Early Days

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway reflects on her first 100 days in office, the joy of Pride month, and the work ahead.

There’s no real preparation for the 24-hour job of being mayor. Satya Rhodes-Conway hasn’t let that faze her, though. Instead, she jumped in feet-first to the work that goes into managing and guiding the machinations of the City of Madison.

“Do I even have a personal life?” she laughs, only half joking, when asked how the job has impacted her day-to-day. Rhodes-Conway ranks her self-care balance as “pretty OK” at the moment, noting the importance of fueling herself so she can do the work well. She also admits that her partner, Amy, might have more honest input on how that effort toward balance is going.

It’s been a busy few months since her swearing-in back in April, and that’s not even including the surprise of “MG&E blowing up.” The fire and explosion at two transmission substations in July that turned off power to thousands of residents was, Rhodes-Conway says, quite an educational experience.

She also had the opportunity to travel to New York City for World Pride, and to attend LPAC’s Levity & Justice For All event, where she was given the Champion of Change award. It capped off a busy Pride month for the mayor, who enthusiastically made the rounds to various city, community, and business events centered around LGBTQ people here in the Madison area, including raising the rainbow flag over the City-County building and recognizing the anniversary of marriage equality in Wisconsin.

“It’s been really meaningful to me, personally, to celebrate Pride in this role,” says Rhodes-Conway. “Mostly, I want to say thank you to the LGBTQ community, because I felt really supported. People come up to me on the street and at events to thank me and tell me how excited they are. I really feel that support from the community, and I really appreciate it.”

Building the team

The mayor has mostly been busy putting together her team and getting the ball rolling on major initiatives that were outlined in her campaign: housing, transit, planning for climate change, and equity. 

Putting together a strong team is perhaps the most important part of a new administration, says Rhodes-Conway, something that was emphasized when she attended the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative kick-off along with 40 other mayors from around the world. The year-long program offers education and professional development for city leaders, with a focus on equipping them with the tools and expertise to effectively lead complex cities.

“People are going to ask you about what did you do, what policy did you pass, what did you build?” she reflects. “But no, the most important thing is building a strong team, because if you have the strong team, they will pass good policy, and they will build things, and they will get more things underway, and then you have more people working toward the same goals.”

Rhodes-Conway has spent considerable time working to put together a team of deputy mayors that represent that philosophy, including Linda Vakunta of Project 1808 and Leslie Orrantia, who formerly worked as a communications official at UW. 

“In choosing my core team, it’s really about philosophical alignment,” she says. “Do you get equity? Do you understand why I care so much about sustainability? Are there some core values that we can lean on? I’m looking for diversity, but I don’t mean that just in the sense of race, ethnicity, and gender, but also diversity of thought, diversity of experience and background, and knowing what my priorities are. I’m looking for people who can advance those.”

For appointments to city committees, too, there’s a certain amount of seeking shared values and philosophical agreement, though Rhodes-Conway says she focuses on determining how that person can help a particular body. 

“Whether or not they necessarily agree with me on anything…do they have the skills that can help this body do the work it needs to do?” she says. “Also just as important, do they bring a diverse perspective to this body, whether through their lived experience, their training, their work…can they bring something that nobody else on this body has? To have a greater diversity of experience, which implies that then also we’ve got diversity in terms of gender and race and ethnicity and age and geography.”

Lay of the Land

Another large part of the first 100 days in office has been getting to know and build working relationships with the heads of city departments, alders, and other community stakeholders. Rhodes-Conway has visited every aldermanic district, and she’s met with dozens of area business leaders, 60 community groups, seven area mayors, and countless others.

All of the input gathered helps direct and drive the priorities already laid out by her office, which were developed by listening to the community in the first place. Rhodes-Conway is determined to make sure that the various committees that help push various initiatives and projects are reflective of the communities they serve, too.

“It’s still very hard sometimes,” she says. “There are some committees that everyone applies to be on and there are some committees that nobody applies for! I think we’re doing a pretty good job with appointments, but we are having to do a lot of active recruitment.” 

Rhodes-Conway says she makes a point to encourage the people she meets with to recommend folks they know who might be good for a committee or other job.

“I’m just increasingly aware that I don’t know everybody, and my networks are what they are, so where are the points in my networks that are well-connected to other networks and can spread that and help me find people that I don’t know?” she muses.

On the money

She and other city staff are also gearing up to tackle the budget in the year ahead, a daunting process at any time but made especially difficult given constraints placed on cities by the Republican-controlled state legislature. To get through it and keep focus, Rhodes-Conway says, the key is to determine the core function of the city and what the most important things for it to do—that no one else can do—are going to be.

“Next year’s operating budget is going to be really, really challenging,” she admits. “We know going in that there’s going to be a substantial gap, just between our cost to continue and what we know we can raise in revenue. Like $11 million dollars. It heavily relates to state constraints. But it also relates to our insurance costs, salary costs, debt service that we’re paying. A lot of the operating budget is relatively fixed.”

Bus Rapid Transit continues to be a major point of focus, though much of the funding will have to come from federal grants. The money will go toward building capacity to store new buses, as well as to support the infrastructure of the routes themselves.

Rhodes-Conway is excited at the prospect, though, and feels like it’s closer than ever to becoming a reality. With buses on the major arteries running every 10–15 minutes, and service ideally connecting Madison to neighboring cities and towns like Sun Prairie and Middleton, the impact on people’s lives would be immeasurable. 

Taking it all in  

In the end, 100 days is just a drop in the bucket in the working life of a city mayor. Rhodes-Conway is energized for the work ahead, and happy to tackle the unexpected twists and turns of the job as they come.

“There are definitely moments when I think, oh this is surreal,” she says. “But actually, people keep asking me what’s surprising or unexpected, and I sort of feel like the answer is ‘everything and nothing.’ Everything is different, everything is a little unexpected, but also it’s just the job. Every day is different. So you just know that there’s going to be something every day that you didn’t expect.”

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