At a moment when racial equity is a “top priority,” the Madison Common Council balked at the opportunity to seat its first African American president since 1994, and only the second in the body’s history.

It appears Mayor Paul Soglin had a hand in — or at least attempted to have a hand in — denying the chair to Alderman Maurice Cheeks, who is seen by many as a future mayoral candidate. And Soglin’s version of the way it all went down doesn’t quite add up with the events as alders recall them.

The spotlight remains on local governments when it comes to equity. Madison and Dane County are still reeling from the very damning Race to Equity report published nearly three years ago. Violence among people of color has reared its head recently. Tension between communities of color and police remain high. Incidents of hate and bias on the University of Wisconsin campus continue, to say nothing of the near-constant microagressions students there report.

Local government response to these issues has varied, and many would say has been too slow. Dane County, for example, just this year opened and staffed a department-level Office of Equity and Inclusion, the City equivalent of which still resides within the Mayor’s office. But only one of 37 Dane County Supervisors is a person of color; five of 20 Madison Alders are. The one African American County Supervisor, Shelia Stubbs, was recently elected Second Vice Chair. Milwaukee’s city council recently elected an African American president.

Amid all these issues, the Common Council seemed poised to elect a new African American president in Cheeks, who had served for a year as President Pro Tempore (abbreviated “pro tem”). It doesn’t happen every time, but usually when a pro tem desires to take on the president’s position, they run unopposed.

That’s why, in the month or two before the April 19 meeting in which the Council elected its leaders, “as far as anyone knew (former president Denise) DeMarb was not running for re-election, Alder Cheeks was the only candidate for President and Alder (Marsha) Rummel was the only candidate for President Pro-Tem,” said Alderman Mark Clear, himself a former president.

Then, something changed.

At the Council’s meeting on April 19, sitting president Denise DeMarb ran for another year-long term, Cheeks ran against her, and when the dust settled, 21-year Council veteran (and former president) Mike Verveer was elected after 15 ballots. Then Marsha Rummel defeated late-coming challenger Shiva Bidar for pro tem.

At least, that’s what the public saw. As with all things political, there was a lot more behind it.

Was race a factor? Observers may say yes; those involved say no.

“In no way, shape or form was this vote based on a racial divide, nor did my colleagues of color vote as a block for or against any one person,” said Verveer. “Equity and social justice are very important to me. That’s why I’m in public service.”

Soglin said the race of the people in council leadership doesn’t affect the city’s commitment to equity. “There are far more important issues in measuring Madison achievement in progress toward equity than the election of a council president, which is subject to so many internal city council manipulations,” he said.

Several others reiterated their commitment to equity and racial justice.

Ald. Denise DeMarb
Ald. Denise DeMarb

“I’ve worked on (equity issues) for the three years I’ve been on council,” said DeMarb. “It’s a number-one priority for me.”

Verveer said the previous leadership, along with the council as a whole, has done good work on diversity and equity.

“I pledge to continue that work going forward,” he said. “I have a list of issues related to equity I plan to bring up with the mayor the next time I meet with him.”

Still, it feels to many like a missed opportunity to have people of color in leadership positions.

“Having diversity in all aspects of leadership adds a kind of perspective and a kind of experience that you can’t get any other way,” said Clear. “You can’t fake it. The experience of being black in Madison is something I can’t replicate. I can’t fake that. I can’t understand it. We need to have those voices that do understand it, who’ve been there.”

I ran for Council President with a proactive agenda to move our city forward and so that we can begin to address the racial disparities that we face,” Cheeks said. “This is a critical moment in time for our city, and I will continue to advocate and raise these issues on the city council.”

Whether or not race was overtly a factor in the leadership election, the fact that an African American was denied the presidency matters to local leaders.

“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 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 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.”

Behind Closed Doors

Ald. Shiva Bidar
Ald. Shiva Bidar

“Who knew so much was going on at City Hall behind closed doors?” asked Alder Shiva Bidar, rhetorically, weeks after the vote.

Interviews with several Common Council members and Soglin construct a timeline of events that brought a long-boiling feud to a head and resulted in that wild night of ballot after ballot after ballot.

DeMarb said she and Cheeks had discussed the idea of staying on as president and pro tem months earlier, but she finally decided to seek election to a second term in mid-April.

“It was assumed by some people that Maurice would be the next president,” she said, since the pro tem usually runs unopposed for president. “There were times when I assumed it. I was asked to seek re-election. This isn’t something I came up with by myself. Several people approached me for their own reasons.”

She said she spoke with Cheeks on April 14. Cheeks initially indicated that he was comfortable seeking a second term as pro tem. DeMarb then spoke to Rummel, who had already been in line to seek the pro tem position.

Several alders said they were comfortable with DeMarb’s decision to stay on as president for a second year.

“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, introduced by Clear and Ald. David Ahrens on March 16, 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.”

Cheeks changed his mind, he said, over that weekend and spoke to DeMarb on Sunday, April 17, three days after DeMarb had informed him she planned to seek a second term.

At the end of the day, I decided to run for Council President because too often in our city, in our state, and in our country, young black leaders are told to step aside and wait their turn,” he said. “Madison has serious problems that we are wrestling with today. I wasn’t going to wait, because our problems aren’t going to wait. I got into the race to lead.”

Verveer decided to step in at the urging of several Common Council colleagues who were apparently having a hard time deciding between DeMarb and Cheeks.

Common Council President Mike Verveer
Common Council President Mike Verveer

In the couple decades I’ve been in City Council, it’s unheard of to have the two sitting members of leadership to run against one another,” he said. “I was thinking sincerely that I wasn’t going to accept my name being nominated. This was not a strategy on my part. I did not intend to be president. But when I had so many colleagues approach me and frankly pressure me, I was encouraged to run. On the spur of the moment I did not object when my name was placed in the nomination, and gave a speech that more or less told people not to vote for me.”

Cheeks himself doesn’t avoid blame in the fallout.

“What could have happened differently is that Cheeks, after two or three ballots, when it became clear that he wouldn’t have had the votes, he could have withdrawn his name,” said Clear. “He didn’t do that,” holding the door open for Verveer.

But even all of that isn’t quite the whole story.

Mayor’s Intervention

timeline (1)Mayor Soglin acknowledges that he encouraged both Verveer and Alder Larry Palm to run for Council president. He said he only did so when it was clear that DeMarb was seeking a second term.

Soglin said it was DeMarb’s decision to seek re-election on April 14 that prompted him to call Verveer and Palm to recruit a different candidate for president, noting that he was comfortable with Cheeks taking the top spot.

“Initially it was Alderman Cheeks running for Council president and Alderwoman Rummell running for pro tem,” Soglin said. “Then Cheeks and DeMarb get together and decide no, DeMarb would stay on. The two of them made an agreement. That’s where this whole thing came apart. That was their decision. At that juncture, I asked Palm and Verveer if they would consider running. This last year with DeMarb as president has been very, very difficult. We’re just not on the same page on so many areas. Particularly in regards to her role in the change of relationship between the council and the mayor, and the way it was done.”

But the timeline suggests that he may have been interested in keeping Cheeks out of the top spot as well.

Soglin didn’t say why, for example, he sought out alternative candidates rather than simply lobbying alders to support Cheeks against DeMarb.

And according to Verveer, Soglin’s first outreach to recruit a new candidate for president came when Cheeks was the only declared candidate.

Palm said the mayor called to encourage him to consider running for president on April 13 or 14.

However, Verveer said the mayor called him much earlier, when Cheeks was still the only declared candidate.

“It is true that the mayor asked me to consider running for president several weeks before the election,” said Verveer. “He only asked me like twice or three times, but then he laid off and took ‘no’ for an answer. My recollection (of the initial call) is late March, early April.”

That puts Soglin’s call to Verveer at least several days, or as much as three weeks, before DeMarb decided to seek a second term.

“Given that the mayor didn’t know (at the time he called Verveer), and neither did I, he must have been recruiting Mike to run against Mo,” said Demarb. “That’s crazy,” she said, for Soglin to assert that he recruited Verveer to run against her, not Cheeks. “Unbelievable.”

Soglin stressed that he only encouraged Verveer and Palm to run, and they both said no — which both Verveer and Palm confirmed.

“My conversation with the mayor had little influence on my ultimate decision to accept a nomination for president,” Verveer said. “It was my many Council colleagues that convinced me. Not the Mayor.”

Still, even making the call to encourage a run for the presidency irks some alders.

“I think it’s inappropriate,” said DeMarb.

“I think it really speaks to the importance of the separation of the branches of government. It’s concerning,” said Bidar. “Council leadership is about representing the council’s will, not the executive branch’s preference.”

This was an unprecedented move that Mayor Soglin must answer for,” said Cheeks.

Soglin defended his intervention.

If there’s a council member who thinks mayors don’t have an opinion about council leadership, they’ve been smoking some bad weed. Let’s get real here,” he said.

“Clearly, mayors have had preferences, but to intervene?” said Bidar. “Making a phone call to ask someone to run for president is a whole other level than just having a preference.”

Two former Madison mayors said they did not intervene in Council elections. Joe Sensenbrenner, who served from 1983-1989 and was defeated by Soglin, “had opinions but kept out of Council recruitment and advocacy.”

Dave Cieslewicz, also defeated by Soglin in 2011 after two terms, said, “We took a very hands off approach, believing that it was the Council’s business and any mayoral involvement would just backfire.”

Still, it doesn’t seem as unprecedented as Cheeks might think, at least within Soglin’s term, according to the recollections of former Alder and Council president Chris Schmidt. He was elected to the council in 2009, during Cieslewicz’s second term.

“The tone was set when I got in (in 2009) that the mayor doesn’t touch the leadership election,” he said. “That changed with Soglin. We suspected every year that he was trying to encourage certain alders to run. Every year that I was involved in (leadership elections), there were rumors that he did it and varying levels of evidence that he did it. He was involved in these races.”

Schmidt, who stepped down in January of this year, understands where the mayor’s impulse to get involved comes from.

“On the charitable side, he’s got to work with them, so obviously he wants people he can work with,” Schmidt said.

“No bridge to be built”

In any case, the flap has highlighted significant strains between the mayor and council.

Schmidt said the government reform proposal put forward by Clear and Ahrens — which DeMarb and Cheeks are said to support — “opened up the war that’s been brewing for years.”

“The bottom line is this,” said Soglin. “There is a group out there that’s centered around what I call ‘the secret six.’ Years ago, Alderman Verveer made the observation that there was a group of council members who never gave me a chance when I came back into office in 2011. They’re trying to sabotage anything I do. And yes, I’ve got an opinion about a council president. I’d like to find a council president who’s going to give me a chance and work with me. I’m not looking for someone who agrees with me all the time.”

Verveer has been described as the “unity candidate,” and expressed a desire to build bridges between factions on the council as well as between the council and the mayor.

“I wish him luck,” said DeMarb. “No, I’m not convinced. I hope it’s possible. That would be great.”

“That’s what we are all hoping for,” said Bidar of a desire to reunify the Council. “Both Verveer and Rummell have stated that that’s what they want to do. They want to move forward, and that’s what we all want.”

The relationship with the mayor is another story. “There’s no bridge there to be built,” said Bidar. “That’s my opinion. I’m now focused on the work we have to do as a Council.”

Cheeks said the rift is a symptom of a nationwide issue.

“Many people in our community are feeling embattled by the current state of intergovernmental relations,” he said. “It’s certainly true at the national level and the state level. And unfortunately it’s becoming increasingly the case at the local level.”

Meanwhile, he said he continues to look ahead.

“Purpose is far more important in this work than power,” he said. “I think far too many elected officials forget purpose. To learn that others may have been playing politics, whether for their own ego or any other reason, is disappointing. That’s not how I operate. It’s not what our constituents expect of us. It’s not what our constituents need from us.”