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It's Satya and Soglin: Incumbent mayor and former alder advance in Madison mayoral primary

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soglin rhodes-conway election night

Soglin watched election results come in at the Laurel Tavern on Monroe Street Tuesday night while Rhodes-Conway greeted supporters at the Harmony Bar on Atwood Avenue.

The candidates that emerged victorious from Tuesday's primary election for mayor of Madison chose cherished neighborhood taverns for their victory parties Tuesday night.

With all precincts reporting, Mayor Paul Soglin secured 28.6 percent of the vote with former alder Satya Rhodes-Conway close behind with 27.7 percent, a difference of just 323 votes. Ald. Mo Cheeks finished in third place with just over 23 percent of the vote and environmental advocate Raj Shukla came in fourth with over 18 percent. Comedian Nick Hart received 386 votes, or 1 percent.

Among a small crowd of supporters gathered at the Laurel Tavern on Monroe Street, Soglin thanked his supporters, his wife and campaign staff after learning he had advanced through the primary and would face Rhodes-Conway in the general election April 2.

Soglin said voters have a “clear choice” in the general election.

“We have to look forward,” Soglin said. “We’re a growing community. We have to look to a growing and diverse community. We have to address the kinds of challenges in regards to job opportunities, in regard to housing, especially in regard to health.”

Meanwhile, across town at the Harmony Bar on Atwood Avenue, Rhodes-Conway abandoned for a moment the calm demeanor she often exhibited on the campaign trail, proclaiming, "It's clear that Madison is ready for a change!"

She thanked several women political leaders in her speech — Alds. Rebecca Kemble, Marsha Rummel and Ledell Zellers, former Ald. Denise DeMarb, Rep. Lisa Subeck, Kelda Helen Roys — and her partner Amy Klusmeier before stressing that her campaign was successful despite being "dramatically outspent."

"The fact that I'm standing here tonight is testament that people are more important than dollars," she said.

If elected in April, Rhodes-Conway would be the city's first openly gay mayor. While acknowledging that Tuesday night, she also discussed what it would mean for Madison to have a woman as mayor.

"I don’t think about myself so much as I think about young queer people who can see themselves in leadership and what that means to them, that they can see anything is possible," she said. "That’s what makes me emotional. I want young women to see themselves in executive positions."

General election stage is set.

Soglin, 73, has served as Madison's mayor for 22 non-consecutive years over nearly five decades. If re-elected as mayor, he would begin his third consecutive term.

The longtime mayor announced in July during an unsuccessful campaign for governor that he would step aside from the mayor's office. Later in October, he changed his mind and joined the 2019 mayoral race. Soglin attributed his change of heart to his “concern” for and “love” of Madison.

During his tenure, Soglin has prioritized food policy and created a healthy retail food initiative. He began an affordable housing program that set a goal of building 1,000 units of affordable housing in five years. Under his leadership, Soglin has pushed for a Madison Public Market despite some debates over its priority for city funding. He also cites increases in income and decreases in unemployment for African American households.

Soglin’s current term has been marked with the ongoing twists and turns of the Judge Doyle Square development project. He has negotiated with the Chicago-based developer on a plan that returns the development rights to half of the project back to the city.

The mayor has said he is the most equipped out of all the candidates to lead the city, noting his managing skills. Soglin said there are five critical areas he would address if re-elected: housing, transportation, health care, quality childcare and education, including career development.

On election night, Soglin said the city has improved in the areas of housing and racial disparities since he returned to office in 2011.

“That doesn’t mean we’re satisfied,” Soglin said. “That does not mean we’re content with our situation here in Madison, Wisconsin. It does mean we are on the right track, that we undid the policies that were in effect prior to 2011, and we cannot go backward.”

Soglin supporter Jen Schoff works in the mental health field and said she voted for the incumbent mayor because of his track record on health issues, specifically mentioning the opioid crisis. 

"I would really like Paul Soglin to win," Schoff said. "He advocates for the folks I see regularly." 

Rhodes-Conway, 47, is a former alder and is currently the managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. Through her work, she deals directly with municipalities to find solutions for the challenges they’re facing.

Rhodes-Conway represented parts of the city’s east and north sides on the City Council, from East High School to Warner Park, from 2007 to 2012. She served with former mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Soglin.

Her time on the City Council overlapped with the city’s contentious deliberations over using public funds for the Edgewater Hotel, which she opposed from the start of the project. She also served on the team that negotiated a deal to erase Overture Center’s $28.6 million bank debt.

Heather Schaller and Sarah Davis played the card game Spoons, but substituting forks, with their daughter, Frances at the Harmony as results rolled in. Both were supporters of Rhodes-Conway since day one.

“She’s always been committed to community organizing,” Schaller said. “She has the skills from her time on the City Council to enact policy, implement change, improve the city for everybody.”

Davis pointed to Rhodes-Conway’s experience at the Mayors Innovation Project as a signal that she’s well versed in municipal policy and trends from around the country.

“She’ll be ready on day one,” Davis said. “She’s done so much work with other cities and she’s excited to look for best practices from other cities and bring them here.”

Rhodes-Conway prioritizes housing, climate change, transportation and the city’s racial disparities as top challenges that she would address if elected.

Throughout her campaign, she has said she would expand the Affordable Housing Fund to maintain existing housing and buy land for development, improve stormwater management and implement Bus Rapid Transit. Rhodes-Conway has also suggested hiring elders from communities of color to address school safety and would like climate change efforts to be led by heads of city departments.

Cheeks, Shukla built support, but not enough

Cheeks, 34, is the current alder for District 10 and the executive director of business development at MIOsoft, a Madison-based data quality software company. During his three terms as alder, Cheeks has worked to bring a new park, complete with a full-sized basketball court and Wi-Fi access, to the Allied Drive neighborhood. He also spearheaded research into college savings accounts for children in Madison.

On Tuesday, Cheeks’ supporters gathered at Hawk’s on State Street, nibbling appetizers as they watched results on TV. Cheeks arrived to cheers around 9 p.m., when it was clear he had come in third place. He made his way throughout the bar, hugging and shaking hands at every table.

As he began his speech, he congratulated Soglin and Rhodes-Conway on their wins.

“I am more encouraged than ever because of how many of you were willing to work this hard for the future of our city,” Cheeks said as he thanked his wife, his campaign staff and his supporters. “At the heart of this campaign was hope, and you never lost it, and I never lost it because of you. In a moment in time where politics is wildly divisive, where politics is pop culture and it’s ugly and it’s frustrating, this campaign and Madison … showed that we still believe that we can be a part of the solution together.”

Urging his supporters to stay engaged and hopeful, Cheeks pledged to continue to do his part to drive a conversation about how to make Madison a place of “shared prosperity” and “shared hope.”

Cheeks, along with District 20 Ald. Matt Phair, was vocal on the issue of gun violence in Madison. They began calling for a coordinated response to curbing violence in 2016.

During his campaign, Cheeks has said he would implement a position in the mayor’s office to work on environmental issues, double the city’s affordable housing fund, create a mental health crisis center and prioritize internships and mentorships through a cradle to career program.

Former Madison alder Mark Clear, who has frequently clashed with Soglin, said he thinks Cheeks should support Rhodes-Conway going forward. In a brief conversation after his speech, Cheeks said he had not yet thought about whether he would endorse a candidate in the general election.

Clear said he had expected Cheeks and Rhodes-Conway to emerge from the primary, and was disappointed Cheeks hadn’t fared better.

Still, Clear said, the primary results should put Soglin on edge.

“As an incumbent at less than 30 percent, the mayor should be very concerned,” Clear said.

Shukla, 42, is the executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin and the chair of the Sustainable Madison Committee, which recommended a plan to reach 100 percent renewable energy and net zero carbon use by 2030.

His watch party at the Roman Candle Pizza on Monroe Street started out energized and festive, but the crowd grew quieter the results became clear.

“It looks like it’s not our night tonight,” Shukla said to an attendee before making his concession speech.

Attendees in the crowd said that they supported Shukla because he brought something new to the table. So when it became clear that the general election would be between Soglin and Rhodes-Conway, they expressed support for Rhodes-Conway.

“I just called Satya Rhodes-Conway to congratulate her on her night tonight, this city clearly wants a change,” Shukla told the crowd. “I wish her well on the campaign ahead.”

Shukla thanked the crowd for having the “courage to believe that we could do things bigger than we ever thought possible.”

“And we are going to need it,” he said. “Climate change isn’t going to go away … inequities across this community are still persistent. We will need every one of you to get involved in our democracy, to stay involved in our democracy.”

A self-described environmentalist, Shukla’s Green Growth agenda envisions a growing community that respects responsibilities to the environment and honors commitments to social, racial and economic equity.

Shukla specifically said he would move toward fare-free transit, implement bus rapid transit, offer expedited permitting for buildings that meet environmental standards and spearhead a city-wide early childhood care program. He also said the city could looking in zoning reform and the possibility of eliminating single-family home zoning.

While offering comedic relief at some candidate forums, Hart also called out racism in Madison and suggested changes to how the Madison Police Department operates.

Toriana Pettaway, 48, works for the city as the racial equity coordinator. She ran as a write-in candidate after falling short of the state-mandated 200 signatures needed to get on the ballot by one.

At the close of polls Tuesday, 346 voters, 0.9 percent, wrote in a candidate for Madison mayor, but as of Wednesday morning it was undetermined how many of those votes went to Pettaway.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

Jason Joyce has lived in Madison for over 30 years, starting as a student at UW-Madison. After working at Isthmus for 15 years, where he oversaw digital operations and wrote a sports column, he took over as news editor at The Capital Times in 2013.