A couple months ago, the Madison Common Council was poised to have its first African American president in more than 20 years.
This seemed like an opportune thing to many people, considering all the recent focus on equity and racial justice.
And then, minds changed. Maneuvers were made. And after an hour of voting and 15 ballots, former President Mike Verveer — a 21-year veteran of the Council who’d already served as president twice — was in the president’s chair. Minutes later, 10-year Council veteran Marsha Rummel was elected as President Pro Tempore, the number-two spot on the Council. And with more diversity on the Council than ever before, people of color were shut out of leadership.
Alder Maurice Cheeks had spent the last year as pro tem, with Denise DeMarb serving as president. Normal protocol would hold that he would be elected president for a one-year term.
“For the last month or two (before the leadership election), as far as anyone knew Alder DeMarb was not running for re-election, Alder Cheeks was the only candidate for president and Alder Rummel was the only candidate for president pro-tem,” said alder and former council president Mark Clear. At some point in the weeks leading to to the vote, DeMarb decided to run for re-election.
“The argument was that continuity was really important as this feud is going on,” said Clear, referring to the fight over a governance reform proposal that would strip the mayor of certain powers and increase the authority of the Common Council. “As someone who’s advocated for a two-year term, that seemed reasonable to me. Alder Cheeks was OK with that. Over the weekend (before the vote), Alder Cheeks decided he was not OK with that. When exactly Verveer decided to jump in, I don’t know.”
Whether Verveer decided to jump in before or after DeMarb decided to run for re-election is unclear, as is Mayor Paul Soglin’s role in the proceedings. While former president Shiva Bidar-Sielaff said, “My understanding is the mayor made some calls,” the role he played is not clear.
Soglin was unavailable for comment, and an email to a deputy seeking comment received no response. Verveer also did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: Verveer contacted Madison365 after this story was originally published and confirmed that Soglin did indeed encourage him to run for the Council president position.
“It is true that the mayor asked me to consider running for president several weeks before the election,” Verveer said. “My response to him was, ‘You’re crazy, Paul. I’ve been there, done that, find someone else.’ He felt, I think, that he did not have a good relationship with the known candidates at the time.”
Verveer said several Council colleagues also encouraged him to run, including at least two people of color.
“It was the number of Council colleagues encouraging me to run that ultimately led me to accept the nomination,” he said, noting that many wanted him to run primarily because the situation was unprecedented.
“In the couple decades I’ve been on City Council, it’s unheard of to have the two sitting members of leadership to run against one another,” he said.
“I feel kind of guilty that I deprived Mo from staying in leadership,” Verveer added. “There will be an opportunity again next April.”
However the behind-the-scenes dealing shook out, the result was that DeMarb and Cheeks – both proponents of the governance reform proposal – were ousted from leadership. Verveer, who is seen as close to Soglin, was elected president. Bidar made a last-minute run at the number two spot, but came up short.
“At that point in time, it was really truly quick decision making,” Bidar said. “I wanted to be sure that there was additional choices. I thought I could bring some additional skills and knowledge. I just felt at that time a level of bringing the Council together given what had happened with the election of the president.”
Bidar said diversity is important at every level of government.
“I think it’s important to have as much representation as possible both on the council and in council leadership,” she said. “I do really think that we (people of color) bring a lens of experience that is necessary in looking at the issues. Given that many of our conversations both at the Council and at the City are around inequity, it’s really helpful to have that perspective.”
Diversity in leadership is also important beyond the day-to-day operation of the Council, she said.
“It sets an example,” she said. “If people in the city see there is a place for people of color in leadership, it gives people an incentive to participate. It sends a message to people of color that they should run.”
“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Clear. “Electing four people of color a year ago sent a message that the Council was more equitable and more reflective of the community,” he added, referring to Alders Barb McKinney, Sheri Carter and Samba Baldeh, all new in 2015, who joined Cheeks and Bidar to make up the largest number of people of color in Council history.
But he cautioned against reading too much into it.
“It would be easy to look at this from the outside and say that two people of color got shut out,” he said. “But on the inside it’s really more complicated than that. I do not think that race or ethnicity played any factor. I think the major factor that affected the race was people changing their mind. People have a hard time with that.”
Cheeks himself was careful not to put too much weight on the racial dimension.
“Not only is diversity of greatest importance for leadership, but diversity of geographic representation as well,” Cheeks said. “Now under this new leadership you have two people who basically represent the downtown. Diversity in age, gender and geography is important in leadership.”
But he remains optimistic that the new leadership won’t drop the ball on equity.
“The City Council over the past year has really put an emphasis on working to look at matters of policy and budget through an equity lens,” he said. “That has been a significant priority of the Council and has been adopted as a policy of the county as a whole. I hope and expect that the new leadership will continue that legacy.”
Verveer said equity remains a priority, nothing that he appointed both Cheeks and Bidar to the important Common Council Organizational Committee, which handles all internal City business.
“It was important to me to appoint Mo and Shiva to this committee,” he said. “That was the first decision I made. I respect and value the work on equity that my colleagues have done before and I pledge to continue that work.” Verveer also appointed African-American alder Sherry Carter, and DeMarb, as immediate past president, is automatically a member.
“We are operating with the exact same body of 20 co-equals as we were a month ago,” Cheeks said. “While leadership has changed, it’s important for people to remember that those of us who are fighting for equity, we’re going to keep doing that and expect our colleagues who say that they believe in those things to continue to support those things. As always, decisions will come down to priorities. I hope our priority will continue to be people and lifting up all people and not overlooking those who are struggling.”
Local community of color leaders expressed concern for the Council going forward.
“If he was the pro tem and he was in line to become president of the City Council, and they didn’t allow it to happen, it’s a missed opportunity,” said Boys and Girls Club of Dane County President and CEO Michael Johnson. “I don’t think we should ever place someone in a position just because they’re African American, but because of the qualities they bring to the job. Maurice is someone who works full time and takes his job very seriously, and is dedicated to this city and moving this city forward.”
“Madison has had African Americans in prominent leadership positions before — two police chiefs and I believe at least two school board presidents,” said UW Professor of Education Gloria Ladson-Billings. “However, none of that matters without the backing of other decision makers. The President of the United States is a Black man who has been stymied at every turn. More important than ONE person’s election or appointment is the mobilization of an electorate who will get behind the person and their agenda.”
“Madison has a noble desire to be better for all of its citizens; and in ways, we can see barriers to the equity we pursue,” said Young Gifted and Black Coalition leader Eric Upchurch. “It’s been made very clear on all levels of government that some of our rules and regulations and procedures are real barriers to the goals we seek. So, when a decision is made that doesn’t move us in our desired direction, no matter how official or legal or in-line with processes that decision was, we have to ask ourselves if we’re contributing to the problems we face or not.”
Meanwhile, Cheeks continues to take a long view. “Cities are in the forever business,” he said. “This isn’t like the private sector where we’re trying to have the impact be the bottom line. The impact we’re striving for is better lives, better opportunities.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story implied that the Madison Common Council has never had an African American president. In fact, Napoleon Smith served in that position in 1994-1995.