Madison faces major changes in its local representatives this year, with all Common Council seats up for election in addition to several school board seats. Perhaps the biggest ticket to come up for reelection is the title of mayor, and the race has already broken ground for an office that’s had a fairly static look for its entire history.
The February primary saw incumbent mayor Paul Soglin eke out a victory that will put him through to the general election on April 2. Soglin has already served as the 51st, 54th and 57th Mayor of Madison, having been elected nine times to the post, most recently in 2015. During his gubernatorial bid in 2018, the seeming perpetual-mayor initially said he would not seek reelection. In October, however, Soglin changed course and decided to throw his hat back into the ring once more.
Meanwhile, three other serious contenders declared their intentions to run as well, and represented the most diverse slate of candidates perhaps in Madison history. Alder Maurice Cheeks, River Alliance of Wisconsin Executive Director Raj Shukla, and former alder/current managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project Satya Rhodes-Conway presented the most serious challenge to Soglin’s incumbency in some time.
Cheeks and Shukla came in third and fourth in the February 19th primary, respectively, with Rhodes-Conway receiving the second highest vote count in the primary, just 323 votes shy of Soglin’s total. She will go on to challenge him in the general election this spring.
Rhodes-Conway served as the District 12 alder on the Common Council for six years starting in 2007, and says people were already telling her to run for mayor back then. Ruefully, she references a statistic that says women have to be asked seven or eight times to run for office before they do. When asked what finally changed her mind, she was thoughtful:
“I started to see a set of challenges that Madison’s facing,” Rhodes-Conway told Our Lives. “That I feel like our tipping point challenges…if we don’t work on affordable housing prices, that determines what kind of city we are in, in five to ten years. If we’re not prepared for climate change, ditto. And if we don’t invest in transit, if we don’t tackle racial equity…it determines what course we go on as a city. And I feel like we weren’t doing enough, in any of those things.”
She’s quick to add that she also made sure to get the permission of her wife, Amy, before running. Simply campaigning for the office has already changed their day-to-day quite a bit and, Rhodes-Conway notes, it would only change more if she becomes mayor.
“One of the things I love about Amy is that she is not a particularly public person,” she says. “And she is pretty quiet, but she’s not shy about saying what she thinks.”
Rhodes-Conway notes that there’s a good and needed balance in their relationship because of their differences. One pushes the other to be a bit more out, the other keeps things grounded. As her campaign continues to build post-primary and she faces off against Madison’s longest-serving mayor, that support and balance will become all the more needed.
Not without challenges
Even though being the mayor doesn’t bring quite the same level of spotlight as state or national office, there are still barriers and challenges to overcome.
“I thought a lot about running as a woman, running as an out lesbian. Both of which are easier things in Madison than they are in other places. But not without challenges.”
Madison has only ever elected one woman as mayor (Sue Bauman), and the Common Council finally achieved gender parity just a handful of years ago – which ended again last year after a series of resignations. There has never been an out queer mayor, either, Rhodes-Conway notes.
While she says she hasn’t experienced much overt homophobia here in Madison, both it and sexist ideas–whether subconscious or not–definitely still persist.
“I have a pretty thick skin around both sexism and homophobia and heterosexism,” she says. “I tend to not always be able to parse out if people’s reactions to me are about that or about something else. And I sort of proceed like that doesn’t exist, like that’s not gonna stop me. That’s your problem, not my problem.”
However, in advance of her announcing her candidacy, Rhodes-Conway noticed a small pattern emerge while working to build up support for a run.
“Mostly older, mostly white, mostly men, would say things like, ‘Well, it’s really good to talk with you, and I really appreciate you listening. You know, I always thought that you being on [Common Council] that you had to be the smartest person in the room, and I’m really glad to see you’ve mellowed from that.’ Who gets to be the smartest person in the room? Clearly women don’t get to be the smartest person in the room.”
There have been instances, too, where being the only out queer person at the table meant she was the one to stand up and speak out when homophobia worked its way into council discussions. The decision in 2012 about who to grant use of the historic Collins House saw coded language used to dismiss an application by Bob Klebba, David Waugh, and their son (they eventually did get the permit, and have since transformed the space into the Mendota Lake House B&B).
Rhodes-Conway says the other applicant, in touting her historic preservation credentials, quipped, “Now, you wouldn’t really want to give this house to somebody who would paint it pink or purple.”
“And I think it went over everybody’s head. Except mine,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Hold up. Don’t say anymore because you’re going to get yourself in trouble here.’ And then the discussion goes on and the council members are asking questions or making statements, and one of the other alders says, ‘Well it sure would be nice to have a family in the house.’ And he’s talking about this straight couple and their baby, and their mom. He’s definitely not talking about Bob and David and their son. And that was when I lost it.”
After that, Rhodes-Conway told the council member that he needed to apologize to Bob and David, and explained why the statement was hurtful. The experience highlighted the importance of having a place at the table, especially for members of minority and/or marginalized populations. Sometimes the harm isn’t intentional, she notes, but by simply lacking those perspectives in the discussion, it’s impossible to make the best and most informed decisions.
The big issues
Madison is at a major crossroads in terms of its growth and trajectory as a city. All three of the major candidates who faced off against Soglin in the primary (Rhodes-Conway, Mo Cheeks, and Raj Shukla) listed equity in housing, transit, and education as priorities and points of major concern. All three took the current mayor to task for his seeming lack of urgency or vision when it came to those issues.
For Rhodes-Conway, creating affordable housing that’s close to good jobs, thus lowering transit times and costs for the people who can least afford them, is at top of mind. She advocates for a housing-first approach to people experiencing homelessness, too. The current systems are creating greater inequality and segregation between communities in the city, but Rhodes-Conway doesn’t see that problem being taken seriously by city leadership. A good first step, for instance, would be having “a mayor who doesn’t hate the homeless.”
She also stresses the need for a trauma-informed approach to helping people get into permanent housing, highlighting the disproporationate impact homelessness has on the LGBTQ community in particular.
“It’s pretty important to acknowledge that the homeless population is not monolithic, and that different parts of it have different needs,” she says. “[We need to] speak specifically to that. Different people require different solutions. And so to make sure that we are not trying to fit people into boxes they don’t fit in. And that we actually are trying to speak to their needs and to help them.”
It’s a matter of building capacity and leadership, she notes, and involving community in decisions about itself, especially for those people that are part of historically disadvantaged populations. “Agency,” she adds.
Big picture changes
Fifteen years of work with mayors and other cities across the country have taught Rhodes-Conway a lot about what’s possible, what works, what doesn’t, and what hasn’t even been tried. She wants to bring that sensibility to building a coalition of other Wisconsin towns and cities to work together to tackle those challenges.
There needs to be real movement within Madison government, too. Rhodes-Conway says she’s often frustrated by the habit of commissioning reports only to see no action taken on the findings.
“What you really need is the committee to study the thing and write the report and then work on it,” she suggests. “I’m as big a fan of process as the next Madisonian, but I don’t like process for the sake of process. I like process for the sake of getting something done. Let’s have a good process. Let’s come to some conclusions. And then let’s move into the implementation phase, please.”
Her philosophy is both functional and aspirational. There is a desire to better support people and organizations that help those in need of services. However, she emphasizes the greater need to really tackle the injustices that create many of those problems in the first place.
“We spend a lot of time and energy and money on helping people navigate an unjust society, and rarely do we spend time and money and energy on changing the unjust structures,” Rhodes-Conway says. “It’s the harder thing. But now I’m thinking a lot about that, and what does it mean? How do you change unjust structures? And what does that mean in the context of the city of Madison?”
Total turnout for the February primary was abysmally low. Just 37,700 votes were cast in the mayor’s race. Local elections and local government are, Rhodes-Conway points out, where individuals can have the most impact, though. It’s why she says she’s been so committed to doing the work that she’s done and is seeking to do in the mayor’s office.
“Local government is the level of government that has the most impact on your daily life,” she notes. “Local government plows the streets, picks up the trash, delivers the water, takes away the waste, controls your property taxes, funds your neighborhood center, runs your buses. It’s so fundamental to day-to-day life and it’s often invisible to people. And that day-to-day impact is why people have to care about local government.”
There’s a certain level of excitement that comes with it, too. With the federal government in seeming partisan gridlock, and even state level politics gripped by similar dysfunction and gerrymandered seats, cities are leading the way on innovative and equitable development.
“Cities are leading on everything. They’re leading on climate, they’re leading on immigration, they’re leading on economic development. You just go down the line and cities are leading on it,” she says.
“Who can experiment? Who can try new things? Who can get stuff done? Who has to get stuff done? It’s all local government. And so we should care not only because it impacts our day-to-day lives, but because we have a chance to lead. And to lead nationally on a set of issues. We should be doing that.”