Toriana Pettaway is not going to remain silent. She is not going to tuck tail and go away. Pettaway is in the Mayoral race and she is in it to stay.
For anyone questioning her resolve or wondering if her ballot signatures misstep was going to impact her voice, her community meeting on Saturday on Madison’s south side was your answer.
Despite falling one signature short of the required number to get on the ballot for the February 19 primary, Pettaway is running as a write-in candidate.
Pettaway said that the city is in a state of emergency and that the emergency is the failure on the part of city leaders to provide equity and to address the major racial issues that divide Madison in a head-on way.
Members of the community gathered Villager Mall on Madison’s South Side Saturday to listen to Pettaway give her discourse on her run for mayor, what the major issues are and to find out what she meant by saying the city is in a state of emergency.
What they got was much more than that. What they got was all of Toriana Pettaway. She held hands, literally, with members of the community as they cried or expressed rage about the racial disparities in Madison. She heard the stories of voters and what matters to them. She laughed, she was blunt, she prodded, she even cussed. But, more than anything, she was just her. She was just real. And, for the voters on hand, there was something to be said for just being real.
“I’m not a politician,” Pettaway said. “I’m doing real work.”
“Thank God,” one voter interjected.
“I’m already leading this city,” Pettaway said. “This is how you lead: by taking people’s hands and being patient, kind.”
Pettaway mingled with those in attendance, seeking to understand what was driving voters to the ballot box. Some members of the community said they were ready for a woman to take the lead in Madison. Others said they wanted to see racial disparities addressed. One man brought up the homelessness that still plagues Madison as much as it ever has. And others weren’t sure what drove them to come to the meeting but they are sure they want to see a change from the status quo in Madison’s leadership.
It is a status quo Pettaway told residents she is all too familiar with. In her position as Madison’s first-ever racial equity coordinator, she has been privy to all the behind-the-scenes ways in which the powers that be in Madison continue to punt on issues of racial equity, she says.
Pettaway said that’s indicative of how race-based issues are often handled in Madison. People don’t drop the ball. They just kick it to a different part of the field and hope no one sees that it’s still there.
“When the homeless people got run out of the city-county building, they had to disperse them. When Broadway-Simpson was Broadway-Simpson, what was the solution? They moved them over to Allied. Right? So that’s our solutions in our community. This is why it’s a state of emergency because it’s always been dispersal. It’s never been getting to the root. What are we experiencing right now in Tree Lane? This is why it’s a state of emergency,” she said.
Pettaway said that once all the families, most of whom had experienced substantial amounts of trauma, were safely stowed away at Tree Lane, leadership in the city acted like that was another job well-done and another issue solved. But the housing project at Tree Lane has had tremendous problems and now one of its primary service providers, the YWCA of Dane County, is backing out and several families are being evicted. The evicted families will take their struggles somewhere else. Pettaway says that would not have been the situation if she was mayor.
“I would not, if I was mayor, have put all those families in those units at one time,” she said. “They needed individualized care plans in place. I definitely would not have put all those families in there at once. It’s a setup for failure. The Tree Lane setup is not diversity. It’s just rounding up a bunch of people in a place and wiping your hands saying, ‘We got you off the street’”.
Pettaway said she would have engaged the families and met them where they are. Literally. She implored residents to demand that instead of the future mayor asking people to come downtown to see them, the mayor should be going around the city engaging with people in their own spaces.
Carving out space for herself has been a challenge. Pettaway has found city politics to be an unending cycle of gladhands and yes-men for the mayor. And, for Pettaway, the lack of integrity nearly drove her out of it.
“People are scared to step out of line,” Pettaway said. “They marginalize you. I’m being marginalized as we speak. It’s serious. It’s very serious. Our current leadership, 26 department heads, aren’t going to rock the boat. So because I started seeing stuff in the mayor’s staff team meetings, I started saying ‘This is unethical’. I cannot sit in the mayor’s staff meetings and watch day after day community leaders come into the office and, before they came into the office we’d talk strategy, we’d talk politics. And yet after, the mayor will personally talk about people, particularly black and brown people. And I had to say, ‘Wait a minute, I know these people, this is unethical’ and the integrity part was killing me. It really was killing me. I had to draw a line and I stopped going to staff meetings. I basically told them why. I said I can’t do this. You’re talking about people who, when I leave here, I have to look them in the face. Like, you’re dogging the hell out of them.”
Since entering the race for mayor, Pettaway said she’s seen the forces seeking to marginalize her step up their efforts.
“Over the course of this time, I’ve cried. I’ve toiled while I would sit in church. Nobody knew why I was crying and toiling,” she said. “It’s because I knew this was gonna cost me something. It’s been costing me something. Because when I talk about marginalization, it’s been my marginalization. I know affirmative action. I know equal opportunities. Not just because I had to represent those things for individuals for employment or labor relations. No. Because I was always the only one. No matter what agency I worked for, no matter what job I was in, I was always the token N—-. Because that has been my experience.”
Pettaway hopes that her courage and willingness to use blunt words, straight talk and her deep empathy for people living on the fringes of the city, will help voters see that everyone living here is Madison.
“We are all Madison” is her motto. Because Madison includes people in low-income housing. It includes homeless families and homeless veterans. It includes the lone black or brown face in a board meeting or sitting on a commission. For Pettaway, it’s time to stop viewing one another as the Other.
“We can’t have the othering happening in Madison. That’s what We Are All Madison means. And that’s why I’m running for mayor,” she said.