Memo to a Madison hater

Dear Congressman Duffy:

Consider this a good-natured rebuke to your recent disparaging comments about Madison, or as you no doubt call it, the People’s Republic of Madison. The rebuke is mild only because Madison Mayor Paul Soglin was wrong to call you a moron in response to your controversial comment suggesting that Madison basically is a commune of comrades.

Ignorant would have been a more precise word for Mayor Soglin to use because to label this hotbed of entrepreneurism a communist enclave shows just how much you know about your home state’s capital city. If Madison is red, it’s because of the cardinal red of Bucky Badger, not because it’s Moscow on Lake Mendota and Monona. No Bolshevik.

As someone who is not a resident of Madison but has worked here for 15 years, allow me to straighten you out. My motivation is not only to defend the community I’ve come to know, but to discourage you and others who should know better from further dividing a state and country that’s divided enough already. That doesn’t bode well if we need to come together after another national crisis such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and since you’re one of 535 members of Congress you have an obligation to conduct yourself in a civil manner, even while criticizing.

Your comments are illustrative of an unfortunate tendency that’s contributing to this division, and that’s assigning the worst characterizations to people you disagree with. Both sides do this and it needs to stop because pejorative putdowns are meant to stifle debate, not engage in it. Besides that, it’s rhetorically lazy. If you look around we all want pretty much the same things, but we have different ways of getting there. I understand that you’re angry about the recount of votes cast in the presidential election, but in lashing out at Madison you not only chose the wrong culprit — Jill Stein — you revealed an unfortunate divisive streak.

For your information, Madison is a lot of things and most of them are pretty impressive. Having covered the local business community here since 2000, I can testify that Madison has a business community chocked full of expertise and excellence, with an endless reservoir of philanthropic sentiment. Local executives have an abundance of nonprofits to support, and for the sake of their workforce they do so with a generous spirit of community building. They also give their workers paid time off to support the worthy cause of their choice because they know how meaningful that is to their workers.

That’s communal, not communistic.

As someone who has attended his share of business conferences here, most of them at University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Business facilities, I can assure you that free-market capitalism here is alive and well and practiced with a passion. Perhaps what sets Madison executives and community leaders apart is they strive to spread the benefits of a free-market system to a broader range of folks. When they realize they’ve fallen short of their own ideal, they try to remedy that by promoting workforce diversity and inclusion. With an assist from economic development organizations like MadREP that’s beginning to happen, and I hope other communities and regions follow suit.

What’s more, there are many admirable people here. I’d like to introduce you to people like the United Way’s Keetra Burnette and countless others who are demonstrating their concern about police-involved shootings by connecting people of color in this community with local law enforcement agencies to develop ways to prevent any more of these tragedies from occurring. They don’t get the same attention as professional athletes who won’t stand for the national anthem, but you should know about their devotion to problem solving.

That’s communal, not communistic.



I’d also like to introduce you to Dr. Floyd Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison, who is working to ensure that young African-American men have access to successful male mentors who can point them in the right direction, and to people like Kaleem Caire, founder and CEO of One City Early Learning Centers, who is dedicated to making sure economically disadvantaged kids have learned to read by the time their formal schooling begins.  

Again, that’s communal, not communistic.

I would also like to introduce you to Scott Resnick, the driving force behind StartingBlock Madison, which is part of an effort to build a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem. Let me repeat that phrase — entrepreneurial ecosystem — because Madison is developing an entrepreneurial vitality in which any person with a great idea, access to capital (there’s that word again), and boundless energy can be part of. As a result, it’s building on the momentum created by prominent companies like Epic and attracting young professionals from outside Wisconsin’s borders at a greater rate than most areas of the state.

Perhaps some of your distain for Madison is related to recent campus craziness, including some unfortunate episodes at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It does concern me when people can’t express a range of opinions on campus without others shouting them down — diversity should also include divergent points of view — and the reports about safe zones on college campuses make me wonder whether universities are still places of intellectual rigor inside and outside the classroom. If not, we would lose something extremely valuable.

But don’t forget the many valuable things about our university and university system, especially the good work it does to promote economic development throughout Wisconsin, including your own congressional district, with small business development centers. That’s the idea — the Wisconsin Idea.

There’s a lot more I could say, but I hope that’s enough of an education to make you reconsider your recent remarks and apologize for them. I can personally recommend some great Madison restaurants, entertainment venues, and watering holes, so consider this a personal invitation to visit (or revisit) Madison and see what it has to offer.

Of course, you might have to wear a disguise.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.