A tale of District 2: Brenda v. Bridget
Post by Emily Mills on 3/31/2009 3:06pm
On April 7, residents of Madison’s 2nd aldermanic district will head to the polls and cast their vote for one of two candidates, the first time such a choice has been on their ballots since 2003. Brenda Konkel, the incumbent, has run unopposed in the last two elections, but this year has faced an impressive four challengers in the January primaries. The one who emerged with the second-most votes and the right to challenge Konkel in the final elections was Bridget Maniaci, a lifelong Dane County resident and relative political newcomer.
Since then, the city has watched as the district (and anyone with half-an-interest in its politics) has drawn a line in the sand, chosen sides, and begun picking at issues. Konkel has long been known for being a rather divisive figure on the Common Council, making a name for herself as someone who asked frequent questions, butted heads with the mayor, and proposed a flurry of legislative items.
Maniaci is a recent graduate of the UW-Madison, having majored in Political Science and Economics, and has begun to make a name for herself both in terms of her involvement in the community, her time as an intern in Mayor Cieslewicz’s office and, probably to her own chagrin, for certain comments (since deleted) made on her personal blog. But then, the same could be said of Konkel, who has also become a prolific blogger in the last few years and occasionally come under fire for it.
It is perhaps the mayoral connections that have made for some of the most interesting debates in the race. It was no secret that Cieslewicz actively sought opponents for Konkel in the primary, but he has since stated that Maniaci was not one of the people with whom he initially spoke. Maniaci is quick to say the same thing, though she does enjoy the official endorsement of Cieslewicz and two former mayors, Paul Soglin and Joe Sensenbrenner.
As with most things to do with this particular race, the same facts seem to lead different people to very different conclusions. Maniaci and her supporters, of course, see the mayoral trifecta as a major boon to her campaign. Konkel and her supporters see it as a detriment. It all depends on how you feel about those particular politicians.
Ultimately, both Konkel and Maniaci have similar progressive ideals and policy positions. There’s a reason they’re running for the 2nd District seat, after all. As Konkel herself said to me when we sat down for an interview over drinks at the Weary Traveler--a near eastside institution in itself—“I wouldn’t fit in, say, [former alder Zach] Brandon’s district, but I think I’m a good fit here.”
So it is that much of the debate over which candidate will make a better alder for the district revolves around issues of style.
“I admire Bridget for running,” Konkel noted. “It gets me out and talking to people and it brings up important issues.” I asked her about how the somewhat adversarial relationship she has with the mayor might affect her work as an alder. “There’s never been a mayor that I’ve totally liked. But you work around it – the mayor isn’t really directly involved in Council work. So you get the 11 votes you need. There are always going to be seven people who will vote against you. All I can do is present the facts and information to people who might be open to them and work to get their support on an issue.”
Konkel is sure to mention that she’s heard the word “rubber stamp” thrown around by the people she speaks with in the neighborhood with regards to Maniaci. “They’re worried that, especially since she interned for Dave, she’ll just say yes to his proposals without question.”
Maniaci herself vehemently denies the accusation. I sat down with her while she ate a late dinner at Roman Candle Pizza, after a day she said started with a 7:30 meeting.
“I’m a pretty studied, fiery Italian,” she declared over a steaming bowl of pasta with Bolognese. “I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, I’m always searching for answers and I want to get everything right. I want to work to see the best solution possible and I’m not going to stop.” And if she’s not getting answers to her questions about a particular issue? “I’d keep asking the question, it’s that simple.”
And then Maniaci turned it around, speaking animatedly and quickly. “When it comes to that rubber stamp thing, I mean, you’re a politician, you can’t be all by yourself on your own island, that’s not why you’re there. You’re there to serve your constituents, you’re there to pass things and do things. A lot of people have asked me, ‘Well you know you guys are really similar on a lot of the issues,’ but I think our focus is very different and how we view the role of the alder is very different.”
When it comes down to the specific issues facing the district and the city, both candidates do seem to have fairly similar views. In fact, when pressed, both pointed to things like better pedestrian lighting, traffic on the isthmus, the aging housing stock, and fostering new business as points they hoped to address while on the Council.
Maniaci, for her part, had lots to say about the East Johnson Street business area, job creation, and holding landlords accountable for the upkeep of their rental properties. She grew somewhat less specific when asked about bigger policy issues like the Alcohol Density Plan or police allocations. Perhaps owing to her longer time being directly involved in those decisions, Konkel had a lot to say about them.
“I didn’t vote for the ADP,” Konkel stated. “It doesn’t make sense to add more housing density to the downtown while taking away bars and other entertainment venues.” And as for the somewhat controversial addition of 30 new police officers to the Madison force, Konkel isn’t convinced it was necessary.
“The department is pretty top-heavy,” she went on. “There are a lot of detectives and administrative people, but then not enough on-the-ground cops. Under [former mayor Sue] Baumann, I voted for 7 new officers even though I thought her arguments against that move were good. I was new and didn’t want to come off as being against public safety improvements. I supported the increase from the 1.6 to 1.9 police-to-citizen ratio, but then I said that’s it.
“Of course, then they threw the 1.9 formula out the window when they asked for 30 new officers. The people behind the planning for that didn’t let the Council in on the process, though. The original request they made was for 18, and I said I would vote for 12 because Madison grew a lot in a short period of time. The west side, for instance, covers a lot of miles.” Here Konkel let herself go off on a brief but relevant tangent. “I thought the west side neighborhood meeting about safety was offensive. It was all the white people complaining about the people of color, who weren’t there to represent themselves anyway. It was a lot of quality of life issues, and not much serious crime stuff. In the end, they only got one new cop anyway.”
Building inspection regulations weighed heavily on the minds of both candidates. Maniaci and Konkel each pointed out that, under the current system, city inspectors only make it to each downtown house once every six years (it’s once every 20 years for those further afield). “Plus, they only look at the outsides of buildings,” Konkel added.
With the housing stock facing the double whammy of being very old and now quickly abandoned by students in favor of the brand new high rise apartment buildings going up near campus, the neighborhood faces a serious problem.
“Landlords are not being held accountable at all right now,” Maniaci said. “I’ve run into so many frustrated tenants while I’ve been out campaigning. I love Eli Judge’s ‘Rate-a-Landlord’ website idea—it would be a great way for renters to hold landlords more accountable and get the word out about the bad ones—but we’ll see if he can get that done before his term is up. I was in a girl’s apartment for 20 minutes the other night and she was showing me all the things with it that are insanely bad and not at all up to code. They had a porch as a bedroom, which is not legal.”
“[City Building Inspection Director] George Hank said we didn’t need more building inspectors, but clearly that’s what we do need,” Konkel insisted.
Both also agreed that the recent bus fare hike was unnecessary. Konkel pointed to the recently signed 2010 fuel contract that Metro locked into, which is about $2.6 million less than the amount budgeted for 2009. “Metro was saying they were $250,000 short and that’s why the rate increase was needed, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to their overall $50 million budget.” She feels strongly that, especially now considering the new fuel contract, the money could have been found without passing the buck along to the riders.
“I wasn’t cool with it,” Maniaci agreed. “I went to the meetings and followed the process and really looked at the studies. I was so glad I was an econ major because they were using elasticity models and I was like, ‘Oh, I know what they’re talking about, I understand that.’ So that was really interesting and that was sort of my moment when I was, like, I would be really great on the Council because they’re having detailed, nuanced arguments about which elasticity model to go with and I know exactly what they’re talking about.”
Konkel went on to address the proposed use of TIFF money for the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment (she thinks it might be a good idea, but wants to make sure the project would be in the public’s interest), as well as the current plans to develop a TIFF district along the East Washington corridor (also likes it, but wants to see job creation focused more around light manufacturing and green work, as opposed to just more retail). She also commented on the current gender ratios in city government, noting that, under Baumann, there were 14 women who held top positions. Now there are only 4. It’s something she’d like to see changed.
Maniaci would like, if elected, to hit the ground running and begin working with the business owners on East Johnson in order to help them form an association and work on a plan for future development of the area. She’s also keen on seeing a different approach to mixed use buildings, pointing specifically to a still empty set of storefronts in the ground floor of a condo building that went up a few years ago on Charter and Dayton. “The neighborhood deserves to be redeveloped, and it needs to be done in a way that compliments it. I don’t just want to see empty, generic retail and office spaces go in.”
But for many of the residents of District 2, the race still tends to come down to which person will better be able to see their various, similar projects through. Scott Milfred, writing for the Wisconsin State Journal, put things rather succinctly when he suggested that “It's either ‘Brenda Konkel versus City Hall,’ or it's ‘Brenda Konkel versus Brenda Konkel.’ In the first matchup, I'd give Konkel the edge. But if District 2 voters head to the polls with the second mindset, then the eight-year incumbent is in trouble.”
Konkel chuckled at the notion but didn’t exactly dismiss it completely. Maniaci, however, bristled at the idea of being appealing simply for not being Brenda.
“It’s not enough to be the anti-Brenda candidate,” she insisted, “and I think that’s, in some ways, what got me through the primary--I was out there talking about a number of different issues that I want to work on. A lot of people talk about that I’m talking about the businesses on East Johnson, and they like that.”
Konkel, for her part, seems somewhat confident that her history of service to the district and its general anti-establishment leanings will work in her favor come April 7. “It’s an asset to me that Bridget was endorsed by the three mayors. Most of people that I talk to when I’m out knocking on doors don’t want someone who’s quite so buddy-buddy with the establishment.”
Ultimately, after sitting down with each of the candidates for fairly informal interviews, one can’t help but get the impression that both are passionate about serving their city. Both Konkel and Maniaci want smart development, better jobs, and cleaner environs for their constituents. The big differences lay in their respective levels of experience and personal working style.
Maniaci shows all the energy and optimism of youth: “I want Madison to be the best place on Earth. It’s the cheesiest thing in the world, but, that’s why I want to be a part of that…I’m just gonna bring it.”
Konkel displays the time-tested knowledge of how government in Madison works, and the connections built over a long career.
The question is, which one do District 2 residents prefer?
More about the April 7 elections:
* Find your polling place in Madison
* League of Women Voters Guide to WI 2009 Spring Elections (pdf)
(Correction: The article incorrectly indicated that Maniaci was a "lifelong Madison resident." She in fact grew up in Sun Prairie and moved to Madison for college. Apologies for the mistake --it has now been corrected.)
Emily Mills is Editor-At-Large for Dane101, as well as Editor of Our Lives Magazine. She is also a freelance writer, photographer, actor, and musician (drummer and singer in local band Little Red Wolf). Originally from several states up and down the Midwest Emily has called Madison home since 2000. Contact her at