Madison’s first, and most consequential, mayoral election of the sixties almost didn’t happen. But when it did, it changed the course of Madison government and ended the effort to build Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace auditorium and convention center.
In 1960, Madison Mayor Ivan Nestingen chaired Sen. John F. Kennedy’s campaign during the Wisconsin primary – which Kennedy won — and lead 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, who was unopposed for his reelected to a third term in 1959, again has no declared opposition when he announces for reelection on January 13.[ii] And he’s got a great political victory in sight – Monona Terrace construction had just gone out to bid.
That’s when Kennedy named him Undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and he resigned.
With just six days before the filing deadline, Madison quickly gets a clear choice – Nestingen’s administrative assistant, Bob Nuckles, a liberal running to finish building Monona Terrace, or transfer and storage company president Henry Reynolds, a conservative running to kill it.
Monona Terrace is clearly the campaign’s dominant issue, but not the only one. Reynolds calls the proposed 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.[iii]
Then the construction bids come in high, and on election day, April 4, Reynolds cruises to a 7 percent, twenty-five hundred vote victory.
The new mayor begins his assault on Monona Terrace right away, and in April 1962 voters approve a referendum formally abandoning the Law Park site Wright wanted. A seismic change from a single appointment.
Having beaten Nestingen’s top aide, Reynolds is challenged in 1963 by Nestingen’s most significant citizen appointee — east side attorney and land developer Albert McGinnis, who has chaired the city’s urban renewal agency, the Madison Redevelopment Authority, since its creation in 1958.[iv]
Reynolds campaigns on the progress he’s made on a new downtown library, parking ramps, and the causeway, and notes he’s so frugal that he never hired even the one administrative assistant he could have. And he’s got big plans, to expand the municipal airport and for the city to buy wetlands in the Cherokee marsh for conservation and recreation.[v]
McGinnis, making his first bid for elective office, hits Reynolds for the city’s growing debt, and his very rocky relations with the council. He says the mayor is moving too fast on the Monona Causeway and too slow on annexations.
Their differences are real, but the campaign is relatively genteel – until McGinnis tops Reynolds by 731 votes in the March 5 primary. That’s when Reynolds goes on the attack.
McGinnis should have known urban renewal would become a campaign issue– especially the MRA’s failure to provide affordable replacement housing for residents whose homes the MRA started tearing down in January 1962. A week after the primary it does, as Reynolds levels a blistering attack on McGinnis which confirms the widespread public criticism of the MRA.[vi]
Reynolds rightly attacks an MRA report from 1959 which stated there was adequate and affordable replacement housing. “The report,” Reynolds says, “was so fantastically inaccurate that anyone who had done a fair job of research would know immediately that it did not reflect the Madison situation,” he says.
Although the report was written by city staff, Reynolds holds citizen member McGinnis personally responsible. “A great deal of needless human suffering arose out of the hasty and ill-planned removal of people from the Triangle Renewal project and reflects the bungling of my opponent,” Reynolds asserts. “Due to the speed with which the authority went ahead, the problem grew worse.”[vii]
MRA member Ald. Harold Rohr, vital to Reynolds’s 1961 election but now backing McGinnis, blasts the comments as “uncalled-for and irresponsible. If he’s got something to say, he should come here and say it.”
Voters have their say on election Day April second. McGinnis carries the east and south sides, but Reynolds’ support in the Vilas, University Heights, and Nakoma neighborhoods carries him to a 1300-vote victory, about half his 1961 margin.[viii]
The election night bond news is uniformly good for Reynolds, as voters approve all five referenda. Four issues worth $7 million—for the University Avenue expansion, storm sewers, airport improvements, and an addition for the vocational school—pass overwhelmingly; the $1 million bond to start construction of the Monona Causeway carries by a much closer margin.[ix]
Days later, McGinnis resigns from the MRA—just one week before his five-year term expires. He does not go quietly. “As a result of your own failure to make yourself aware of and be informed” of the MRA’s activities, he writes Reynolds, “you have placed the redevelopment authority in an apparent emergency situation.” McGinnis suggests that Reynolds start reading the MRA reports and “avoid pushing the panic button or otherwise smear a project carried on as a mandate of the people, with council approval, by non-paid citizen members.”[x]
Rohr, whom the NAACP and Unitarians had tried to have removed from the MRA in 1961 due to his racial attitudes, also resigns, blasting Reynolds for playing “campaign politics” with the authority.[xi]
Reynolds blunts any political damage, however, with his appointment of the widely respected, just retired school superintendent Philip Falk, who is quickly elected chair.[xii]
But although Reynolds’ attack on the MRA ends with the campaign, its impact lingers, and helps validate opposition to urban renewal. That opposition grows big enough it gets a referendum on the 1964 ballot to abolish the MRA and end urban renewal. So exactly one year after attacking the MRA to win re-election, Reynolds has to campaign extensively to save it.
His rescue effort is successful – barely. With 36,665 votes cast in April, 1964, the MRA and urban renewal survive by 367 votes.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the sixties. For your award-wining hand-washing social distancing 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] 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.
[iv] “Ald. McCormick Pressed to Run in Mayor Race,” CT, September 28, 1962; “Atty. Albert J. McGinnis Is Candidate for Mayor,” CT, November 10, 1962; “McGinnis Announces Candidacy for Mayor,” WSJ, November 11, 1962; “City Ring Has 2, Awaits More Hats,” WSJ, December 10, 1962; “Ex-Ald. Hutchison Weighs Entry in Race for Mayor,” WSJ, December 19, 1962; “Bert Hutchison Takes out Papers for Mayor’s Race,” CT, December 19, 1962; “Otto Festge Is Seriously Considering Mayor’s Race,” December 28, 1962; Gordon, “With Carley Out, Festge Seen Entering Mayor Race,” WSJ, December 29, 1962; Irvin Kreisman, “Festge Will Not Seek Mayor Post in April,” CT, January 14, 1963.
[v] “Mayor Says City Finances Are in Sound Condition,” CT, February 28, 1963; “Mayor Criticizes McGinnis on Three Issues in Campaign,” WSJ, March 19, 1963; “Mayor Hits McGinnis on City School Issue,” WSJ, March 28, 1963; “Mayor Deplores McGinnis’ Use of Word ‘Smear,’” WSJ, March 29, 1963.
[vi] Marcus, “Mayor Says McGinnis ‘Bungled’ on Renewal,” CT, March 12, 1963; “Mayor Hits McGinnis for Renewal Problem,” WSJ, March 13, 1963; editorial, “McGinnis Bungles Public Housing,” WSJ, March 13, 1963; Marcus, “Reynolds Smears McGinnis in Letter to City Teachers,” CT, March 25, 1963; Gordon, “Reynolds, McGinnis Vie to End,” WSJ, March 31, 1963.
[vii] “Mayor Hits McGinnis for Renewal Problem,” WSJ, March 13, 1963; Herbert Marcus, “Mayor Says McGinnis ‘Bungled’ on Renewal,” CT, March 13, 1963.
[viii] Gordon, “Mayor Reynolds Wins,” WSJ, April 3, 1963; “Mayor in Close Victory,” CT, April 3, 1963.
[ix] “All Five Bond Issues Given City Support,” WSJ, April 3, 1963; “Vote $8 Million City Debt,” CT, April 3, 1963.
[x] Marcus, “McGinnis Quits MRA Job,” CT, April 8, 1963; Gordon, “McGinnis Leaves MRA with a Blast at Mayor,” WSJ, April 9, 1963; editorial, “McGinnis’ Resignation from MRA Provides an Opportunity,” CT, April 10, 1963.
[xi] Marcus, “Rohr Follows McGinnis out of Post with MRA,” CT, April 9, 1963; “Ald. Rohr Also Leaves MRA; Urges End to Renewal Study,” WSJ, April 10, 1963.
[xii] “Falk Named to MRA; Forster on Police Unit,” WSJ, April 17, 1963; MRA minutes, April 18, 1963; Gordon, “Falk Elected New Chairman of MRA,” WSJ, April 19, 1963; “Falk Elected Chairman of Redevelopment Authority,” CT, April 19, 1963.