Madison’s candidates for mayor shared the debate stage Saturday, likely for the final time before Tuesday’s primary election, during a forum at the First Unitarian Society.
Six candidates — Satya Rhodes-Conway, Mo Cheeks, Raj Shukla, Toriana Pettaway and Nick Hart — are challenging incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin. Pettaway is running as a write-in candidate and her name will not appear on the Feb. 19 ballot. Hart did not attend Saturday's event.
The forum was moderated by Urban League of Greater Madison president and CEO Ruben Anthony and attended by an estimated 400 people.
All candidates responded to the same questions and addressed issues of transportation, poverty, climate change, police in schools and the juvenile justice system. In the opening questions, candidates offered their visions for the city if elected and why they should be Madison’s next mayor.
Soglin told the crowd that they deserve a mayor who is accountable and “responsible to the commitment they’ve made.” Referencing his past two consecutive terms, Soglin said Madison has done well and “that we will always strive to do better in terms of equity, in terms of sharing.”
“My vision is a community — Madison, Wisconsin — a county and hopefully the state, a nation where we have a cooperation, a collaboration between the public sector, the private sector, dedicated individuals, to recognizing the worth and the value of every person,” Soglin said.
In his opening remarks, Soglin also expressed his commitment to address the opioid crisis.
Rhodes-Conway repeated her commitment to running for mayor: “Everyone in Madison should have the opportunity to thrive.” To do this, Rhodes-Conway said the next mayor must have the “political courage” to address affordable housing, bring bus rapid transit to the city, deal with racial disparities and prepare for the effects of climate change.
With her experience as a former alder and as the current managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, Rhodes-Conway said she knows how cities work.
“I want to get to work,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I want Madison to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.”
Cheeks described a city that, if he's mayor, grows more inclusive, innovative and safe. He currently represents District 10 on Madison’s City Council and is the executive director of business development at MIOsoft.
Cheeks said the Madison community is ready to move forward with a leader who has a sense of urgency.
“My vision for the city of Madison is one where we are willing to become discontent enough to address this persistent reputation that we’ve developed as a tale of two cities,” Cheeks said. “I believe our community is ready to live up to our progressive values."
Cheeks’ vision also includes a city where youth grow up in a community knowing they can be successful.
Shukla, executive director for the nonprofit River Alliance of Wisconsin, expressed the need for effective and collaborative local leadership to address the challenges Madison faces. His vision for Madison is outlined in what he calls his Green Growth Agenda.
“I believe growth in this community is going to happen,” Shukla said. “I believe that that growth can happen while we respect our responsibilities to the environment, and I believe that growth must happen while we honor commitment to social, racial and economic equity.”
As the city’s racial equity coordinator, Pettaway explained how she works with city departments to consider equity and analyze how decisions will affect communities of color and low-income populations.
“My vision for the city of Madison is shared prosperity and what that looks like for everyone,” Pettaway said. “We have to address things from a grassroots perspective with new civic engagement that is not risk averse, that is not complement and it is not overly intellectual, with real data analysis.”
On transit, all candidates support bus rapid transit and acknowledge that the city’s transportation system should work with surrounding municipalities to be the most effective. Shukla said he would have prioritized transit over other issues, such as the Madison Public Market, and will move toward a fare free system if elected.
Candidates expressed a commitment to tackling climate change, providing different solutions.
Cheeks repeated his promise to create a deputy mayor position focused on environmental issues while Shukla told the crowd voters could choose him as an environmentalist instead. Shukla is the chair of the Sustainable Madison Committee, which recommended a plan to reach 100 percent renewable energy and net zero carbon use by 2030.
Pettaway said the city needs to create a system that minimizes local commuter traffic and on-street parking.
Rhodes-Conway said the city must achieve its clean energy goals but also facilitate programs that help residents live greener, like making their homes more energy efficient, for example. She would also like to see department level leadership on sustainability instead of a position that is subject to political transition.
Soglin described steps city employees are already taking to address climate change, including monitoring salt use on icy roads. In addition, the city is ordering electric buses and plans to purchase hybrid police vehicles. He also said city planners are actively working to re-think mall space to “transform them into true urban areas.”
All candidates said they would prefer not to have police officers, known as educational resource officers, in four of Madison’s high schools. That decision is set by the school board and district, which contracts with the city for the police officer positions.
As alternatives, Pettaway said school should utilize community partners and Rhodes-Conway suggested hiring elders from communities of color to participate in schools. Cheeks would prioritize mentorships and internships through a cradle to career program. If contracts for ERO positions continue, Shukla said he would make sure people of color are not being disproportionately harmed by the policy.
Soglin criticized the school district’s previous zero tolerance policy. To address juvenile crime, Soglin has been meeting with a group of city, county, school and community leaders and hopes it will create the impetus for more group homes in Dane County.
To reduce the number of youth in the criminal justice system, Rhodes-Conway said the city can address root causes that include stable housing, access to literacy, education and healthy food. Cheeks highlighted his work developing a plan to reduce community violence, which led to city funding of peer support programs, and researching children’s college savings accounts.
Shukla said including youth voices in government is imperative, and Pettaway stressed providing holistic services to children and their families.
The event was hosted in partnership with the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the Urban League of Greater Madison, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim and the Wisconsin Network for Peace, Justice & Sustainability.
Madison's primary election is Tuesday. The two candidates with the most votes will be on the ballot April 2.