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Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Madison: Political party town

By Sam Eifling
Great Outdoor Games staff — July 8, 2004

MADISON, Wis. — Allen Ruff recalls the last time he had a run-in with ESPN. It was in the winter before the first Gulf War, and an anti-war march he was in drifted near the Wisconsin Badgers' basketball arena, where ESPN was televising a game.

"I just remember this guy in the ESPN trailer, and the cable's coming out and going up a wall into the field house through this window," Ruff says. "And this (protester) is pulling on the cable. Suddenly a head comes out of a window in the field house and another head comes out of the trailer and says, 'Hey, what the hell's going on here?'"

The plug was pulled, and the broadcast went black for a few moments. The Great Outdoor Games can expect a warmer reception this week when it descends on Madison, a city with a sporting tradition steeped in mighty Badgers and a political tradition built on badgering the mighty.

Ruff is the event planner for the Rainbow Bookstore Co-operative, an alternative bookseller less than a block off State Street, the main drag that connects the two defining poles of this city of 218,000.

At one end is Wisconsin's Capitol building, which at more than 284 feet is about three feet shorter than the U.S. Capitol. At the other end of State is the University of Wisconsin, alma mater to more than 340,000 living alumni, including political heavies Dick Cheney and Tommy Thompson. It's one of the finest state universities in the country, and currently in the top four universities nationwide for parties, beer, hard liquor and "reefer madness," according to the Princeton Review.

This is, in short, a political party town, fittingly named for a president. It's also a famously hospitable city — Money magazine in 1998 ranked Madison the country's best place to live — and a hotbed for rabble-rousers, radicals and revolutionaries.

The Progressive, a left-leaning muckraking mag, is still publishing here, 90 years after it advocated staying out of World War I. Three years ago the satirical weekly The Onion moved its editorial headquarters to Manhattan, an indication of how far the paper had grown from its days as an underground paper at the university.

Chris Farley, the corpulent comedian who overdosed on coke and morphine six years ago, is buried here, one mile from his old high school.

The Great Outdoor Games were ready for Madison. The city is 80 times bigger than Lake Placid, N.Y., the lovely mountain hamlet that had to loosen its belt three notches when the games came to town. Reno, Nev., was big enough to handle the event but felt like the Australian Outback with slot machines.

A wet spring has left the bucolic, corn-filled countryside around Madison lush and lusty green. The downtown, smeared along an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona, is practically surrounded by natural water and forest. Even as the wind battered the shore of Lake Mendota beside the university student union, windsurfers and sailors braved the 69-degree water that battered the bobbing ducks.

This feels like the great outdoors, connected to city life. Rare is the place where sport, nature and politics converge, and rare is a city 600 miles from the nearest ocean so worldly. At lunchtime on Wednesday, a clerk at a RadioShack near the Capitol was asked for a lunch recommendation. Anything unusual or noteworthy.

"You're in the right place," he said. "Mexican, Greek, Japanese, Hindu, Afghani, Nepalese &"

Madison owes its identity largely to liberal campus movements in the 1950s and 60s that mirrored those in Cambridge, Mass., Berkeley, Calif., and elsewhere, said Ruff, who finished his doctorate at the university in 1987 and who has published a social history on Dane County.

"The city hasn't succumbed to that overall conservative mood," Ruff said. "It's still a liberal town, with all the positive and negative that that connotes."

Ruff, perhaps naturally, also throws some credit for the city's active politics to Madison's co-operatives — grocery stores, pharmacies, housing units, the radio station WORT — that create a base for activism, as well as feeding "political culture by osmosis." Theater, poetry, alternative radio and jazz all thrive here. Ruff recalled a time some years ago, seeing a woman walking through the downtown with a young child explaining that the business on the street were indeed stores — they're just not in malls.

"They must be feral," Ruff said of such stores.

Actually the shops are different from what you'd find in most malls. Nearly all the coffee houses tout their policies of paying fair wages to Latin American coffee farmers, including Steep & Brew, which claims to be the first coffee shop in the country certified by Transfair, an American fair trade non-profit. Young clerks with tattoos and piercings fill the music stores, which carry such obscure bands as Scrotum Grinder and Man & or Astroman? Second-hand clothing stores abound. Anyone seeking tiki-head shot glasses or books of cabdriver wisdom can check out Pop Deluxe, a shop right out of New York's East Village.

Of course, it's still Wisconsin, which means brats, cheese and beer.

"Wisconsin's pretty big on drinking beer," said Adam Bents, a cashier at the Badger Liquor on State, adding that "anyone over the age of 40 pretty much drinks brandy old fashioneds."

At least near the campus, young people still make Madison what it is. Ryan Lewis, 19, stood on the sidewalk with clipboards in hand, a few feet away from a mohawked man playing hacky sack. Lewis, a Madison native, works for the New Voters Project, which he said has registered 5,000 people in the city.

"Madison has such a good, positive vibe for the Midwest," he said. "I know it's really liberal and everything like that, but it's so comfortable. You can come down here during the day, read a book and just people-watch."

Lewis turned back to registering strangers to vote. He approached a young woman on a bicycle with an automatic bubble-blowing machine behind its seat. She said she was already registered, chatted a minute, then pedaled down the street, leaving a cloud of bubbles to drift in the lake-aided winds.