The most significant mayoral campaign of the decade almost didn’t happen.
Mayor Ivan Nestingen lead the Kennedy for President Club during the successful Wisconsin primary campaign in 1960, and chaired the state delegation to the national convention, so everyone assumed he’d get a job in the new administration. But when two months pass after the election without any word from the president-elect, Nestingen turns to running for reelection.[i]
Looks like a cakewalk. The thirty-nine-year-old attorney, first elected in a special election in 1956, elected to a full two-year term in 1957 by a 3–1 margin and reelected without opposition in 1959, again has no declared opposition when he announces for reelection on January 13.[ii]
But two weeks later, just six days before the filing deadline, while he’s still unopposed, an appointment as Kennedy’s Undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare comes, and Nestingen goes.[iii]
The council names retiring city attorney Harold Hanson as acting mayor, and the city settles in for a pitched battle between two highly qualified candidates with very different agendas: Henry E. Reynolds, fifty-five, former alderman and council president, founding vice chair of the anti–Monona Terrace Citizens’ Realistic Auditorium Association and president of his family’s trucking company, and Robert “Bob” Nuckles, forty-three, Nestingen’s administrative assistant, also a former alderman. Reynolds is also a director of Madison General Hospital and the Madison Bus Company; before joining Nestingen, Nuckels was an engineer with Oscar Mayer & Co. and Ray-O-Vac.[iv]
Although Reynolds resigns from the anti-Monona Terrace group in early February, the Frank Lloyd Wright auditorium is clearly the campaign’s dominant issue. But not the only one. Reynolds calls the Monona Causeway a priority; Nuckles does not. Nuckles would continue the city’s aggressive annexation policy; Reynolds would not. And Reynolds vows explicitly to curtail the considerable City Hall influence of the liberal, pro-Terrace Capital Times. They do agree on some things—both would build a new central library and an east side hospital.[v]
For the first time in a Madison mayoral election, a candidate’s residence becomes a campaign issue. Reynolds insists he lives at 616 E. Mifflin St., where his widowed grandmother started what became Reynolds Transfer and Storage as livery stable and hauling firm in 1888. But he also has the family home and 200 acres on the north shore of Lake Mendota in the town of Westport, where he had summered every year as a child, and which appears to be his primary residence. The Capital Times bestows the sobriquet “Squire of Westport” on Reynolds, and Nuckles hits the issue hard, but they can’t overcome Reynolds’ broad and deep community ties and solid reputation.[vi]
On election day, April 4, Nuckles carries the east side but Reynolds wins big on the high-turnout west side, and carries the south side thanks to area alderman and labor leader Harold Babe Rohr, who supports Reynolds because they both oppose Monona Terrace. Reynolds wins by 7 percent, about twenty five hundred votes.[vii]
The Wisconsin State Journal editorially exults, while the Capital Times bemoans the elections’ implications for Monona Terrace.[viii]
Reynolds lists eight “immediate goals” in his inaugural message, including auditorium/civic center, a new central library, advancing the Monona Causeway, improving streets and covering all open storm water ditches. Among the long-range issues: improving the municipal airport and providing housing for “people in the low-income groups,” displaced by urban renewal. “A policy which takes to heart the welfare of these people must be established,” he tells the council. Reynolds also resigns from the board of the bus company, as he did when he served on the council.[ix]
In May, Nuckles returns to Oscar Mayer & Co. as a project engineer in the general machine development department.
If Nestingen had stayed, Madison would have had as its mayor a liberal ally of the president and the Democratic governor; instead, we had a conservative opponent who served throughout the New Frontier and the first year of the Great Society.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For the award-winning WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
[i] “Mayor Still Has No Official Word on U.S. Position,” WSJ, January 13, 1961.
[ii] “Nestingen Puts His Nomination Papers into Circulation,” CT, January 13, 1961.
[iii] Stanley Williams, “Nestingen Named as Top Cabinet Aide,” WSJ, January 27, 1961.
[iv] “Know Your Madisonian—Robert Nuckles,” WSJ, November 27, 1960; “Federal Post to Nestingen,” CT, January 13, 1961; Williams, “Reynolds Makes Race for Mayor,” WSJ, January 28, 1961; Williams, “Hanson Elected Interim Mayor on Unanimous Vote of Council,” WSJ, February 4, 1961; “Bus Fare Boost Recalls Reynolds’ Role on Board,” CT, March 22, 1961; “Campaign for Mayor Sharpest in Long Time,” WSJ, April 2, 1961.
[v] Mack Hoffman, “Reynolds Says He Won’t Campaign on Anti-Center Plank,” CT, January 28, 1961; “Reynolds Stresses Four Issues as He Announces His Platform,” WSJ, February 5, 1961; “Reynolds ‘Quits’ Foes of Terrace,” CT, February 8, 1961; “Reynolds Urges Fast Go-Ahead on Monona Bay Causeway Work,” WSJ, March 15, 1961; “Nuckles Charges Reynolds Is Playing Politics with Causeway,” CT, March 15, 1961; “Reynolds Hits Nuckles, Times, for Bypassing Mayor, Council,” WSJ, March 25, 1961; Gordon, “Annex Policy, Tavern Site Stir New Debate,” WSJ, March 28, 1961; “Nuckles and Reynolds Give Views on Campaign,” CT, April 1, 1961; “Mayor Candidates List Their Goals,” WSJ, April 2, 1961.
[vi] “Does Reynolds Live in City? Westport ‘Cottage’ Is Cited,” CT, February 1, 1961; Young Adults for Reynolds Committee, WSJ, March 28, 1961; https://www.reynoldstransfer.com/; “Reynolds Costs Top Nuckles’ by $1,929,” WSJ, April 12, 1961.
[vii] David Gordon, “City Elects Reynolds by 2,600-Vote Edge,” WSJ, April 5, 1961; Herbert Marcus, “Stay-Homes Elect Reynolds,” CT, April 5, 1961; “Nuckles Takes Engineer Post with Oscar Mayer Co.,” CT, May 9, 1961.
[viii] Editorial, “Madison Picks Henry Reynolds,” WSJ, April 5, 1961; Editorial, “Madison Looks Backward—Backward to Cowbarn,” CT, April 5, 1961.
[ix] “Reynolds Sworn, Sets Eight Goals,” CT, April 18, 1961; “Reynolds Leaves Bus Firm Board,” CT, April 20, 1961.