Can We Talk?

Dialogue is needed to move our city forward

On a Friday in late February, the day before the largest crowd to that point gathered at the state Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, I joined editor Brennan Nardi at the Edgewater Hotel for a strategic planning session called by the Clean Lakes Alliance. Brennan will fill you in on the details in the months to come, but for the purpose of this column I simply want to focus on the experience of listening to a dozen or so scientists, researchers, professors and environmentalists consider a complex list of sometimes competing goals and action steps toward a shared vision for a common good—the health of the Yahara chain of lakes.

I contrasted that to the chaos reverberating through the halls of the building just blocks to the south. And I wonder how it is we have come to this place in our country where the dialogue of the lakes discussion is the exception, and the politics of our state government is the rule.

First of all, as I have written in this space previously, I have mixed feelings about labor unions. A lot of people do. But you and I both know this debate has about as much to do with collective bargaining as it is does the price of walnuts. This debate is about power, in a country where the difference between those with power and those without is growing and is exacerbated by fear, anger, alienation, envy and greed.

We hear a lot that America is divided. America has been divided most of its existence. Immigrants and natives, east and west, north and south, black and white, Gettysburg, Selma and Vietnam. All of those divisions have been painful. But in every instance, in our government and more widely among the citizens, there were those who sought the common good to the benefit of all. That has disappeared.

I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails since the budget repair bill was introduced and dozens of phone calls and voice messages and through the passion and emotion comes one clear message: Agree with me, and agree with me completely, or you are completely wrong. Any search for middle ground is met with disdain from both sides. There are two sides to this story—us and them. Are you kidding me? There are a hundred sides to this story; thoughtful, nuanced opinions on fairness, equality, justice, civility, compassion, freedom and democracy. But the option chosen by our elected leaders is refusal to negotiate. Why would citizens act differently?

On New Year’s day, Madison was excited about the year ahead, the potential recovery from the recession, new development and growth, big plans and visions, jobs, tax revenues, investments and entrepreneurism. Six weeks later it was all gone. I have respect and admiration for those folks on all sides of this issue who have gone down to the Capitol to join the fray. The peacefulness yet purposefulness of the first few weeks in particular was an exercise in citizenship that was both warranted and probably needed. But the action of our state government—a refusal to negotiate—was both a lack of respect for the citizens and an incitement to continued polarization. And it has further sowed anxiety, uncertainty, fear and distrust. We will get past this.

I trust the citizens of Wisconsin and I especially trust the citizens of this great city. But I don’t like that as a result of narrow political ideologies we are wasting time on gaining or maintaining political power instead of supporting a fragile recovery and investing in a robust future. “We’re broke” is not an answer. It’s one part of a complex puzzle that has been put together before by leaders whose mission was serving the people, not preserving their re-elections at any cost.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at

Find more For the Record columns here.

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