River Alliance of Wisconsin Executive Director Raj Shukla is running for Madison mayor, he told Madison365 in an interview Thursday.
Shukla is also chair of the City’s Sustainable Madison Committee. Like many political newcomers, he’s running at least in part as a response to the Trump presidency.
“We’re living through this moment in history, where we are watching huge economic and racial disparities show themselves right now,” he said. “We’re living in this time with President Trump, and a state government that is openly hostile to the ideals of this community. And, I feel a lot of people are overwhelmed by all of it. All of it that is happening, and the speed with which it is happening, and feel a little alone because of it.”
Shukla said his campaign will be all about building community.
“I’ve got three daughters, 10, 7, and 5,” he said. “The first one, to my wife and my surprise, was born with Down Syndrome. Which was just a shock to us, and suddenly we were looking at a different set of worries than a lot of parents think about right away. What we noticed was that our community just sort of started showing up for us. They started checking in on us, making sure we were okay. Helping us chart the path forward.”
Shukla believes many of the challenges Madison faces can be addressed through building community and coalitions. He cites his own experience as chair of the Sustainable Madison Committee as an example, as the committee helped smooth out some tensions when local utility Madison Gas and Electric changed their rate structure and some community members felt left out of the process.
“So, we as a committee, made the choice to try and build community,” he said. “We first reached out to MG and E, we started trying to have a dialogue with them to see how we could constructively move forward, and to their credit, they reached back, and we built a partnership. One that endures to this day. We work now, the city, and the largest utility in the city, the one that has the biggest share of business in the city. We’re working together, to solve common problems to electrify buses, or to find sites across the city where solar can be put in, that kind of thing, and that happened because we made a commitment to working together.”
Shukla, who was appointed to the Sustainable Madison Committee by current Mayor Paul Soglin in 2013 and became chair in 2014, said community-minded thinking can also be applied to other issues, like housing.
“I think that one solution to that is by creating tighter knit neighborhoods, making sure that amenities are within walking distance or biking distance from people,” he said. “Making it easier for folks to move into the city, and bringing down the cost in the process, but the way that we get there in a city that is very proud of it’s history, and proud of the way things are is that we build a community around this shared thought that this is not a place where we should pricing out people from homes that they’ve lived in for 30 years. We should be finding a better way. The only path forward is to actually open up the issue, have a conversation about it and try to come to a constructive conclusion, a constructive path forward.”
Housing and transportation also have an effect on racial disparities, Shukla said.
“If you look at where there are real concentrations of poverty, where there are real concentrations of house disparities, they happen to be places where you don’t really have great access to transit,” he said. “They happen to be places where housing options are more limited. That is a real issue and they’re real symptoms, or maybe their drivers of some of the issues we are talking about.”
Shukla is the son of Indian immigrants and moved to Madison in 1994 to attend the University of Wisconsin. After graduating he served on an AmeriCorps project in Milwaukee and returned to Madison in 2006, first living on the North Side and then relocating to the Near West Side, where he and his family now live. Before taking the helm at River Alliance, he worked at the nonprofit tech company Cool Choices, which encourages people and businesses to live sustainably and reduce pollution through a “gamified” online platform.
Shukla said Soglin’s decision not to seek re-election had some effect on his own decision to run, but also that it changes the way Madison voters will think about the election.
“If he was in the race, it would be a big discussion about, Paul Soglin versus not Paul Soglin,” he said. “I’m excited about the possibility of the race being focused on issues … This race, in contrast to some other recent races is not going to be about big personalities battling it out. It will be about big ideas, and which ones capture the imagination of the community and which one inspire the community to take action.”
Shukla said he’s running for mayor because city government has a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of people, and he really wants to get more people involved in the community.
“If this campaign can be known for one thing, someday in the future, I want it to be about bringing more people into the political system, and expanding the pool of people who are a part of building the solutions that we need for this city,” he said. “I think that is what this community desires. That is what I am hearing from folks all the time. Folks want to get involved. They want to see the path to make progress and they want to be a part of it. This campaign is about making that happen. Helping people engage in the discussion that we need to have. Helping them be a part of building the solutions that we need to build.”
Shukla is the fourth candidate to formally announce a run for mayor, joining Alder Maurice Cheeks and former Alders Satya Rhodes-Conway and Brenda Konkel. The top two candidates in the February 19 primary will face off in the April 2 general election.