Full disclosure: Satya Rhodes-Conway is my current supervisor at the Mayors Innovation Project and she gave zero professional pressure for me to endorse her. I’ve also had personal and professional interactions and relationships with all candidates except for Nick Hart.
Tuesday, February 19, is Madison’s local primary the first chance Madison voters will get to decide the cities future. Will we head in a new direction or chance double? Triple? Quadruple down on the status quo? I’ve honestly lost count here.
I tend to analyze candidates a bit different than many people. I attempt to take a holistic analysis of a situation and see what candidate best fits. So how am I looking at this race? 1. The needs of the city of Madison and how they present themselves handling it. 2. The very real restrictions that the state of Wisconsin, led by the GOP, puts on local and regional control of municipalities. 3. The difficulties and skills it takes to lead, manage, and govern a city. 4. The limitations of a city to address systemic issues, meaning one has to have the know-how in how to maximize the potential of cities within these limitations and 5. A willingness to grow and challenge themselves, to understand where they may be wrong or fall short and show the humility to lean on others or engage with others to make up for it.
In thinking about mayor, aspirational goals are important, so is finding who stands for your issues, and beliefs. Yes, voting for someone you think will do the best fighting for you and creating a city for you is key. But, being mayor is far more than that, especially in being an effective and good mayor. I also have a view of electoral politics in that well, big changes can and should happen through it, but you’re not going to find your revolution in it. This means in a broad sense a cold analysis on balancing ideals and policy platforms, skill and knowledge base, with ability and knowledge to enact one’s agenda. Meaning, it’s not about warm fuzzies, rhetorical posturing, or platitudes.
So how hard is it being mayor? In my work with the Mayors Innovation Project over the last year in a half, I’ve had a chance to talk with and meet mayors all around the nation of cities big and small. I’ve learned a lot about what cities can do and what they can’t do. Beyond just working on locally led policies, seeing what works in best practices out there, I’m also working with Wellstone global to create a program to train first-term mayors. The reason why? Being a mayor is hard. Governing, building coalitions, managing a city, working through bureaucracy, state preemption, is a hard job with a steep learning curve. It is one thing running for mayor, it is a completely different thing governing effectively. Cities have real limits to what they can accomplish. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be ambitious, but there are limits. So I can’t stress this enough, being a mayor is a hard job and I fully respect the amount of effort that goes into running a city.
Be it having to have a balanced operational budget, or the ability to finance capital budgets but those payments still have to come from somewhere, with federal and state grants or foundational grants helping with flexibility. Much of being mayor is understanding how to navigate budget operations, its limits, and where you can push them or find workarounds. Understanding ways to fund infrastructure projects, such as the possibility of implementing a water affordability program as a way to offset any water utility price hikes to fund infrastructure updates.
Then there is working with the Common Council, with department heads, managing services and infrastructure. In Madison, the mayor manages the operational aspect of the city, as well as serving as its head executive. The need to work with multiple jurisdictions of other entities form businesses, to civilians, other towns and cities, the county, the state, and the federal government. The scope of who they work with and what they do is larger than I think most people know and respect.
Finding the right candidate – the right mayor – is a delicate balancing act, especially in a city facing the challenges Madison is facing. Whomever is mayor of Madison has to understand how to work within the state of Wisconsin with a hostile legislator towards cities like Madison – good luck convincing the legislator in the creation of a regional transportation authority which is currently not possible under state law.
But, with environmental problems, housing, economic, and it’s ever-present racial disparities, this election is important, there are a lot of dynamics in this race we have to sort through. I want effective leadership which won’t hesitate to address the persistent issues around race this city faces. I want leadership that won’t just speak on it, but will lead the way, willing to engage when they may be wrong, to listen, learn and grow. To know no matter their background they are not the end all in knowing how to address problems, but to go to those who may have put in the work to understand the structures at play, to listen to communities most impacted, to not put their ego or ambitions above the needs of the people.
I want a mayor who will not center themselves as a person but center solutions. Someone who will not take outsized credit but give it where it is due. Someone who doesn’t present themselves as the end-all but just the start. Someone who doesn’t think they are the only person capable of solving the problems the city faces, but has the skills and knowledge to understand it truly does take a village. I want someone bold, who will push the conversation; not workgroup it or talk around the edges of a problem. Someone more focused on solutions than what other candidates or potential candidates may be saying. I want someone who doesn’t deflect blame for the city’s problems, but embraces rightful criticism and solutions for a path forward.
Bold action is needed and unpopular stances at times must be taken. And even then smart administration, bureaucratic maneuvering, coalition building, and more will be required to effectively pull it off. Their approach to the issues and how capable they are here are what matters the most, precisely because most of the candidates would agree on the issues Madison faces: racial disparities, housing, transportation, climate change.
For me, it’s a balance of ideals, vision, know-how, willingness to learn, and capability to get the job done. I’m not voting for the person per se, I’m voting for their set of ideals and ideas developed over years of deep thought. In engaging in various ways with the different candidates over the last handful of years and observing them this election season, without a doubt in my mind Satya Rhodes-Conway is best fit to be mayor of Madison.
Why Satya? Again, being a mayor is hard, you not only have a policy agenda that must be developed, you have to work with the common council to get it passed. You have to get departments onboard. You have to build public trust and narrative then lead it from out front, you don’t’ wait for others to build consensus you do it. And this must be done in a restrictive environment. You have big problems around housing, transportation, jobs, pollution, racial disparities, climate change, etc. And a lot of those problems, like climate change can’t be fully solved with local action, so you have to maximize a cities potential. Satya will do that.
Satya has spent 13 years learning. Not only learning, but teaching what works in cities and what doesn’t. She has become the person mayors call when they have a problem, and with some cities I’ve seen they literally have all the problems – problems most people can’t imagine. You want someone with not only clear policy ideas, but can put together a resolution, know how to implement policies (which is hard), and work the bureaucratic process along the way? Satya will do that. She is the most technically sound candidate running for mayor. Period.
You also won’t believe in anyone that believes in the power of cities like Satya, I may not agree with her on this, but this is one area where I’m OK disagreeing. She knows the limits of Madison, knows strategies and ways to work around state preemption – if there is a way. She pulls policy ideas out of her head when needed and if she doesn’t know she knows where to look. In softer skills Satya is a good listener, perhaps an underrated one, with that said if you’re coming with an idea or pushing back on her you best come with your evidence- she is the definition of evidence-based.
What I’ve liked in her race is calling out institutional racism in this city head-on, she also understands her own privilege as a white woman and is more than willing to engage those most impacted to learn from them. She knows Madison is a “segregated city” calling it just that. She knows the city can’t and shouldn’t go into communities telling them what they need and instead must listen. Knowing a lot of policy is one thing, a lived experience is another and she knows this. She has the will to target root causes. In a recent interview with Young Gifted & Black (YGB), she mentioned the need to decriminalize homelessness, something I haven’t seen any other candidate come close to mentioning. She will work hard for all Madison residents. She knows her privileges and limitations around racial equity and will engage with those who are most impacted and with a deep analysis of race and racism to put together a bold set of ideas to tackle racism in Madison head on. She then has the skills to implement these ideas, without being scared to tactically go up against those in power who stand as police barricades to progress.
Her solutions are specific and holistic. Spend an hour talking to her (it’s not enough) about any topic you want and she will give a detailed analysis of it and a path forward. But like I said, she also knows her limits and is just as likely to listen for an hour asking questions as she would be talking. Perhaps it’s the wonky nature I relate to, the curiosity in trying to deeply understand a problem and then trying to figure out how to fix it. Like all the candidates I believe her heart is in the right place. But heart isn’t enough, her intellectual curiosity is unmatched. A side note: she also is a fan of comic characters and other geeky things, so if you want to spend your hour talking about that she can do that, too.
I do have concerns about her ability to communicate these ideas to the public in a way that is accessible. She’s lived in a wonky world for a long time, she has lots of ideas but can she present them to the city population in a way where they will support them to help her agenda? I don’t know. But when weighing the skill needs of a mayor, I’d rather someone be too wonky than not wonky enough. I’d rather them be too intellectual than not enough. I want someone to be able to deeply engage on all the issues, not just one or two. And, well, I have no questions she will be an excellent city manager and managing the bureaucratic nature of the government with expertise, especially because she has worked with mayors with some unimaginably mismanaged cities with mayors who step into office on their first day facing crisis’s that would make Madison residents drop their jaw.
This is why I am supporting Satya: clear ideas and policies, deep wealth of knowledge to pull from, experience in understanding cities in a way no one else has, knowing her own limitations and blind spots, the skill set to step in day 1 and lead her agenda, and an endless curiosity in solving problems. I just don’t see another candidate fitting the holistic profile needed to run a city, coldly her spiderweb chart fills out the most area compared to other candidates – being mayor isn’t a job for specialists in one area; you have to have a wide set of skills and she has the widest and deepest. Satya is unmatched in this field.
Like I said, this is a delicate balance, and with many supporting similar policies stances to me the defining factor is who is more likely to be able to navigate the city government to manage the city and implement their agenda. To me, that answer is Satya. With that said, I believe Mo would be a strong mayor for the city of Madison. I’m curious about Raj and think he has the base set of transferable skills, but just don’t think they are refined enough. With that said, I think he’d be an intriguing option for Madison, bringing a unique energy and focus on climate I appreciate. Bottom line it is time to move on from Paul, time for new blood, and new ideas are needed. The city needs experience, someone with a deep well of clear ideas with a clear path forward, who will take bold stances, who will repair the city’s relationship with the county’s government for collective action, who isn’t scared of a fight, and has the skills to implement their ideas.
When taking everything in, it is clear as day to me that person, that woman, is Satya Rhodes-Conway.
A quick note for other elections, for the Madison School Board Race I’m supporting Ali Muldrow, Ananda Mirilli, and Kaleem Caire. And since I live in District 13, and I’m supporting Tag Evers for Alder.