As the mayoral race continues to get closer to its April 4 election date, the debates between incumbent Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and her challenger, Gloria Reyes, who is looking to make up ground in the polls, become that much more important. Wednesday’s debate taking place in the Madison West High School auditorium and hosted by West’s new Sifting and Winnowing Club will have a big impact on how Madison’s younger demographic views their mayoral candidates.
Both candidates received support from the audience for their more popular and forward-thinking rhetoric around social issues in infrastructure, opportunity, and community wellbeing. The much-discussed topic of housing was introduced through the first of two questions asked in a timed-response format that spoke to the history of redlining and racist housing discrimination that has had a large effect on both where people live in Madison along with what opportunities they are afforded.
Rhodes-Conway spoke to past versions of redlining being outlawed to instead bring in a new “…coded redlining in the form of zoning that prohibited multifamily buildings in most neighborhoods in the city of Madison. A result of that is pretty distinct segregation by both race and class in our community. One of the things that we’ve tried to do in my administration is to change the zoning rules, so that it’s easier to build different kinds of housing all across our community”
While the idea of building more housing is popular among many who are becoming frustrated with the state of renting in Madison, Reyes was quick to contest that saying, “…changing the zoning code to bring multiple people to live in a household, does not fix it, it doesn’t go far enough.”
“We’ve seen this over the years where we lost single-family homes, because developers come in and build apartments that are only affordable to college students,” Reyes continued. “They’re not affordable for our Black and brown community. We can’t talk about equity if we’re not going to really implement equity.”
While Rhodes-Conway assured that housing efforts being made were keeping equity and affordability in mind, the same question on if these were priorities in the current Mayor’s plans was raised again by Reyes while discussing the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system.
Reyes spoke to her personal experience and prior experience as CEO of Briarpatch Youth Services in seeing just how crucial quality public transport is for communities who often go under-considered. After speaking to the multi-decade struggle to implement rapid transit, Rhodes-Conway claimed in their efforts to redesign for a new BRT system, “…we actually are looking at the status quo, which is pretty damn inequitable.”
Reyes countered that moving from one system to another may not fix the problem of inequity, and asked the question of who is being considered as these processes go underway.
“When I go to a council meeting and I see Black and brown families struggling to figure out where the bus stop is going to be moved, and they have to walk three or four miles to get to a bus stop, that’s inequitable,” said Reyes. “These are people of color, hard-working people. These are seniors in our community, and our disability community.”
The debate made its way into a free-talk portion where the contentious issue of SROs (School Resource Officers) and policing in schools was discussed. While Rhodes-Conway recounted her pre-pandemic call to remove SROs from schools, she conceded that “…at the end of the day, the decision about SROs is up to the schools.” Calling on the opinion and judgment of those closest to our schools such as the school board, superintendent, and students themselves.
Reyes, who has prior work experience with the Madison Police Department, was quick to correct any credit Rhodes-Conway may have taken for the decision as Reyes was acting as school board president at the time the decision to remove SROs was made.
“We needed a leader to step up and make a decision where the Mayor was nowhere to be found,” Reyes said. “I had to make a tough decision. I support officers in schools. I think they brought a valid relationship in building trust and relationships with our young people.”
Rhodes-Conway rejected the notion that she was unavailable at the time of hard decisions being made for the Madison Metropolitan School District during the pandemic.
“I feel like if my opponent doesn’t actually see something happen live and in the flesh, she doesn’t think it actually happened,” said Rhodes-Conway. “The truth is, we’ve been working with the school district for four years on questions of school safety, and our staff, our police department, and our public health staff meet regularly with the school safety coordinators from the district.”
Rhodes-Conway and Reyes went back and forth an additional time on whether or not representations and recountings of events were correct, and it was evident that the topic brought the candidates’ personal feelings of each other to the forefront.
As the topic steered away from strictly addressing SROs in school, student moderators quickly moved on to a question on the issue of climate change, and how Madison plans to adapt to what is likely going to have deep and deleterious effects on our environment. Both candidates spoke to the importance of paying attention to bettering our environment and building for the future with such in mind, even if slightly differing on the approaches they planned to take on that front.
The closing question on mental health for students quickly veered into Rhodes-Conway discussing CARES, a new system implemented to respond to non-violent behavioral and mental health situations.
“The police do a lot of things well, but responding to mental health crises is not one of them,” Rhodes-Conway said. “They’re not trained for it, and it’s not fair to ask them to do it. That’s why we started CARES. It’s why we’re growing CARES, and why we’re going to continue to expand CARES this year, and if I’m reelected, next year as well. Not just to be 24/7, but hopefully to cover at least the entire metropolitan area, not just the city of Madison.”
Reyes responded in support of CARES and spoke to her previous work as Deputy Mayor under former Mayor Paul Soglin saying, “One of the last recommendations that I made to Satya was to implement a program alternative response to services. I gave her an example of the CAHOOTS model which responded to mental health. I’m really proud of the work that I did as Deputy Mayor to set the vision for the future of the city.”
The debate ended with gifts of local syrup being given to both candidates.