Three-term incumbent wants to continue forwarding progressive agenda
Marsha A. Rummel has been Alder of Madison’s Sixth District since 2007, and in that time she has seen lots of change.
Before being elected she had been active in the Marquette Neighborhood Association (MNA), serving for a time as President, and was interested in such issues as urban planning and affordable housing.
With a week to go before the election Willy Street Blog talked with Marsha Rummel about city planning, economic development, homelessness, her challenger Scott Thornton, and why she was briefly banned from a restaurant earlier this month.
Rummel, 56, helped found the Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative 1989. The progressive-minded (left of center) store provides books and resources to social movements as well as textbooks to the University of Wisconsin.
Even before she assumed the leadership of MNA, Marsha Rummel became deeply involved in City planning efforts, mostly centered around the East Rail Corridor and that interest continues today as she has helped shepherd several efforts to develop Union Corners, Central Park and the Don Miller Properties on East Washington Avenue.
We asked both candidates a series of questions about some of the events and issues that are important to District 6 residents. To provide a longer look at how the candidates feel about the issues, their answers are unedited save for minor syntax and redundancy. We should also note that Rummel’s challenger Scott Thornton was asked the same or very similar questions. His responses can be seen here.
Why are you running for re-election?
I’ve served now three terms. I really enjoy serving neighbors and my colleagues on the Council as a member of City committees and serving with citizens who volunteer and residents in general to work on issues facing our city. I think I do a really good job at listening and moving forward a progressive agenda. I think my solid representation for our district has really helped our city keep its reputation as cool, interesting place. And make sure progressive values are saved and are always shared and on the table. So I think to be re-elected, I think I know the City government, how to serve on a governing body and make decisions. How to engage citizens, and stake holders and residents in all the decisions that affect them and I would be excited to serve another term.
Both you and your opponent are wired-in pretty tightly to the area and appear to have similar viewpoints on many of the issues or the direction our neighborhoods should take. You both have received endorsements from organizations, community leaders and office holders that generally align with the priorities of District 6 residents. What are a few reasons that the voters should have a clear choice in this district?
I’ve [had] six years of on the ground experience as a progressive Alder representing issues [sic] engaging citizens on both a local and city-wide level. I think I have a great record of accomplishment. In some ways an election is like a hiring, I believe I’ve done a really good job and I think I should be re-elected. I will continue to serve to the best of my ability and continue to engage residents and talk about the issues that are important like: affordable housing, environmental quality, poverty, how the schools are and many many more issues.
Scott Thornton, in his interview with Willy Street Blog, says the reason he is running is that the District “needs more effective leadership”, calling you an “ineffective Alder” and “just not willing to take a position” on issues. Thornton also said that you were slow in communicating with residents and those wishing to do business in the neighborhood.
How do you respond to those criticisms of your policy positions and communication?
I respond to emails and phone calls I write newsletters, I email notices about meetings for the neighborhood and meetings of interest to the neighborhood before the city. This is a part time job, I have a full-time job and also have a full array of committees I serve on. It sometimes takes me longer to get back to people and I always apologize but I always do respond.
I think the point about decision making is kind of silly. I’ve been an Alder for six years. I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of decisions from largest to the smallest and to the extent that, you know I’ve taken positions on Overture, Edgewater, Iota Court, and Block 100 to name the big city-wide issues. I’ve worked on the downtown plan; I’ve engaged neighbors in the zoning code rewrite. I’ve made lots of decisions and sometimes people don’t always agree with those decisions so I accept that. I don’t believe you can always make people happy.
I believe I’m an effective leader and I believe I represent generally the interests, and vision and passion of our District well. It’s a very smart engaged series of neighborhoods and their always want the best practices and always pushing for that and I’ve pushed too. I believe that I’ve done a good job and I did do my best.
Is the fact you got banned from New Orleans Take-Out a validation of your willingness to take policy positions? What was your first thought when you heard about the ban?
I was really sad when I got the email from John Roussos and he has subsequently un-banned me which makes me very happy. He was very concerned with the proposals for improvements to North Sherman Avenue. Honestly, every single person at the Council meeting that night voted for those improvements.
Because we know as a council because we’ve been through these discussions and planning processes before that this is the kind of road that we’re building now it’s a multi-modal road. We’re gonna do our best to make sure there is no harm done to that local business district and work with business owners to make sure we can help to mitigate any issues.
I think there’s fear because you have something and you don’t know what the new thing will be like and that’s understandable. I think it was pretty clear that we should vote for these improvements; there’s engineering, traffic engineering studies, and just sort of nationwide looks at how we build roads…this is our public space and so we want as many people and vehicle types to really use it.
I’m very hopeful in the end those businesses will go, ‘Oh that wasn’t so bad’ or hopefully even maybe it helps in some way. That will have the future to show us. I was really thrilled that he un-banned me because I really like the food and I enjoy talking to him and his staff and he’s great and his food is great.
In our last interview you dubbed yourself as a “planning geek”. Central Park, Union Corners, and now Block 800 of East Washington Avenue are all projects you have had a deep involvement-in. In what way do these projects benefit the neighborhood that you feel warrants a large portion of your time?
I think they’ve benefitted incredibly through the attention of myself over almost a decade. When I was in the Marquette Neighborhood Association (MNA) and I was MNA President I got really involved from early on before I even got appointed for any committee I started meetings about the East Rail Corridor Plan Advisory Committee and then eventually as I became president of the neighborhood association I was appointed to a series of committees. The first thing we did was look at Central Park.
Various things have slowed that down including high speed rail which sort of sidelined us for some time. We’re back on track and this year we’ll start first construction of the Great Lawn. Eventually that will be constructed and then we’ll have a facility for three festivals a year and just sort of more casual uses. It will eventually be some kind of outdoor theater, [a] place for music or performances or whatever we want do.
We engaged a Public Artist named Lorna Jordan to help us to sort of vision what could be an arts approach to our park. We managed to get an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant and she got an award for the work that she did. I was the one that promoted an artist and I think we are all gonna be thrilled when we see that dream come true with that park.
On the bigger picture I think one thing that I was instrumental in was creating a land-banking policy through the Friends of Union Corners which I’d been involved in a group of neighborhood and other non-profit housing developers and stakeholders we sort of come up with ideas that maybe would could land bank Union Corners. About the same time others in the City came to similar conclusions and Alder Mark Clear brought it to Mayor (Dave) Cieslewicz who then agreed and we offered to purchase both Union Corners and the Don Miller properties to land bank.
I think that’s been really successful, especially Union Corners we’re almost ready to introduce the proposal for Gorman (Gorman & Associates) to purchase the property; last I heard work with UW Health Clinic to put a clinic there. They also were very attentive to all our neighborhood planning efforts through Friends of Union Corners and SASYNA (Schenk Atwood Starkweather Yahara Neighborhood Association)…to talk about the transitions between East Washington and the adjacent neighborhoods. So they stepped down the housing and kinda more fine grain scale and it was totally embraced by all the neighbors. I think my efforts have made it a win-win for Union Corners to get the best possible project.
Also my involvement in the Capitol East District. I’ve been thinking about this district or a long long time. How do we take an old railroad corridor, only sort of an industrial corridor which we have long since, don’t really have much industry other than MG&E (Madison Gas & Electric). How do we revision that corridor as a jobs center and how do we green it up, there’s a lot of underground storage tanks and other types of pollution; it’s so close to our water table, how do we green it as kind of as a model for taking these old corridors and revitalizing them.
I think with land banking and just this prolonged study with consultants we’ve really sort of positioned this corridor to be where its at now where we have The Constellation going up on the 700 block on the north side of the avenue (East Washington Avenue) an entirely new residential structure, and now we’re faced with three really good proposals for the 800 block north which they all include a grocery store which was something we learned with the last iteration for [the] 800 block was a real incredible interest in a grocery store. So now we’ll get a grocery store.
Did you participate in the crafting of the Capitol East Gateway plan? Based on the projects going on now; is the plan producing the intended results?
Yes I think so. We’ve learned some lessons or I’ve learned some lessons. In a recession or a post-recession depending on how you define it; it’s hard to build office buildings. The timing is really specific so you have a potential tenant and they have to be big enough to help convince a bank that you have a winner on hand to help pay for the thing. Their window has to fit your window for building and it’s complicated.
We’re seeing the housing all over the central city really take off. We have a really low vacancy rate, like two percent so it’s hard to find apartments, let alone affordable apartments. I think this will continue for a while, this incredible demand for rental housing. We’re probably going to benefit from that in the central core getting more people who live downtown and on the near East Side who then will help shop our neighborhood business districts and the grocery stores and all the other places.
And they all want to come here because we are kinda a funky, cool, edgy neighborhood and I try to do my best that we represent that in our planning as well as defend that in our policies.
Since your last election District 6 gained the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood. What have you learned about this area and what its needs?
The new part of the District goes along from Milwaukee Street from East Washington all the way to Fair Oaks Avenue; and from Fair Oaks up to kind of the edges of Starkweather Creek and the railroad where it hooks into the town of Blooming Grove I guess.
Worthington Park is more of a low-income working-class neighborhood. It’s sort of been landlocked by the frontage road of East Washington. [The] McDonald’s is next door a couple of other properties that are pretty much underutilized and so we now have an opportunity to do more planning there with an eye to creating more connectivity and places for things to happen in.
Unlike some of the other neighborhoods of District 6, there are some people that are involved but it’s harder to have the capacity when you’re working second shift job or childcare needs or all these other issues. Mayor Soglin (Paul Soglin) when he came to office, he repurposed the Neighborhood Resource Teams. Instead of the NRTs being geographically based he made them neighborhood based so the challenged neighborhoods he focused on so Worthington Park he focused on.
So there is a whole array of City staff that have been meeting regularly: police, building inspection, parks…planning, lots of people to figure out ways to bring services and build capacity of those neighborhoods. There’s a really fabulous woman at Goodman Community Center, Tina Gibbons who is specializing just in working with residents of East Point; help them get as parents get skills, share the skills they have, get skills they need, to talk to them about their issues, get them involved in programs at Goodman Center and make sure there’s a way to get there. I think there is a lot going on and I think part of it is listening and find the thing they need and help them get that.
What are its strengths?
There’s assets they have. There’s jobs nearby. There’s the Department of Corrections (State of Wisconsin), Worthington Park is a beautiful park and there’s a way to help get people involved in improving the park. Some of the neighborhood leaders include Will Green of Mentoring Positives and he’s worked with a lot of young kids and young men especially to through the Off the Block Salsa Club and sort of learn entrepreneurial skills through ubran agricultural initiatives.
The Salvation Army, they want to relocate their shelter that is downtown on the 600 block [of East Washington] to this site (Salvation Army Community Center) on Darbo Drive. So we’re gonna need to be working with them to figure out how do we make the facility so that it benefits the neighbors as well as the people getting services. There are a lot of strengths there; there’s a lot of hard working people that care about their kids and families and we just need to just make sure we find a way to get everybody talking together.
The police-involved shooting of Paul Heenan is still being processed by the neighborhood and maybe even the Madison Police Department. What do you think neighborhood residents have reacted most strongly to; the details of the incident or the police response or something else?
I think it’s a couple of things. You not really expect somebody to end up dead because they went to the wrong house and they were intoxicated. There’s just a basic shock that this happened at all and that in 15 seconds a young man with so much potential and so beloved among his friends and colleagues could just have his life ended by a snap decision of an Officer (Madison Police) who has been exonerated for what he’d done but at some point the shock of that is just still reverberating.
So many people say, ‘Well what if he’d done this or why didn’t he do that’, I mean all these second-guesses which is understandable but at some point how do we make sure we don’t have this happen again. So to the extent that maybe we have an outside review process in addition to the way we have it set up now, I think that’s one step forward.
The question is what happens to Officer Heimsness (Stephen Heimsness). So he’s been cleared of a criminal liability but there’s still this question about…whether he’s best suited for this job…carrying a gun in our neighborhoods. I know that there’s neighbors that have gone around to other neighborhood associations and talked about whether they want this Officer patrolling their neighborhood.
We have a great policing model of community oriented policing, but how do we make sure that we’re taking care of the officers because at some point you’ve kill somebody and its tragic for the Officer too and his friends and colleagues and his family. It’s a lot of hurt all around. We want to avoid that and we want to figure out the best way so we can mitigate that and repair the harm its been done to everyone.
I’ve been working with a great group of people who have been involved with restorative justice and they helped me organize that big neighborhood meeting with the Police and the DA’s Office (Dane County District Attorney) and we had a panel format…we got to ask all those questions and everyone asked, ‘How come you didn’t use a taser’ and ‘How can we do this better in the future’.
I know the Mayor and the Chief (Noble Wray) are definitely wanna make sure we do things right and I’ve had many conversations with Chief Wray. At some point this Officer is still involved in internal investigations and when those are resolved…and I think that is coming soon, we’ll have more information about his future, and then we’ll see how we can move forward to help repair the damage that is done.
There has been a police investigation, the local District Attorney has investigated, and the US Attorney is investigating; are there any additional steps you would like to see?
At some point if we had another set of eyes on it; I understand how that’s a real desire for the friends of Paulie Heenan; I’m not convinced, given our policies and procedures, there would be a different outcome. We definitely need to make sure that we have an additional set of eyes and a process so that the Police are not reviewing themselves.
Now you can say that we have a great professional police force, they are capable of doing a job like this and other departments and jurisdictions have us help them. But there is just that question well you’re reviewing yourself and you’re clearing yourself.
Having that additional set of eyes helps restore confidence and that people are review their work. I’m not trying to be dismissive of what the Police do but there are some that are really skeptical of this so I really think we need to address this and have a review process that means that there…will be more experts and professional that will look at it.
The Willy street area and Atwood Avenue are thriving and continue to grow in statue and verve. How should these neighborhoods evolve in the future economically and culturally?
I think we’ve seen the evolution on Willy Street. When I moved in the early 80s it was considered kind of sketchy, there was some shootings there, it was much closeted as considered to now, although in the early 80s there was already this sort of pioneering effort of some people to go and kinda reclaim the housing, fix it up, take it away from student oriented housing.
With those younger, or now middle age and now older people comes some more wealth and with wealth come people who want to serve you. We’ve seen the growth of restaurants and really kind of cool little shops and I think everybody welcomes that. The question is does that work its way down Atwood Avenue and there’s are a lot more commercial vacancies on Atwood.
With Atwood there is gonna be a future reconstruction and so in advance of that try to engage a public participation process of residents and business owners to look at how to make it the best street we can that will serve everybody. Both neighborhoods are already home to a lot of artists and arts professionals and so obviously it will enhance our neighborhood as an arts destination in all the ways we can.
They will be adding public art and making spaces for galleries and affordable housing and commercial rents for people who want to be able to do art because it’s not necessarily a high-end vocation. Even changes in our zoning code which allow more live-work opportunities is one way we work towards making that a benefit for our neighborhood.
Other than East Washington Avenue, Darbo-Worthington doesn’t really have an accessible centralized commercial throughway like the Marquette and Atwood neighborhoods have. How do you create a similar vibe there? Do they need that?
They do have a centralized commercial throughway and that is East Washington, so how do we work with making those little strip malls, where are the opportunities for residents of Darbo to create businesses and be entrepreneurs so that they see themselves reflected in their neighborhood, I think that’s the big question.
With the McDonald’s closing and the demolition of what was called the Long John Silver’s building and those businesses that used to be on a frontage road that are now kinda cut-off. Is there a way to re-vision that roadway that goes out to the Department of Corrections so that you could have more neighborhood-serving businesses there.
I think what we already do have like the East Side Shopping Mall and the next strip mall down, those are already built so make sure we get neighborhood-serving businesses there, make sure those property owners know the kind of business the people would like to see there. And again, like I said, opportunities for African Americans, people of color to see themselves as business owners would be a huge plus.
The most glaring example of environmental issues in the District is Madison-Kipp; do you feel the company has been up front and in compliance with DNR directives regarding the contamination?
I think that they have been in compliance for a number of years but it was a quiet compliance between the regulator and the regulated. With this year and a half ago awareness of the vapors coming through people’s houses it became a more public oversight and review process and I think that has been really important.
It took a new staff person in charge of the Kipp project to start looking at impacts beyond the Kipp property itself and that’s how we learned more about what’s going on. I credit the DNR with helping us get to this point where we see how this spill has sort of spread. Right now Kipp is about to install a water sentinel…on the other side (south) of Atwood to test the water to make sure there is nothing is headed toward Well 8 and our drinking water sources.
It’s the history of our industrial legacy that we used these products that we didn’t understand and they spilled or they leaked or they were buried underground or whatever it was and all over the country we are dealing with these stories of trying to remediate the land. I think we’re part of a bigger story about our industrial legacy and how do we make sure we take care of the soil and the water and the air and we’re doing that.
I think neighbors are still wanting to make sure we have a public review that we know the extent of the contamination and…that we have a community review process and I think I’ve been really good at helping make sure that happens.
What is another pressing environmental need in the neighborhood that people maybe don’t think about?
The most pressing environmental need is take care of our ground water. At some point we’ve gone through this East Side water study where we looked at the future demand and what have capacity now and also where can we drill more wells. What we’re run into is there’s these sources of contamination all over and we’re now resolving to technical solutions like filters and other things and that costs a lot of money, but we really need to do that.
Some of our systems are 100 years old, a lot of people are now complaining about their water bills because they are going up, but that’s because we are re-investing in our infrastructure and making sure we keep quality groundwater for people. We may have plenty of water resources but getting to it safely is our big question.
The cutting of a lot of the services in the Parks highlighted the overall funding crunch between the Overture center, Parks, and other priorities in the city. How were you involved in the process of keeping the parks funded, and the Overture center when there’s also priorities about and homelessness and schools in the City?
There’s a lot of needs that we have and want to spend money on as a city and there all important. What I find is that the parks are one of those things that you take for granted until they’re not taken care of or something gets taken away. I know Alders are attuned to those concerns and will always defend parks.
We’re faced with less services for our parks so maybe they don’t get mowed as much and then maybe there’s areas that we all agree that could be not mowed. So we’re always under the gun as far as not enough money for parks and I think that one’s going to continue.
So in our world there’s Friends of Orton Park, there’s Friends of the Yahara Park way and there’s Friends of Starkweather Creek and all through the City there’s these friends groups and they are so crucial to the success and maintenance of our parks.
At Hudson Beach for example where I managed finally to improve the beach so it’s safe there was a whole friends group and some of them do prairie burning because there are historic effigy mounds so that trees don’t grow through them and they occasionally do those and you have to be certified to do those. If we make sure we communicate all the needs so that people that who are interested can help us take care of parks I think that’s really important.
Housing, or even Police services at the neighborhood or citywide scale, those come out of our operating budget. We always want to make sure we have adequate services but we can’t afford everything. There’s cities that are going bankrupt around the country and we’ve been pretty secure and safe party because we’re mostly pretty conservative in budgeting and…have a workforce that’s stable and more or less well-paid.
As we grow and there is more diversity in our population…people are moving here and that…we want to grow and we want to be vital and we want to make sure that neighborhoods are safe and generally speaking our neighborhoods are safe and there are maybe pockets where there not and so at those locations we really need to engage so the community policing comes in and the neighbors kinda working with the police to keep their eyes on the street to get to know each other and their kids and provide stuff for people to do.
Homeless is a big big issue, I think part of that comes out of the recession…a whole number of reasons why people are homeless. Since I’ve been elected there’s have been homeless people living in their cars in District 6 but I think it’s grown in the last year and a half where people are living in our parks, along our greenways, and not only Occupy (Occupy Madison) and the kind of political end but there’s so many people…living in their vehicles all over the place. It’s kind of distressing because…there’s a two percent vacancy rate in apartments let alone an incredible shortage of affordable housing.
In the last two years we’ve seen a real lack of City planning and attention to housing for a number of reasons..and I wish the Mayor had stepped up sooner to this. There’s a lot of things we need to do and dot together so we leverage the resources we have.
I think we really need as a City, Council, Mayor and our city planning efforts to do the best we can to make sure we address housing issues in all school districts that understand the link between quality housing and good schools and that we make sure that kids who are in poverty have the opportunity to have good housing because studies have shown that stable housing and stable neighborhoods is key factor of success.
One of the things about Inclusionary Zoning that was so intriguing was the notion that we create mixed diverse income groups and neighborhoods so that all those kids go to schools and then the working class and poor children will do better…I think we really need to make sure we continue to make sure neighborhoods are diverse in terms of income and race and ethnicity so that we have the best outcomes for our kids.
What is one fun thing that you like to do constituents may not know about you?
Today I went to the Flea Market at the Barrymore, apparently it’s the 18th one they have had. And I really like looking for funky old vintage art or photos, old housewares, post cards are my favorite things. So at some point I decided one of the better ways to be a good environmentalist is to recycle old kitchen stuff, so bowls and plates and silverware; even pots and pans, find older things and reuse them and try to find the best deal I can. It was fun.
There has been a fair amount of discussion amongst District 6 residents regarding petty crime in the neighborhood including break-ins, muggings, and the occasional assault. How does the District compare historically? Is there a problem or do we really need to just remember to lock-up our possessions?
I think overall District 6 is safe but there has been an uptick in burglaries and so we should all be mindful that people will try and take your stuff so lock up your bikes, garage, car, lock your doors. Make sure you protect your possessions, make sure they are identified.
The Police can’t be everywhere and no amount of extra patrols is gonna necessarily prevent this; its ourselves looking out for each other and I think that’s what the near East Side is known for.
The City is still fighting the closure of rail crossings at Livingston and Brearly Streets. In District 6 where cars are just part of the transportation fabric, what approach should be taken for future transportation projects through the District?
We’re on a narrow isthmus so we’re constrained by people who live here and are getting home and are going about our daily lives as well as getting through us to other places. I think to the extent we have worked hard over a decade with the reconstruction of East Washington Avenue [and] Willy (Williamson) Street, looking at our bike paths, I’ve asked (City) staff for a list of improvements for the Capital City Bike Trail that will help prioritize bike commuters going through that passage way to the extent where its reasonable and safe to promote bicycles over cars.
So the signalized intersections [along the Capital City Trail] such as Patterson Street or Baldwin Street or Ingersoll Street, bikes would have to stop. But at some of the other ones if it’s safe and with enough signage you think that they should be able to just keep going. I’m looking at the whole corridor to improve bike safety. And the real thing; is one of those issues that have been so long with us and I know so many people would love to see commuter rail or inner city rail.
So Wisconsin Southern would like to increase their freight traffic through our city and since the high price of gasoline there has been more demand for freight as a way to move goods and products through our country and they would like to improve the railroad tracks so that they can go faster and they would also like to eliminate what they see as extra unneeded crossings.
I opposed the closings of the three streets that they asked State for and so did the City. Ultimately the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads Jeff Plale recently this past year ruled to close two of them. The City is fighting that second addition because the hearing examiner suggested we just close Livingston but Plale added Brearly. The City is taking that to court and we are working through that.
The reason why that is not a good idea is again we’re are on a narrow isthmus and there’s a grid and we need the extent possible protect that grid, it allows circulation especially in the corridor we’re trying to grow businesses just even across the isthmus and throughout the City we wanna make sure we have an effective transportation system that serves all and that railroads don’t get to trump everybody else.
What else would you like to add?
Wow, there is so much that we haven’t covered. One of the things I’ve really learned about is land use and how to build a city. We live downtown and we know what it’s like to have a walkable neighborhood with the services that we like including restaurants, banks, and day care centers and all the good stuff. One [of the] things I’ve been doing as a person whose as involved in a lot of land use committees just making sure when we grow our city at the edge that we’re creating this kind of compact diverse neighborhoods that have the opportunity to have a serving business district.
Also just the way we build our city as far as the transportation network…we need more density, wherever we can. Sub-divisions are single family and sometimes that’s the only way you can build them; but at some point on in the transition areas and on the edges of those we need to add more people so that we can have public transit and build that infrastructure so that you don’t need a car to live in our city.
Related: District 6 Candidate Q & A: Scott Thornton
Related: Audio: District 6 Candidate Forum
Forum newswrap filed for WORT-FM‘s In Our Back Yard