Max Prestigiacomo’s tumultuous year on the Madison Common Council

Interview by Karl Locher

The now-former District 8 Alder reflects on his time in office.

This story was produced in partnership with Red Madison/Tone Madison

Following a year of protests against police violence, the Spring 2021 elections were a mixed fortune for leftists on the Madison Common Council. Two of the most vocal members of the Council’s left flank departed: District 8 Alder Max Prestigiacomo, who stepped aside to make way for Juliana Bennett’s successful run for the seat, and District 18 Alder Rebecca Kemble, who lost her re-election bid to challenger Charles Myadze. 

Prestigiacomo had a brief but memorable tenure on the Common Council. He was sworn in in April 2020 to serve the remainder of former Alder Avra Reddy’s term. At the time he took office, the Madison native was a freshman at UW-Madison with a background in youth climate activism. Over the following year he showed an uncommon willingness to criticize fellow Alders and the Council as a whole, took the lead on an unsuccessful attempt to bar the Madison Police Department from using tear gas, and criticized UW-Madison administrators’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prestigiacomo talked with me recently about the challenges of balancing movement building and mental health in office, as well as the challenges of getting city government to acknowledge the complexity of harms in our community. (Note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.)

Karl Locher  

Could you talk about how you decided to run for Alder, to start with?

Max Prestigiacomo  

Yes, I feel like my understanding of why I ran probably changed a little bit. I would say that, for me, the specific reason I ran was because I considered myself a socialist, a leftist. Completely ignoring the broader political context of how successful leftism can be in electoralism, I saw that District 8 specifically… we have this unique district, that’s just students. Everyone’s always like, “it’s the radical district.” And that was not true. In fact, it was probably the farthest from it. We probably had neoliberal representation for 10, 15 years. The last leftist that we had, I would say, and I confirmed this, was Austin King [who represented the district from 2003 to 2007]. Still, I wouldn’t even consider him the abolitionists that I think like, Juliana, Brandi Grayson, or some other people are. 

But yeah, I ran because I saw that I had privilege in having grown up in Madison, and knowing all the right people and lots of people in relationships that I had formed. And you know, it was a one-year term, I thought it was a perfect opportunity for someone like me to go in and shift the dynamics in District 8, so that we actually had a guaranteed leftist seat. And I didn’t really care about my reputation or whatever they would call it. That was it for me, was that there was a severe lack in representation for communities that are always plowed over by UW administration, city council leadership, the mayor, state, whatever it is.

Karl Locher  

What was the political landscape like going into your term?

Max Prestigiacomo 

So obviously, I’m coming in halfway through… I’ll just be honest, and I feel like I need to make the point more to talk about how I have made mistakes. Like I said, I was learning everything. I was trying to be as deliberate as possible to, like, actually reduce harm. On the other side, I’m continuously learning things. And I’m blindsided probably every other week by something I didn’t know about…no one really took it upon themselves to mentor me the way I would have appreciated. It was a difficult time to come on, with everything that happened. And I think that Rebecca] and [District 15 Alder] Grant [Foster] served as good anchors for me to ground myself in some moral center.  

Karl Locher

I wonder if you’d be willing to expand on that a little bit. It sounds like there might be mistakes in the sense of, week-to-week or every-other-week you’re blindsided by something. But thinking back a little bit, what were some of the things that you felt like, in your approach to the office, you would have done differently?

Max Prestigiacomo  

Oh, gosh, I think, obviously, the elephant in the room is that there are just so many procedures, background understanding, all the moving parts that, like, even [longtime DIstrict 4 Alder] Mike Verveer still doesn’t understand. There’s an ongoing joke that only Mike Verveer and [former District 5 Alder] Shiva Bidar would understand how to actually make amendments to the capital budget. In that sense, I’ve just learned so much since then, that if I went back, I probably would have used parliamentary procedure differently. I would have known when the city attorneys were cheating me out of getting something on the agenda. [They were] lying to me and putting me at a disadvantage. I think I really appreciate that I’ve had the experience, even if it was just one year and I never went into a city building because it’s all remote. There are times where I feel like I’ve gotten caught up in focusing on a problem—that the movement in the street supports—but then there’s always so many moving parts, just to understand something, to get it done. 

And then obviously, I’m also a student. I do have to do my schoolwork and burnout is real. So I think probably the one thing I would have gone back and changed would be my own mental health, like how I approached working. Because I feel like I did burn out quite quickly because of the workload of COVID and just everything. There’s lots of different mistakes. I’ll call them mistakes because I feel like politicians are always lying [and] saying they don’t make mistakes—vulnerable obviously isn’t something politicians like to be.

Karl Locher 

Whether it’s COVID or not, if you’re working full time and you’re trying to be on city council—it is a full time job to be an alder—you have to figure out how you can take care of yourself while also doing that job.

Max Prestigiacomo  

Yeah. And that was something also no one really talked about with me. Obviously, I knew it. As an activist and organizer I knew how important mental health and all that stuff was. But it’s so stripped of personality sometimes, the whole process, and it’s a little bit scary at times. I can admit that. It’s a big thing.

Karl Locher 

Yeah, it’s as though it doesn’t look like mental health in the moment, it looks like just more work that you have to get done and a feeling that you should be able to get the work done. And you can doubt yourself when setting a boundary on that, like, “Do I just not know how to work hard enough?”

Max Prestigiacomo  

Yeah, oh for real.

Karl Locher  

You decided to not run for re-election and I wonder what motivated your decision.

Max Prestigiacomo  

It’s my duty, like in the movement as a whole, to mentor and train someone. I tried to communicate that as well to some of my colleagues, some of them obviously ran again. I think, obviously, having Rebecca run was something I ended up supporting because of her opponent. But, in a lot of other cases, [District 2 Alder] Patrick Heck, white alders decided to run again, even though they were preaching equity. So I also felt like it was a little bit hypocritical to have me even pursue that route. And it just says something that it dawned upon me, but no one else.  

Karl Locher  

There were two people who were running in District 8 who both supported defunding the police, and really seemed to shift the politics of the district. Did this election reflect changes in the politics of students at UW?

Max Prestigiacomo  

I almost feel like this constituency has always been there. But obviously activating that takes a candidate [people will want to vote for]. Maybe these people aren’t, ideology-wise, saying “I’m a socialist,” but they are, in terms of the broader sense, like, “Fuck the system.” We’ve all been manipulated by it as young people. I want people in there that’ll shake some things up. 

Karl Locher  

Is there an opportunity for something different to come out of electoral politics for students in Madison? You mentioned that Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison’s student government body, has changed in the last year, certainly the alder seat has changed. And yet a lot of students vote absentee in someplace other than Madison. So there’s relatively low turnout in Madison elections for students in District 8.  Do you think that in the future, electoral politics in District 8 is going to look different at all?

Max Prestigiacomo  

I think we’ve got our foot in the door. [Low engagement has] obviously been something that’s been in my brain. It’s so much bigger, unfortunately. Like just how young people are raised in schools and how we’re so often dismissed as not being smart enough to have a valued opinion. And that even manifests in the District 8 alder seat. Like, obviously, we have a guaranteed spot for young people. And like I think a lot of politicians have accepted that. Whereas other cities, you wouldn’t have that. They would be like, “Oh, a young person on the county board? No, we need experienced people.” Here, I think that we’ve accepted that in some sense, but every person on the council has their own idea of like, what I should be, or what should the District 8 Alder be in their own definition. There’s all these systemic issues pushing back. 

I’m obviously not leaving campus. I’m still in ASM. As we start to build more coalitions and student power, I think we will start to see reduced harm for communities on campus that have just been left out at every step of the way. But in another sense, I think we have something very unique. I am always talking about how we need self-determination for communities. It’s absurd that, like I just said, white people are having opinions on what impacts the black community. I really do think that District 8, what’s happening on campus, can serve as a model for how the Common Council moves forward as a whole. I think that the District 8 Alder seat is a perfect example of how we can have guaranteed representation for communities. Obviously, not every community lives in one physical space. But right now we have that. And we seem like… when there is a voting bloc like that, we can guarantee ourselves a young person at the table. 

Obviously, it hasn’t benefited everyone. But we have such great bus service, like in certain areas, like we want to have free bus pass for all students, so you can negotiate with the city. And there’s lots of other examples where we’ve gotten some concessions here and there. But obviously, those are benefits for mostly affluent, privileged people, because there are worse problems that are impacting people on campus. If we want to get somewhere in terms of the dynamics between students on campus and all that, we’ll need some systemic push from, you know, whatever power it be. But I just think that we do have a great opportunity to show the city how this has been working, and how we plan to push forward. 

Someone like Juliana isn’t going to be quiet, is going to be unapologetic about speaking truth to people like the mayor and some of her colleagues. And so far I’ve seen some really great stuff. She’s ready to go to bat for us.

Karl Locher   

Are there things where you look at the last year and feel like either they were successes or things that you were proud of? 

Max Prestigiacomo  

Yeah, I do think that, overall, I was able to contribute in certain ways. I was proud that we were able to pass something as simple as banning facial recognition, which is why—I didn’t realize part of me was like, why am I doing this? Why was this not done before? You know, it’s a lot of that stuff. I think I was very focused on the campus community coalition and all of that stuff. We helped put together a neighbor association. [UW administrators] do not like it when elected officials come to talk to them. And they were not used to the District 8 Alder specifically speaking up. All my predecessors, they all told me, like, “We don’t really talk about UW, it doesn’t really involve us.” But I have a campus platform, so I use that. 

I just learned so much about how personal relationships—just relationships as a whole—how that is the process, that is the system. Like how as an Alder, like having to have a relationship with my colleague will influence me in some way. And a lot of times that means it becomes about my own personal uncomfortability or comfortability. So yeah, I think the proudest thing for me is, I was able to kind of put together and map out how uncomfortable votes, what could happen, and how that should play out. We need to be thinking [about] uncomfortable votes, even if that means white people, privileged people sacrificing their definition of safety. Because the other thing I’ve seen too often is how the system… likely, you know, usually the police… will create excuses, that will very likely seem legitimate to everyone on the council. Even if they’re not experts on the topic, they would be like, “Oh, we’re gonna have this much shooting, we’re predicting this much increase in crime if this many cops are taken away.” I’m just so thankful that I had the opportunity to witness that. And now I won’t be wasting time like I was before talking about things that I feel like didn’t really have an input. 

Karl Locher  

Talking about the nature of influence: In city politics, there’s a lot of that which is interconnected between the Alders and the relationships with each other. Outside of the Council itself, I’m curious what you see as being the most influential political or community groups or interest groups. Who seemed to have the greatest influence on the politics of the Council?

Max Prestigiacomo  

I get asked iterations of that question…and I don’t know if I have a perfect answer, but I think that is a combination of—I’m just gonna label it. I’m gonna label it “property.” Technically everyone is on equal footing when you are emailing or testifying. But I think there’s this skew on the Council, that there is higher value in places like the East Towne Mall, when we’re having a discussion on the homeless shelter. Or like campus neighborhood associations, which are usually run—obviously a privilege, you have to be privileged to get involved, like that’s a non-starter—run by those types of people. Usually, overvaluing NIMBYism and undervaluing the other side—which isn’t even there! Like, unhoused people aren’t coming to testify. There is no opposite to that. Obviously, we are having  people, activists, movements come and testify. But a lot of times too, the most impacted people are not there. 

So I just think that property at the end of the day always wins out…businesses bring jobs and jobs are human lives. You know, that kind of stuff. Property value means businesses will want to come here and provide good jobs. I’ve rarely heard people say, “screw all that.” What brings people here is quality of life and having housing for all and all that stuff and, you know, abolishing the police so that we actually have street medics and CAHOOTS.  

Karl Locher  

Your thinking is that it’s not necessarily one core set of groups, but there’s such an ingrained attitude.  For example, you’re talking about the way the police would say, “Well, if we cut this many positions, crime will go up by such and such an amount.” And when you’re talking about predicting the future, it’s completely an assumption. 

Max Prestigiacomo  

Oh, yeah. Arbitrary.

Karl Locher  

It’s just a guess. And the same thing happens with jobs. We assume that “better” businesses will bring “better” jobs. What’s not articulated is that “better,” means that mostly White people will come to town. And so that way of thinking about it, and people’s self-interest in wanting to maintain the property they have, is really the sort of influence that is hard to break.

Max Prestigiacomo  

It is. It takes more than just one or two Alders. We tried, though.

Karl Locher  

So where does that leave leftists? You’re doing movement building through the office.  For example, giving resources and knowledge so that people can continue it on. But what do you think leftists in Madison—whether in District 8 or otherwise—what do we need to be doing to make bigger changes?

Max Prestigiacomo  

Yeah, um, got me with that question. I mean, one thing for me is—I mean, I just talked about it—we have all these leftists that want to support someone who they believe in, who they believe will change the system. I just can’t figure it out. I still haven’t. 

I’m from the west side. A lot of west-side leftist youth were able to elect this former student, recent graduate, to the Middleton Cross Plains school board [Simrnjit Seerha]. And the biggest issue was SROs. And we got her elected. And they were endorsed by the Working Families Party. So we thought we really had a good leftist anchor, at least over where there was no leftist at all. I just point to this because it’s a very recent example. The last meeting, which was last week, this person voted to renew the SRO contract. And so, I am constantly seeing examples of that.

I’ll just be honest, I think that federal electoralism, state electoralism [is a] lost cause. I’ve always just believed that the important decisions should happen at the local level. I mean, I talked about self-determination for communities. I think we’ve seen examples of how this is the way to go ahead, especially with our climate deadline. And I just think that District 8 is for me, like my focus for now. Because I think that’ll probably lead me somewhere to an understanding of how we can get another district in. 

I think that groups like DSA, any leftist organization, whatever you want to call yourself, the small district coalitions, community building, hopefully can lead us somewhere. Especially because I, like so many other people, hate electoralism… you know, it is really frustrating. So, hopefully, Juliana too will be another person that joined me and, you know, she’s obviously learning a lot, too. And we do have a few other people. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with [newly elected District 10 Alder] Yannette [Figueroa Cole] on the Common Council. So you know, there’s some hope there. I won’t say I have zero hope.

Karl Locher  

You were talking about this earlier on, about the impact of being an Alder on your own mental health. After being an alder for one year, what’s changed for you as a person? 

Max Prestigiacomo  

Yeah. So I mean, I alluded to it, but I’ve really realized the importance of relationships, just in non-political spaces as well… I think when I came into elected office, I was like, “I’m not going to talk to people who are pro-cop.” Like, I was just like, “I’m going to tell them to shut the fuck up and leave me alone.” 

I think I’ve in some ways figured out how to navigate that, as someone who is a person, a human, a part of the community, not a perfect person. And sometimes engaging with people that disagree with me. Which I obviously did, but I don’t think I’ve had enough time to actually cultivate relationships. And I do think that there is a possibility. I’ve seen it happen. I think maybe I was able to do it sometimes, but convincing some of these swing votes. Like for leftists—especially for leftists, with lived experience—which I obviously didn’t have at some times, I do think that that’s something that can be done. Obviously, I don’t like the idea of having politicians that are not for the people. But if we can elect people that can actually engage in some of these relationships without letting that relationship hold them back, it’s really powerful. 

Karl Locher  

What should be the focus of attention for city politics? How should we try and influence them?

Max Prestigiacomo  

Yeah, obviously the big one I will always say, the first step for everyone should be our focus, at least right now: mutual aid. And it’s likely that once we start seeing more climate disasters, that’ll also be another huge need. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have many, like, citizen-led mechanisms, like a petition to get a referendum on the ballot or something like that thanks to state law.

Recognizing that electoralism does kind of exist outside of reality at times, if we have opportunities like District 8, like District 4, and District 2, Nada [Elmikashfi]’s campaign [for State Senate District 26 in 2020] is a great example too, just going all in on like, all the accessibility and digital stuff and adapting to the new mediums. Run young people, and get young people on your campaigns, because they will win elections. And it’s annoying, because a lot of these neoliberal alders take campus leaders and be like, “You’re my campaign manager.” And I’m always annoyed that they took time from these young people who could have been put into some other leftist campaign. But I do think that we have some new tools that can help, especially with people waking up. Affluent, white privileged people waking up to the reality that so many people have faced for so long. So I hope that once more young people are entering in this really scary time, you know, we don’t know if they will be entering anything, but jobs, whatever it be, community organizations, that we get more background that can, you know, aid… digital stuff, all that stuff can really help.

Karl Locher  

Any other thoughts that you have, as you’re leaving your time on the Common Council?

Max Prestigiacomo  

I’ve just been thinking about this a lot too, while we’re talking. Just the power dynamics of it all? And how myself—I, Max Prestagiacomo – am a part of the problem. I think it’s—no one understands it. [Mayor] Satya [Rhodes-Conway], especially, we saw over the summer. 

I am a leader in the city, or sorry, I was a leader in the city. But like that is something that, like, we hold all the cards. The balance has always tipped in our favor. I will always continuously benefit from it. I can be a part of the solution, but I can also contribute to the problem at the same time. And just that is something that I’m so surprised that, like, no one understood it. They just kind of see it as very rigid, like yes or no, binary. I support you or I don’t. And I wish that was talked about more. That we can have people like me who can be a part of the problem. And that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m cancelled. Like, you know, people automatically take that as “I can’t be vulnerable.” Like I said, politicians aren’t vulnerable. It’s just a huge thing.  Everyone has a difficult time admitting they were wrong. I think that’s one side of it. 

And I would say it’s hard to admit now, when protests are on the streets. I recognize that. I had to go through that myself. But it needs to be done. And then I think on the other side of it is… you know, we have a city that… we have contracts with Porchlight, and some of these other groups that help unhoused people. [At] the same time, we are taking people out of parks. Right? Actually, I feel like a better example would probably be with police… maybe a police officer did like help someone… but that Matt Kenny is still on the force. And can you think about… what goes through someone’s mind when they know that Matt Kenny is on the force training people? 

So I don’t know why it is that difficult sometimes. It wasn’t for me, maybe I could have done a better job admitting that I was part of the problem, and be open about that. Maybe it would have helped them change their minds. But I think that’s what I meant by the rigid view is that it has to be either or. And I think that they have an uncomfortable time reckoning with that fact.

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