The Urban League of Greater Madison, along with a handful of Madison-area Black organizations, hosted a Madison mayoral candidate forum on Tuesday night that tackled a wide range of topics facing Madison’s Black residents and challenged the candidates in their approach to doing more to help support the development and growth of Madison’s Black communities.
The mayoral candidates present at the panel were the incumbent, Satya Rhodes-Conway, along with Scott Kerr and Gloria Reyes, who will face off in a primary election on Feb. 21. The two highest vote-getters will go head to head in the April 4 general election.
The debate at the Urban League acted as grounds for the panel of mayoral candidates to prove both their dedication to and depth of knowledge around the issues that most affect those who are often underrepresented in Madison. Hosts of the event included NAACP Dane County Branch, Urban League of Greater Madison, 100 Black Men of Madison & Wisconsin Interfaith Voter Engagement Campaign.
The topic of homeownership was immediately addressed in the first question. Black homeownership is drastically low in Madison compared to other areas of the country.
Reyes spoke first about the need of building wealth in the Black community, and Kerr followed up with reflections on developers buying land at high prices to create unaffordable housing. Rhodes-Conway spoke specifically to three distinct points that are the current focus in her approach to housing.
“My staff is actively researching right now how we can create ownership opportunities for that first-time homebuyer,” said Rhodes-Conway. “It might not be a detached, single-family home, it may be a townhouse or it might be a condo, but we are actively working on how we can create that type of housing in Madison. That’s thing one. Thing two is helping to support folks to be ready for ownership and be able to enter the ownership market. The third thing is we need to build wealth so people can afford to buy in our community.”
The next question centering on developments such as the Black Business Hub and Center for Black Excellence brought praise for Southside community organizations from Rhodes-Conway who spoke to what could be done with more funding. Reyes has a specific concern on securing the sustainability of such efforts and planning around a fiscal cliff in the city budget.
“I guess let’s just be frank here,” Reyes said. “If it wasn’t for the one-time money, the city would not have made this commitment. A budget is a statement of priorities. If no one-time money itself was available, we would not have made that a priority. We can’t use one-time money for ongoing projects. We’re creating a budget hole, and it’s worse than the bus rapid transit system.”
In the wake of the murder of Tyre Nichols, the question of body-worn cameras for police was met with support from Kerr who also advocated for going further stating, “The problem is the body cameras aren’t enough. [Regarding the] incident in Memphis, the only reason that we all know exactly what happened was the overhead camera as well. The combination is important, and I fully support putting body cameras on every officer and expanding our traffic camera overhead.”
Reyes, who is looking to become Madison’s first Latina mayor, challenged Rhodes-Conway on the issue claiming her “silence” on this issue is part of the problem. Reyes recalled her own efforts as deputy mayor in pushing for body cameras and transparency in the police department. Rhodes-Conway went on to respond to Reyes’s challenge by asserting that she is waiting on feedback from initial pilot testing of body camera usage in Madison, but that this may not speak to the root of the issue.
“We’re asking the wrong question. The question is not ‘should police have body cameras or not?’ The question is, ‘how do we prevent misbehavior in police departments?’ Body cameras might be part of the answer, but they are definitely not the whole answer,” said Rhodes-Conway, while acknowledging the efforts being made by Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes.
“That’s what we need to be talking about is: how do we prevent these horrific incidents from happening? Not just: how do we hold people accountable afterwards? That’s important, but it’s more important to prevent those kinds of things from happening at all,” she added.
On the issue of voter registration and ensuring access to vote for Black and brown communities in Madison, Reyes and Kerr both spoke to the importance of education around politics for younger demographics. Kerr spoke specifically on raising awareness around voting to energize constituents.
“I’ve been a city employee since I was 18 years old,” said Kerr. “Every election, I would tell every customer that drove out of the Lake Street ramp [on the UW campus] when I was working there that I wanted them to vote me a new boss. Anything you can do to encourage people to vote is great.”
Questions on budgeting were also on the community’s mind as Rhodes-Conway and Kerr both spoke to the difficulty of balancing a sustainable budget with more expenses but a lack of support from the state legislature. Inquiries into if Madison gets its fair share of state revenue and what it is used for also brought weariness for the future, something Reyes reflected on in her answer.
“We’re going to be in a fiscal crisis in the next couple of years. And as mayor, I will advocate and send my legislative liaison to the state capitol and advocate for additional funds. In reality, I’m going to have to work with what I have, and meet with my finance staff on how we got here in the first place,” Reyes said while also questioning the efficacy of the intended bus rapid transit system.
“I’m going to assess city services. I’m going to meet with all of our nonprofit organizations and all the CEOs that we fund, and we’re going to figure out what is working and what’s not,” she continued. “Where do we need to invest our funds so that it takes us further?”
The panel of candidates all felt strongly about addressing homelessness, housing, and zoning as issues that affect Madison residents’ ability to find housing and providing equity in the housing market. Although the candidates’ level of knowledge and approach differed in many areas of housing, all candidates felt opposed to the 1849 Criminal Abortion Ban that has been reverted back to in Wisconsin since the fall of Roe v. Wade.
A few questions from the audience asked the mayoral candidates how they plan to lead around supporting Black and brown youth in Madison at a time when we are seeing devastatingly low test scores and a lack of opportunity for community engagement and building. Rhodes-Conway and Reyes both spoke to the power of inclusion and programming around youth in the schools and outside of the schools.