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“In Madison, we are not using our assets to the extent that we should be.” Satya Rhodes-Conway Enters Race for Mayor

Campaign will focus on housing, racial equity, transportation and climate


A few years back, the city of Madison was forced to come to grips with its extreme racial disparities thanks to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity report and the mountain of negative press that followed. It brought Madison into the national spotlight in the most negative of ways and put a serious stain on their long accolades list as one of the best places in the United States to do just about everything.

In announcing her candidacy for Madison mayor, Satya Rhodes-Conway says that racial equity needs to be a high priority and that what Madison needs right now is a very strong vision to go along with a very strong plan.

“It’s very simple. Madison should be a place that is ‘the best’ for everyone and where everybody has the opportunity to thrive,” Rhodes-Conway says. “The vision is simple, but the next layer is complicated. There are a lot of things there. There’s a long list of what it means for somebody to be able to thrive.

“This is going to take an incredible amount of work,” she adds. “And I’m committed to that work.”

For the past 13 years, Rhodes-Conway has been analyzing and studying innovative policies for cities big and small at Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), a national think-and-do tank based out of UW-Madison, and she also has six years experience in Madison politics serving three terms on the Madison Common Council. She officially announced her candidacy last week for the mayoral election that will take place early in 2019. The primary is Feb. 19 and the general election will be April 2. Rhodes-Conway is the first candidate to publicly announce a bid for mayor.

Satya Rhodes-Conway

“I really do believe that everybody deserves an opportunity to thrive in Madison. Unfortunately, it’s becoming less and less possible. Mostly because of the housing market, but not exclusively,” Rhodes-Conway tells Madison365 in an interview at Ogden’s North Street Diner, a few blocks from where she resides on Madison’s near east side. “There’s a tipping point. You see places like Seattle or San Francisco where the amount of money they will have to spend now to actually get affordable housing or even market-rate housing is prohibitive. It’s such a large number that you can’t even imagine the local government really mustering. Those cities are trying, but it has become such a large problem. It’s too late.

“We’re not quite there yet in Madison; but in five years we could easily be,” she adds. “There’s no more time. We can’t wait. We can’t wait on housing. We can’t wait on transit. We’re way past the time when we should have taken really serious action on racial disparities. I feel like now is the time for stronger leadership on these issues and more.”

Madison has tremendous resources, Rhodes-Conway says, that will always give the city a boost and make it look good relative to other cities. But large racial disparities and a culture where a multitude of talented professionals of color refuse to stay and live in the city after their four years in college because they don’t feel like they belong, will spell trouble for the city in the future if not addressed soon.

“There are actually quite a few issues that we must be working on right now,” Rhodes-Conway says. “[The] Race to Equity [report] did change the conversation quite a bit, and I give them a lot of credit for doing that, but we need to move faster into the communities so we can actually have an impact.”

This is where Rhodes-Conway believes her expertise will be invaluable – not only in racial disparities, but in other issues like housing, transportation, and climate. All four are bullet points that she is making the heart of her campaign for mayor.

“People have been asking me to run for years. I did talk to a large number of people about running,” Rhodes-Conway says. “I think people are concerned about housing. They’re concerned about the health of downtown. They’re concerned about transportation. They’re concerned about how much money the city is spending on developments and Judge Doyle Square came up a lot. They’re concerned about homelessness. The lakes.

“Honestly, the thing that kept coming up was the lack of collaboration,” she adds. “The relationship between the mayor and the Council is not a collaborative one. The relationship between the City and the County is not a collaborative one. I don’t know that we have a relationship between the City and the surrounding municipalities, but that should be a collaborative one. That’s a thing that I heard from people.

“I think that people who worked with me on the Council know that I do have a fairly collaborative approach,” she continues. “I like to have the right people around the table and everybody listening to each other and let’s figure it out together.”

Rhodes-Conway was a member of the Madison Common Council from 2007-2013 representing parts of Madison’s east and north sides. “I learned so much from my experience on the Council. I learned a ton. There were some really satisfying moments when I could help a constituent with something,” she says. “Getting them an answer when they didn’t know how to navigate their way through the city bureaucracy to find. But, also, wrestling with the larger problems. I came in during the era of Edgewater [Hotel] and Overture [Center] and the Council had to really wrestle with those.

“We really had to dig into issues and sometimes there were no real clear answers,” she adds. “Getting through all of that and getting to a positive resolution is a really good feeling. I think we did pretty well overall during that time period.”

This was an era that was pre-Race to Equity report when the Madison Common Council was extremely white. Rhodes-Conway says that she is excited that Madison alders have gotten more diverse since then.

“Representation is important. Definitely. People need to have a voice,” she says. “If I’m elected, I will be only the second woman in history – and the first lesbian – elected as mayor of Madison. It’s so important to have a diverse Council.

“There’s a committee that’s looking at government structure right now and there has been a push to reduce the number of seats on the Common Council. I think mostly for efficiency,” Rhodes-Conway adds. “I’m very wary of that. In that transition, I wonder if the people of color, the women, the queer people would retain their seats in a smaller council. I don’t know that it would be as diverse.”

Satya Rhodes-Conway at the Dane Dems Miller/Miller dinner with Chandra Miller Fienen.
(Photo by Eric Sundquist)

Studying cities across the U.S.

As managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project and a senior associate at COWS, a national think-and-do tank that promotes “high-road” solutions to social problems based out of UW-Madison, Rhodes-Conway works with cities across the country to implement innovative policies that promote environmental and economic sustainability and builds strong, democratically accountable communities.

“We’re a national learning network for mayors and their senior staff. It’s focused on the high road of equity, sustainability, and democracy,” she says. “The bottom line is that I get to work with cities and researching city policy every day and have done so for approximately the last 13 years. So, I see both the theory and the practice.”

She also gets to see what’s working and what’s not working in a variety of American cities. “I get to see some of the ‘why’ behind that in particular places. I see a broad cross-section of good ideas that are coming from cities around the country and I have relationships with mayors all across the country,” Rhodes-Conway says. “It’s a great job and it’s really interesting work and I do firmly believe that cities are where innovation is happening and where these issues are really being wrestled with whether that’s climate or racial justice or housing or transit.”

Rhodes-Conway, who has degrees from Smith College and the University of California-Irvine, considers the knowledge and connections she’s obtained from her job to be a big advantage for somebody who wants to be mayor of Madison.

“It means I have a more exposure to a broader array of possible policies and a broad cross-section of how different cities are solving these problems,” Rhodes-Conway says. “Which isn’t to say that we are going to take a solution from somewhere else and transplant it here with no changes, but it is to say that we can learn from what other cities have done well and what hasn’t worked for them. I have the relationships to be able to pick up the phone and really find out why something didn’t work. Or why it did work.

“No city is an island, but they often think that they are,” she adds. “I don’t think there’s any reason to reinvent wheels. If things are working in other places, we should look at them.”

What are the sizes of the cities she examines with her work with COWS?

“Honestly, it’s all across the board and we work with cities as small as Bayfield, Wisconsin, all the way up to New York City,” Rhodes-Conway says. “The sweet spot is a city like Madison – a mid-sized city and maybe a state capital and university town. Often, it has to do with the number of dedicated staff a mayor has in her office. If the mayor and the staff all have to be generalists than they are more likely to look for external help than a place like New York City where the mayor can hire expert people on particular issues.”

Addressing affordable housing and transit

Madison is neither a small or large city right now, but it’s growing at a decent pace as a mid-sized city. And that is bringing with it a lot of growing pains. What does Madison need to be doing right now to avoid the mistakes other cities have made?

“We do really need to get a handle on our housing market and we really do need to look at a range of things that will make it easier to build affordable housing,” Rhodes-Conway says. “When I say ‘affordable’ I mean the whole range, from affordable at the lowest levels of income on up to approximately market rate. We’re going to need all of that.

“Teachers need to be able to afford to live in this city. Firefighters need to be able to afford to live in the city,” she adds. “There are things that you can do and you can look to cities around the country to how they have adjusted their zoning codes, their building codes, how they’re using subsidies to promote affordability.”

Rhodes-Conway adds that we should also be looking at co-ops and land trusts and shared-ownership solutions. “It doesn’t let people build as much equity, but it does make housing more accessible. That’s really important,” she says.

“We can be a place where we make big dents in racial disparities in wages, education, housing – across the board. We can be a place that is great for everybody. We can be a place where the city and university work together for the good of the community. We have so much potential given our wealth collectively and given the fact that we are a relatively liberal city. I think what’s holding us back is some combination of political will and knowledge.”

While housing is something that needs to be addressed right away, other things that she considers to be big issues are basic human necessities like transportation, utilities, child care, food. “We need to keep on going down the list of basic needs in a household budget and ask: What are we doing as a city to make access to those things easier and more affordable? There’s a whole list of ways you can think about that and things you can try,” Rhodes-Conway says.

“We need to reduce the costs on one side and look at, to the extent that we can, increasing incomes,” she adds. “We’re very limited as a city in what we can do on that front because we have been pre-empted left and right by the state. But it’s important to think about good jobs and it’s important to think about how we can increase people’s wages.

“And, like I said before, we need more transit. And we need more rapid transit,” she continues. “I feel like there hasn’t been the political will to solve the things that need to be solved to get to that. It’s a number-one priority for me.[Madison] Metro is great. They do a good job with what they’ve got,” she adds. “We do overperform for a city of our size in terms of transit. Again, who is it benefiting?”

Rhodes-Conway says that Madison does have a transit system that works very well for a person like herself who lives close to downtown and works on campus.

“That’s great. I take the bus every day and I love it,” she says. “But it doesn’t work great for somebody who works 2nd or 3rd shift and it doesn’t work great for somebody who can’t afford to live in one of these inner neighborhoods. You’re in a position where you have to be on a bus for one and a half hours or two hours one-way. That’s not viable.”

Satya Rhodes-Conway at the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) Bean Feed. (Photo by Denise DeMarb)

Some people joke that Madison is always building so much that the city bird should be the crane.

“Cities always have to think about economic development, but who are we doing economic development for? And how are we growing our own businesses? How are we looking at small entrepreneurship?” Rhodes-Conway asks. “Nationwide, immigrant communities have higher rates of entrepreneurship than other communities … are we taking advantage of that? Are we incubating those businesses? Are we supporting those business owners?

“When I was on the Council, I saw several businesses in my district owned by Latinos that opened and closed. Either I heard explicitly from them or heard through the grapevine that they closed because they couldn’t get access to capital or they didn’t know a loan was available through the city or they didn’t know how to navigate this permit process,” she adds. “Some of it was language barriers and some of it was just: how do you figure out the city? That should never happen. If you have a viable business, it shouldn’t close because you weren’t able to figure out the city.”

Madison’s potential

“I do think that people actually want to live in a city that is equitable and that doesn’t have such racial disparities,” Rhodes-Conway states. “But there has to be the political will to do it. And leaders need to provide the vision and provide the will to get it done.”

Rhodes-Conway’s experience in politics on the Madison’s City Council, she says, has given her a practical perspective on local government and policy that she studies every day.

“I’ve had a depth of experience – the time I had on the Council actually working in the City. I know the players. I know the staff. I know how the Council functions. I know how the Mayor’s Office functions,” she says. “There’s no learning curve there. It’s a cliché, but day one, I’m ready to go.

“I know where our sticking points are; I know where our strengths are. I know how to think about how to move us forward,” she adds. “Couple that with the experience I have working with cities across the country, I can bring a set of ideas and relationships to the office that somebody else would have to develop over years.”

Madison has tremendous potential, she adds, and she’s very excited about it.

“I look around the country and at cities whose economies are not doing nearly as well as ours and don’t have the resources that we have, they don’t have the world-class university, they don’t have the economic clusters that we have,” she says. “And I come back to Madison … in Madison, we are not using our assets to the extent that we should be.

“We can be a place where we make big dents in racial disparities in wages, education, housing – across the board. We can be a place that is great for everybody. We can be a place where the city and university work together for the good of the community,” she adds. “We have so much potential given our wealth collectively and given the fact that we are a relatively liberal city. I think what’s holding us back is some combination of political will and knowledge.”