José Rea aspires to offer both a diverse and local voice if elected as District 5 Supervisor on the Dane County Board in April, representing the area around the University of Wisconsin campus.
Rea is running as the first openly out trans non-binary candidate for Dane County Board. Rea would like to engage community leaders and members in conversations regarding issues such as affordable housing, public safety, climate change, equity and inclusion, homelessness, and the racial disparities in Dane County.
“When I talk about issues that I’m running on, they come from a place of 100-percent understanding because I have actual real-world experience living these situations that a lot of these politicians talk about but not necessarily have had to live through,” they said.
Rea reminisced on their experience growing up on the South Side of Madison with nine brothers, their mother and stepfather. They recalled the houses they lived in and the communities that surrounded their family.
“The first place we lived were the trailer parks over at the top of the hill where the Burger King is. Then, we moved over to Pheasant Ridge Trail which is over by the Beltline and right after that we lived over by the Arboretum, a nice little house by the Arboretum,” Rea said.
Rea said there’s a lot of diversity on the South Side but growing up felt like a struggle. They remember going to the food pantries with their mom to make sure there was food on the table for everyone to eat.
“I remember the lights would cut off at times and my parents would work super hard to get them cut back on the next day,” Rea said.
In many ways, they do not consider themselves spectacular, but someone who comes from a large hard-working family. Rea’s mother encouraged them and their brothers to do well in school. She even purchased geology books and novels for them to read.
Rea describes themself as kind of a nerd growing up. They received most of their education through Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) while participating in pre-college programs like the Information Technology Academy (ITA Madison) and Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) Program.
“Things like that nourished my experience in wanting to go to schools like UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee,” Rea said.
Rea later enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and remained in Milwaukee for a few years before returning home to Madison in 2015. They said they know what it’s like to be a student.
“Food insecurity is also a big issue on campus. Not only is it an issue for marginalized communities but college students as well,” they said.
Rea’s campaign focuses on issues all residents in the area face, students and non-students alike. In 2016, Rea ran for Alder of Madison’s South Side District 14 but was unsuccessful; however, they remained politically active and went on to organize a rally at the Capitol Building in 2017 against the ban on sanctuary cities.
Most recently, Rea was nominated and appointed to the Dane County Equal Opportunities Commission where they now serve as the Vice-Chair. When Rea heard current District 5 Supervisor Hayley Young did not plan on running again, they decided to announce their campaign in November.
“I did have doubts. It seems like the person I am, queer trans person of color, is not going to be supported,” Rea said.
However, Rea said they can engage all residents in District 5 in issues that matter most to those residents. They also said students would like to discuss issues like affordable housing and public safety. This includes students of color feeling safe on campus.
“We can promote gun legislation in a way that makes sure that individuals that shouldn’t have guns don’t have them and that the background checks are being done. We should also be talking about it from a racial equity lens as well,” they said.
Rea’s campaign, however, does not come without challenges. While they have received endorsements from MMSD Board of Education President Gloria Reyes, MMSD Board of Education member Ananda Mirilli, Dane County District 4 Supervisor Richard Kilmer, and Dane County Board District 2 Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, they also received the opposite.
“I got pushback from current leaders in this district that said I would be better off running in another district where people like me are represented,” they said.
However, Rea decided to keep running on a campaign rooted in both equality and a local perspective. They said this board needs someone who understands what it’s like to grow up facing the disparities discussed in the meetings. This includes feeling what it’s like to receive an eviction letter or understanding what it’s like to have insecurities about food.
“I understand the challenges of running for this district but for me, that’s what motivates me more,” they said.
Rea has been endorsed by current County Board members Heidi Wegleitner, Andrew Schauer and Richard Kilmer, as well as Madison School Board President Gloria Reyes, School Board Member Ananda Mirilli, and former School Board member Juan José Lopez.