Former Madison school board president and deputy mayor Gloria Reyes announced on Thursday that she intends to run for Mayor in the spring 2023 election.
If elected, she would be the first person of color to hold the office.
“We are at a critical time in the city. People are looking for change,” she said in an interview ahead of the announcement. “Coming out of a pandemic and responding and dealing with the critical issues that our residents are faced with today, we need a strong leader who understands the community really, really well to move us forward … Having the pulse of the community and experience in leadership and city government, bringing those together is so much more critical now than it ever has been.”
Reyes indicated earlier this fall that she was considering a run, spurred on by other community members.
“Right now the people who are encouraging me to run feel like there isn’t a sense of urgency (in the current administration), and there isn’t a broader vision of where Madison will be in the next five to 10 years,” she said.
Current mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway defeated incumbent Paul Soglin in 2019. She has not formally announced a run for a second term, but a spokesperson for her campaign said in an email to Madison365 that she “loves her job and isn’t planning on going anywhere.”
“She’s working on delivering a balanced budget that focuses on our city’s priorities and will have an official announcement at a more appropriate time,” wrote Satya for Madison spokesperson Amy Westra.
Daughter of migrant workers
Reyes is the daughter of migrant farm workers who followed seasonal work around the country. Every August, they ended up in Wautoma, Wisconsin, where she was born. They were among about 30 farm workers who, inspired by Cesar Chavez and his farm labor movement, marched from Wautoma to Madison in 1966 to demand fair wages and better working conditions. Reyes said they walked up Bascom Hill and down State Street and realized the commitment the Madison community had to education, which they wanted to offer their children.
“They fell in love with the UW campus and (realized) that really the educational system was going to be our way out of poverty,” Reyes said.
By the early 1970s, they came back to Madison to stay; with help from organizations like UMOS and the Urban League, they settled in. Reyes’s father became a welder and her mother a nursing assistant.
Reyes grew up in the Madison public school system, graduating from Madison East, then going on to Madison College and the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a degree in behavioral science.
She says her youth wasn’t necessarily smooth.
“In high school, I was getting into a lot of trouble, I had no direction, I had no understanding of what my path would be here in Madison,” she said, crediting members of the community for helping her through. “They helped me deviate and really provided the support that I needed at that time. I made a lot of mistakes in high school, but they never gave up on me. They continued to push me to be better, to really hone in on my leadership skills as a high school student at East and in my professional career … I feel the sense of responsibility, at this very moment of time, to give back to a community who has supported me throughout these years, and watched me grow, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes. I’m very honored that this community feels and has the confidence in me to be able to lead the city at this very critical time.”
After graduating from UW, she went on to work as an investigator for the state public defender’s office and joined the Madison Police Department in 2002. She joined the Soglin administration in 2016, first as director of the city’s civil rights department and later as deputy mayor. She stayed on as community development director for the first six months of the Rhodes-Conway administration before taking the helm as CEO of Briarpatch Youth Services.
She also launched Adelante, an organization to support people of color running for office, and served one term on the Madison school board, from 2017-2020, the last year serving as president.
Through all that experience, she notes the founding of Amigos en Azul – Friends in Blue – as a Madison police officer in 2005.
“My proudest moment was … starting to really build that community trust between our Latino community and the Madison Police Department. And I’m proud to see how that has continued,” she said.
“Never an either-or”
Policing has been a hot-button issue in Madison. The City’s contract to provide police officers in schools was a topic of contentious debate before the murder of George Floyd brought policing into a national focus.
As board president in 2020, Reyes surprised many observers by casting the deciding vote to remove police from the schools.
“It really takes a common sense approach … Yes, I support officers in schools,” she said. “But we were at a critical time in our city where we just saw a Black man get murdered on video, and how that has … elevated even more the issue that we have in our community. It had nothing to do with our Madison police officers. It was the national narrative, and it wasn’t fair, both from our community side and our law enforcement side, to keep law enforcement at a place where there was going to continue to be tension.”
She said that’s the kind of balanced approach she’ll take to every difficult issue as mayor.
“For me, it’s never an either-or narrative. I worked alongside one of the most progressive police departments and top-notch police officers who love this community, who serve this community every day,” she said. “I also have served alongside Black, Latino, people of color, LGBTQIA people who are afraid of police. (I am) able to connect with that community also, and understand their struggle with law enforcement. I had that struggle with law enforcement as a kid also. I understand that. It’s not an either-or narrative. It’s very complex. This is the type of leadership that I bring. I’m able to understand both sides of the issue and make a decision based on what the community needs at that very moment of time.”
She said she would look forward to taking an active role in working with the 20 members of the Common Council.
“I think as mayor, you can’t just facilitate a meeting, you have to really guide and lead the Council on issues,” she said. “As mayor, I will have the pulse of the community. I will understand where the community is leaning towards on any particular issue. Not that we’ll always agree – that’s not the point. There are certain issues where I’ll have the pulse of the community and the city council won’t agree, whatever. But it is about a level playing field for our community where their voice along with the voices of other constituents of the alders all are coming to a council meeting to make a decision.”
If elected, she would be the first Latina and the first person of color to hold the office.
“Set aside being a woman and a woman of color. My experience speaks for itself. My leadership speaks for itself,” she said. “I think what makes me unique is that because I am a woman of color, I have experienced this community differently in a way that will benefit our community. Not only do I understand the issues of our people of color in this community, and the challenges, but I also understand how to operate and live in a system and work within a system that has not always been welcoming to us. I have been able to work through those barriers.”
Former Common Council president Syed Abbas, longtime community leader Nino Amato and former Madison Police Chief Nobel Wray, who supervised Reyes as a police officer, all spoke in support of Reyes at the announcement event.
Candidates may begin circulating nomination papers on December 1 and must file enough signatures by January 3. If more than two candidates make it on the ballot, the primary would take place February 21. The general election is scheduled for April 4.
This story has been updated.