Prominent alumni in politics reflect on time at UW-Madison
As election season approaches, students across campus are joining political organizations, promoting candidates on social media and registering to vote with the hopes that their efforts can make a difference.
The UW experience of former mayor of Madison Dave Cieslewicz, a 1983 UW-Madison graduate, shows how cyclical student political involvement can be.
“In 1979 Paul Soglin had just left office for the first time, and I was disappointed that he stopped being mayor just before I arrived,” Cieslewicz said. “It never occurred to me that two decades later I'd run against him for mayor.”
Like Cieslewicz, many prominent alumni in politics first got involved while on campus.
Mark Graul graduated in 1992 and went on to be the state director in Wisconsin for former President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004.
“Being in Madison, at the center of political activity in the state, gave me lots of opportunities to get involved in the political process,” Graul said. “I would not have been politically engaged had I not gone to the University of Wisconsin.”
Participation in student organizations sparked the political careers of several alumni, including Graul, who was involved with College Republicans, and former District 8 alderman and mayoral candidate Scott Resnick, who was in College Democrats.
Resnick, a 2009 graduate, said his participation in organizations as a student continues to shape his career.
“Many friends that I still keep today, I met through College Democrats,” Resnick said. “It was those kinds of interactions that led to see the value of local politics and the importance of personal interactions.”
Graul stated although campus groups tended to be liberal, the political climate was never discouraging for conservatives.
“Obviously at the university there’s some left-leaning students and faculty, but there were plenty of us conservatives on campus,” Graul said. “Even if we saw things we disagreed with, at least we were involved in the process, and I think that’s one of the great things about going to Wisconsin.”
For others, personal political engagement stemmed from the city’s activism.
“At the time there were enormous concerns about the Vietnam War, and I had strong objections to it, so I participated in protesting the war,” said former U.S. Senator and 1975 graduate Russ Feingold. “It was an era when a number of movements were in their early stages, so it was a very exciting time to be on the campus.”
For some alumni, however, schoolwork took priority over politics.
Ann Walsh Bradley, state supreme court justice and 1976 graduate of UW-Madison Law School, said law school was incredibly time-consuming.
“I had to support myself through law school, so I always had a job, which didn’t leave a lot of time for extracurricular activities,” Bradley said.
Feingold stressed that students should not overly prioritize involvement in campus organizations over the college experience.
“I also focused a lot on my school work and, frankly, having a good time, so I didn’t run for office, I didn’t run for student government,” Feingold said. “I was enjoying being at Madison.”
Regardless of how students get involved, however, Cieslewicz said he believes attending UW-Madison can change students for the better.
“The UW shaped me in ways that are hard to measure. I was a little unfocused, which is not necessarily uncommon among UW students,” Cieslewicz said. “I graduated without a job and with a small student loan to repay, but I knew where I wanted to be if not who I wanted to be. That would come later.”
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