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Satya Rhodes-Conway

Mayor-elect Satya Rhodes-Conway will be sworn into office Tuesday. 

When Mayor-elect Satya Rhodes-Conway takes office Tuesday, she will be making history as Madison's first openly gay mayor.

Rhodes-Conway, who will also become the second woman to serve as Madison mayor, said the historic nature of her election is on her mind because of the personal stories people are sharing with her.

“People keep telling me their stories and how much it means to them that they will have an out lesbian as their mayor,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Adults saying, ‘If I was a kid, it just would have changed my life to know that an out person can be running a city and now as an adult I’m so proud to have this.’”

The Municipal Equality Index, which examines how inclusive a city's laws, policies, and services are of LGBTQ people who live and work there, rated Madison at a max 100 score in 2018.

Steve Starkey, executive director of OutReach LGBT Community Center, said Madison has been an LGBTQ-friendly city for a long time. He acknowledged that Mayor Paul Soglin and former mayor Sue Bauman, the first woman to hold the office, have been longtime advocates of the LGBTQ community.  

However, having LGBTQ representation in City Hall, as opposed to just an ally, is different.

“I think that (Rhodes-Conway) will definitely have a different perspective on LGBT issues because she is a part of our community and may have more sensitivity or more appreciation for the struggles we face,” Starkey said.

Starkey said he would like to work with Rhodes-Conway to make sure that paperwork, such as grant applications and demographic questionnaires, provided by the city are inclusive of LGBTQ people.

Our Lives Magazine editor Emily Mills echoed Starkey’s sentiment that new representation in City Hall is critical, especially when the same perspective and experience have been represented in the mayor’s office.

“It’s a big deal to have the representation of a particular experience, unique experiences and perspectives that have not traditionally ever have had space in positions of power and decision making and leadership,” Mills said.

Mills said Madison is at a “turning point” to make changes and figure out how to balance growth of the city with equity.

“I don’t think it’s the end all be all that her identity is this thing, but I think that certainly helps shakes things up and brings new, unique perspectives for herself and then for the people she’s going to bring along in her administration,” Mills said.

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Rhodes-Conway was not the only lesbian mayoral candidate to succeed on April 2.

Chicago voters elected Lori Lightfoot, who becomes the city’s first openly gay and first black female mayor. In the Kansas City, Missouri, mayoral race, Jolie Justus advanced to the June general election. Justus was the first openly gay member of the Missouri Senate.

Madison and Chicago join 38 U.S. cities with openly LGBTQ mayors, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute. The institute is the partner organization of the Victory Fund, a political action committee that endorsed Rhodes-Conway in the mayoral election.

Victory Fund political director Sean Meloy said for a city to have an LGBTQ mayor is to automatically bring that perspective to government.

“It’s great to have allies, but when it comes down to a lot of issues, someone who’s from the LGBTQ communities can help bring that voice into the room and into the problem solving that a mayor does,” Meloy said.

Meloy also explained that Rhodes-Conway’s representation goes beyond the mayor’s office when she meets with other elected leaders, including presidential candidates that might come through Wisconsin.   

“She’s going to be representing our community,” Meloy said. “That’s a side benefit of being a mayor, but it’s a huge level of representation that right now we didn’t really have in Wisconsin at the mayoral level.”

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.