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Progressive Dane: Grassroots Power Transforming Wisconsin's Second Largest City

From: The Wisconsin State Journal

Progressive Dane Gaining Power in City, County
Dean Mosiman Wisconsin State Journal

Brenda Konkel, Austin King and their political buddies used to pour their
souls out - mostly in vain - for the poor and voiceless.

Now their leftist political party, Progressive Dane, is changing Madison,
recently helping pass controversial, landmark laws to raise the city's
minimum wage, force developers to build lower-cost housing, and ban smoking
in bars and restaurants.

"For all intents and purposes, they are the (city's) governing party right
now," said Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who joined Progressive Dane when he ran
for mayor three years ago and is mulling whether to actively help shape its
agenda and tactics.

The party may be gaining momentum, endorsing four candidates in Tuesday's
primary and advancing all to the general election in April.

But Progressive Dane is making some prominent enemies, too, especially in
big business.

"They're ignoring the people who pay the bills," said former Mayor Paul
Soglin. "They're creating an economic doughnut hole in Madison."

Local businesses are being challenged to match Progressive Dane's activism,
said Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of

"I think Progressive Dane's agenda lacks some real serious elements -
creating jobs, attracting business, increasing the tax base," she said.
"Business people no longer have the luxury of sitting back and not being

Cieslewicz is keenly aware of tension between business and the party. "If
we're going to be the long-term governing party in Madison, you can't ignore
business," he said. "You can be progressive and pro-business."

Party leaders are unapologetic about their progressive values and maintain
that they aren't anti-business. They say they are guided by a broad base of
members from all walks of life and they represent the views of a large chunk
of Madison and Dane County.

Still, after 12 years, Progressive Dane has reached a crossroads - act like
a feisty bane to the establishment or be a mature insider.

The party is unquestionably at the core of power in the city, a rare
achievement for an alternative party, even in hotbeds such as Berkeley,
Calif. "Progressive Dane is one of the most successful grass-roots,
left-wing movements in America," said Matt Rothschild, editor of The
Progressive magazine.

The party, dubbed "PD," includes Cieslewicz, City Council President Konkel
and eight of 20 council members. It claims four of the Madison School
Board's seven members, including President Bill Keys, and six of 37 Dane
County supervisors. The city's array of committees is peppered with members.

And if all of the party's endorsed candidates are successful in April, it
would have true majorities for the first time on both the City Council and
School Board. ?

Caring or nasty? Salvation Army Maj. Paul Moore, although not involved in
local politics, said PD has made a difference for the most needy.

"It's very difficult for people of low economic means to have a voice in any
community," Moore said. "It's nice to know that people are interested and
caring about these issues."

But the party, critics insist, can be anti-business, anti-law enforcement,
ideologically unbending, and even nasty with opponents, friends and its own

"It's power-play politics," said Mark Bugher, president of University
Research Park and chairman of the city's Economic Development Commission.

Ald. Ken Golden of the near West Side's 10th District, is a founding PD
member, no longer close to the leadership, who has an independent streak but
mostly votes progressive. A PD candidate is running against him in the
spring City Council elections.

"Why are they going after me of all things?" Golden said. "It reminds me
very much of the Bolsheviks between 1905 and 1917. . . . I see this kind of

The challenge is about performance, Konkel said, claiming that Golden
doesn't always work well with colleagues or keep up with the council's work.

The party, critics claim, also wastes time on polarizing national or
international affairs, such as endorsing Ralph Nader for president in 2000,
which angered Democrats, or pushing a sister-city relationship with the
Palestinian city of Rafah on the Gaza Strip, which upset the Jewish

PD members make no apologies about fighting for their beliefs and say the
big stir is mostly about their increasing effectiveness.

"Here's a group of rag-tag people who've come together with a commitment to
social change," said Ald. Brian Benford of the North Side's 12th District, a
PD member. "I think that's a very scary concept."


Hungry to do more Progressive Dane emerged from the local chapter of the
Wisconsin Labor-Farm party, which was patterned after Germany's progressive
Green Party.

PD has thrived in liberal Madison partly because local Democrats concentrate
on state and national electoral politics. Democrats don't do grass-roots
work on leftist social justice causes or issues like low-cost housing,
tenant rights and good land use, members said.

The party appeals to "those who are really hungry to do more," said its
elections committee chairman Michael Jacob.

At the party's anti-inaugural event last month, rappers, activists and
musicians - even a guitarist with a weird hat and a kazoo chanting, "I hate
war," - took the stage at hip Cafe Monmartre off Capitol Square.

But the event was more than affixing devil horns to George W. Bush.

Speakers were passionate about taking local action for better social
services, environmental protection, drug policy reform, food banks and
electing fresh candidates to the City Council.

"We are no longer an Isthmus party," party co- chairwoman Konkel proclaimed
to the packed house wearing mostly blue jeans and sipping beers. "We are a
party of the entire city of Madison. We are the people. We are the power."

Born and based on the Isthmus, PD is now endorsing candidates in the city's
outskirts and has members in places like Stoughton and Sun Prairie, co-
chairman Nick Berigan said.

"There's a perception out there that PD is a bunch of wackos. We're not,"
said Ald. Mike Verveer, an assistant district attorney who represents
Downtown's 4th District. "The average PD member is a state employee,
schoolteacher, laborer. They're from all walks of life."

The party is far more active on local issues and elections than local
Democrats or Republicans. With more than 400 dues-paying members, PD has a
$30,000 annual budget, a part-time paid organizer, a detailed data base, and
a legion of volunteers willing to make phone calls, distribute literature
and knock on doors for candidates, even in the dead cold of winter. It also
offers campaign training for candidates and campaign managers, helps with
finance reports and can deliver invaluable phone lists and even yard sign

"They're a well-oiled machine," said Ald. Zach Brandon, 7th District, a
Democrat who has tangled with PD on spending and tax issues. "(But) they
succeed more on organization and technology than their principles or voting

The party cherishes candidates who have been active in neighborhoods or
social causes and encourages minorities, women and young people.

It helped elect Shwaw Vang, who is Hmong, and Johnny Winston Jr., who is
African American, to the School Board. It has now endorsed a batch of fresh
candidates making first bids for City Council, including Lisa Subeck and
Sarah Ellen King, who advanced Tuesday to the general election, and Chris
Kratochwill, Tim Gruber and Lori Nitzel, who are already on the April

"What was really profound for me was it wasn't about me being connected,"
said Benford, an African American active in youth and single-parent issues
who was elected two years ago. "It was about my right as a person to take
this journey."


Leftist vision The party's sweeping platform is a leftist vision promoting
causes such as treating drug abuse as public health rather than law
enforcement concerns.

A growing list of successes includes the minimum wage, a zoning law that
makes developers build lower-cost housing, the smoking ban, "living wages"
for employees on city and county contracts, and a city affordable housing
trust fund that's hit $2 million.

PD helped nix a controversial anti-loitering law, improve the public's
access to campaign-finance reports, make lobbyists register and forced
landlords to put exterior locks on most buildings. The party helped pass the
2003 Madison schools referendum. And last fall it successfully pushed to
restore $1.2 million in cuts to the county's Health and Human Services
budget, while failing to add another $2.4 million for inflation.

The extra spending for mental health and other programs would have been "the
cost of a pizza for an individual homeowner," Jacob said, lamenting, "It's
the difference between someone getting help and getting it together and
going to jail."

In 2001, at Keys' urging, the School Board shook the community and barred
schoolwide recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, which unleashed such a
furor that the board reversed its decision.

But Keys never wavered and the party backed him. "They were right at my
side," he said.

Party members Konkel and Ald. Robbie Webber, with Golden, are currently
negotiating with business leaders on the controversial proposal to regulate
so-called "big box" retail stores and other commercial developments bigger
than 40,000 square feet on single properties. The council recently gave the
sides 60 days to compromise.

Next, the party will help seek more human services money, try to change city
tax incremental financing policy, make more landlords accept tenants who get
federal rent subsidies, and shape the county's comprehensive plan.

But PD's agenda troubles, even scares, some.


Taking on business It's "excessive regulation," said James Buchen, vice
president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, part of a coalition suing
to erase the city's minimum wage law. "Madison has always had a reputation
as being a little business-hostile anyway. This is making the situation

If Progressive Dane won a majority on the council, "we would be very
concerned," Chamber of Commerce President Alexander said.

PD members argue that they are not anti-business, maintaining that minimum
wage and other progressive laws help people who need it most and haven't
hurt economies elsewhere.

"I care passionately about Downtown revitalization and economic
development," said Verveer, who opposed the smoking ban and long supported
business through fa ade improvement grants to multimillion dollar housing
and office projects.

The party has raised concerns with police, too. Some PD elected officials
opposed the anti-loitering law, a Halloween bottle ban on State Street, and
accepting a federal COPS grant.

"It almost seems like there's an anti-law enforcement view," police union
president Scott Favour said.

Not true, PD member Stephanie Rearick said.

The party, she said, has helped police improve 911 responses for drug
overdoses, craft the bottle ban, update liquor license rules and advocated
to treat drug abuse as a public health issue.

"We don't think it's anti- police," Rearick said. "It's pro civil liberties,
pro-public health."


'The blood oath' The party takes heat for being too ideological, and for its
candidate pledge, called "the blood oath" by outsiders.

Cieslewicz, who joined PD three years ago to broaden his political base,
didn't seek its endorsement because at the time the pledge prohibited
candidates from supporting people from other parties in other races. "I
didn't want to drink the Kool-Aid," he said.

The pledge, relaxed after 2003, now requires endorsed candidates to attend
membership meetings, be active in neighborhoods and introduce laws for the

"We just want to make sure members have a voice," Konkel said, noting that
candidates get a lot of resources from volunteers. "It's a two-way street."

Despite its reputation, PD isn't authoritarian and doesn't march in
lockstep, leaders insist.

PD's membership finds issues and votes on party decisions, Berigan said.

The party, in fact, had voted against immediately pursuing a local minimum
wage. But three members - King, Joe Lindstrom and Tom Powell, who has been
an alderman and a county supervisor - independently and quietly organized a
referendum campaign, essentially springing it on Cieslewicz and the party.
The mayor and PD eventually embraced the effort.

For local Democrats, PD is usually a partner, but relations are now
strained, mostly over PD's 2000 endorsement of Nader over Al Gore and
supporting candidates running against liberal Democrats for county offices
last fall.

"If that's the kind of loyalty they show, why should we be supporting them
with our time and resources," county Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Bigelow

County Board Sup. Brett Hulsey, Madison, the local Sierra Club president,
still fumes about the Nader endorsement, saying it helped Bush win, and
recently left the party. "They don't always reward their friends, let's put
it that way," he said.

The Democrats now have a rule requiring a supermajority before
cross-endorsing someone from another party.

Nancy Jensen, executive officer of the Apartment Association of South
Central Wisconsin, which for years has tangled with PD on tenant- landlord
issues, said she works productively with members but that the party can be
"intolerant" of opposing views.


Fervor The fervor among some in PD probably inspired three members - Patrick
DePula, Thomas Dewar and Powell - to smear political opponents with
offensive e-mails, said one of the targets, Brandon.

The trio eventually apologized.

The smears, which led to criminal charges against De- Pula, shouldn't
reflect on the party, leaders said, noting two of the three are Democrats,

"The people who did this belong to all kinds of groups," Konkel said.

PD has eased its candidate pledge, didn't endorse anyone for president in
2004 and has demonstrated that it can compromise, leaders said.

The party and apartment association forged a deal on having more landlords
accept poor tenants with federal rent subsidies, Konkel said. The sides, in
fact, celebrated with beers at a Downtown bar after the council's vote.

And PD worked with Smart Growth Madison, a development industry group, to
shape and pass the inclusionary zoning law, which requires construction of
lower-cost housing, she said. "It took a while to look at each other's
issues . . . but we developed a respectful working relationship."

Those examples showed the best of a maturing party, Cieslewicz said.

But King and the party needlessly burned bridges in rejecting a mayor's
office compromise with small business on the minimum wage because it had the
votes, the mayor said.

"It's easy to sit on the outside and criticize, but it's harder to govern,"
Konkel said. "It's hard to govern responsibly and stick to your principles.
I think it's a challenge for us. But I think we've shown we can do it."
Contact Dean Mosiman at or 252-6141.