Several hundred residents attended a “Choosing Madison’s Mayor” candidate forum sponsored by The Capital Times at The Barrymore Theatre last night to learn more about the candidates’ ideas on how to make the city a better place to live for everyone.
Speakers included candidates Raj Shukla, Maurice Cheeks, Nick Hart, Toriana Pettaway, Satya Rhodes-Conway and incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin arranged in a randomized seating order. Moderators included City Editor Katie Dean and News Editor Jason Joyce and format for the debate consisted of three rounds separated by a lighting round in between each. Opening statements kicked off with Shukla, who is Executive Director for River Alliance of Wisconsin and who sat to the left of the moderators.
“I’m the son of immigrants who showed me that you can do anything with the support of the community and a lot of hard work,” he began.
Shukla said Madison is not who we are, but what we do. Community became of the theme of the debate last night. Each candidate shared their reflections and passion for serving Madison, even Nick Hart, a comedian who refers to his platform as a “cautionary tale.” Hart reminded everyone in the room that only a small percentage of Madison’s population opted to attend the debate and if residents do not become more involved they might end up with someone like him.
“Nobody in here is voting for me, but most people in Madison aren’t here,” he said.
Candidates brought forth a sense of excitement for Madison’s future while expressing the importance of civic engagement. Pettaway said her campaign is informed by a grassroots perspective and promised innovative ideas. Cheeks said he plans on embracing a new future for Madison involving fresh ideas and community collaboration.
“It’s time that Madison have a new mayor. It’s time that Madison have a mayor with a sense of urgency that will bring our community together and tackle these issues,” he said.
Upward mobility, affordable housing and adequate access to transportation were key issues and talking points during last night’s debate. Candidates shared a variety of ideas to how they would address the issue.
“It’s not enough to have employers invest and have upward mobility,” Pettaway said.
She said community development must be an equal effort in all sectors and employees should be involved. Cheeks said he would make sure companies are invested within the Madison community while Rhodes-Conway said that the city needs to tackle problems preventing people from working.
“We need to improve barriers to employment by helping folks get their driver’s licenses back,” she said.
Pettaway proposed parking lots for commuters and accessible public transportation routes for people who live in the city. Pettaway, who serves as Madison’s first racial equity coordinator, focused on disparities between residents within the city, which all candidates agreed needed to be addressed.
“In my day job at UW, we focus on city policy (through) three lenses and one of them is equity, (and the other two are) sustainability and democracy,” Rhodes-Conway said.
She said her experience better informs her position and ability to do the job as mayor. Cheeks, who also serves as an alderman and minority business leader, began the night reminding people that Madison is a great place to live, but not for everyone, citing racial disparities between Black and white Madisonians. Moderators would soon question incumbent Paul Soglin about his role in solving these issues as sitting mayor.
“When I left office in 1997, the disparities between Whites and African-Americans was smaller than when I returned in 2011,” he said.
Soglin said he’s disappointed that people have ignored the progress that the city has made. Other candidates weighed in sharing their opinions on Madison’s racial disparities. Hart said it really comes down to the fact the city has to be honest with it self and admit that it is racist.
“We really need to recognize what communities of color recognize as disparities in our community,” Pettaway said.
All candidates agreed Madisonians should look out for one another and said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in which 20 people were detained this summer should not have happened. Cheeks called this incident terrorism. Soglin said he spoke with an ICE official and while they told him they would not give the city advanced notice of a raid, he would do everything he could.
“One of the best ways to keep people off of ICE’s radar is to keep them out the system,” Rhodes-Conway said.
She said the city should make an effort not to call the police on local residents who are not harming or disrupting anyone. Pettaway said Madisonians should make an effort to leave their neighborhoods and get to know other people. All candidates shared their positions on how to make Madison a safe home for everyone.
“One of the most challenges we face in our city is growing responsibly,” Cheeks said.
Through each answer, listeners noticed each candidate cared about the city and their communities. They were even given an opportunity to share their favorite locally produced drink and where they would take their date for $20. Shukla said he and his wife would already be at Michael’s Frozen Custard.
“We are what we do in Madison. What we think we know. Not what we campaign on year after year with few results,” he said in his closing remarks.