knew how the hell to do that,” he wrote.
On his blog a month ago, Cieslewicz modestly wrote: “Since we released our e-book, ‘Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority,’ earlier this month sales have been, uh, modest.”
I read it and found it insightful, probably because I agree with him pretty much across the board.
In it, he explained: “I was never more liberal than I was at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1, 2003, the moment I took the stage to declare an unlikely victory in my first try for mayor.
“From then on I did what mayors do. I became practical. I was worried about plowing the snow (we never did it quickly enough) and picking up the garbage (we automated it) and the crime rate (it could never be low enough) and parking (there was never enough of it) and on and on. There wasn’t as much time to change the world as I intended.”
Now, nearly two decades later, the ex-mayor is as worried as many of us are about the future of American democracy.
He said he has experienced both the old and new Democratic parties, the first rooted in his boyhood in West Allis, a blue-collar, industrial Milwaukee suburb that was “gritty, unionist, working class.” That contrasted with his time as mayor, when he said many of his constituents were “college educated, white collar and relatively affluent.” Today he stands on what he described as a “fault line.”
In a series of staccato sentences in his email to me, he laid out his plan for what Democrats need to do to win, and really, save the country. Here it is, verbatim.
1. The Republicans have become the de facto Fascist Party of America.
2. So, it’s more important than ever that Democrats win.
3. But they can’t win on their current path.
4. Even if their emphasis on social issues gains them big margins in major metros and college towns, that only means that they can sometimes win statewide races. Democrats cannot take back many statehouses that way, even with fair maps. It’s just a question of geography.
5. In order to win back legislatures and keep House majorities, Democrats need to reconnect with rural, small town and suburban America and with blue-collar voters. A party built around college graduates is doomed to failure in a country where two-thirds of adults don’t have a degree.
6. To do that, they must move to the center and, as Wikler points out (I had quoted state Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler in my column), fight on ground of their choosing, which is to say economic issues. But I would also add that they need to tie their policies to traditional American values. Bill Clinton had it right: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get ahead.
7. They also need to establish a long-term majority, not just win the occasional majority and try to remake American society with slim majorities as they did with “Build Back Better” (President Joe Biden’s economic plan). Long-term majorities are also important if we are to realign the Supreme Court with where most of the country is on most issues.
8. My prescription in a nutshell: If you hear it on NPR (National Public Radio), don’t say it.
Cieslewicz has it right, I thought to myself.
Across the Democratic divide from those views are true-believer progressives. They argue, not without merit, that the threats to our climate, to social justice and to democracy require their less conciliatory approach.
In his blog pitching the book, Cieslewicz humorously cites reasons it should be banned, which, he reasons, could only promote interest and readership. His message to far right and far left? He wants help in banning it.
“Read it until you’re offended — it shouldn’t take more than a couple of chapters.”
Is Fanlund right? Is he wrong? You really won’t know until you read the book for yourself. And you can! Simply by ordering it here.