OWR mayoral forum

From left, Our Wisconsin Revolution-Dane County Shabnam Lotfi, Maurice Cheeks, Satya Rhodes-Conway, Paul Soglin, Raj Shukla, Nick Hart and Toriana Pettaway

For the second time this election season, Madison’s six candidates for mayor gathered Tuesday to share their views on issues facing the city including its transportation system, law enforcement, chronic hunger and housing. 

The Dane County chapter of Our Wisconsin Revolution, a group formed in the wake of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to implement the senator’s progressive agenda locally, hosted the event at the Madison Central Library with a number of community partners.

Incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin, who has held the city’s top position for 22 years, faces four candidates on the Feb. 19 ballot: Mo Cheeks, alder for District 10 and vice president of business development at MIOsoft; Satya Rhodes-Conway, former alder and the managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy; Raj Shukla, the executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin and chair of the Sustainable Madison Committee and comedian Nick Hart.

Toriana Pettaway, Madison’s racial equity coordinator, lacked the necessary 200 signatures to be on the ballot but said she will run as a write-in candidate.

The general election is April 2 and will feature the two candidates who receive the most votes out of the primary.

Candidates addressed Madison’s transportation system as a whole and, specifically, the safety and accessibility of bicycling in Madison. For Rhodes-Conway, improving alternative modes of transportation is tied to addressing environmental concerns.

“If we are going to address climate change, which we have to do in the next decade, then part of our solution has to be reducing emissions from our transportation sector,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Cheeks, Pettaway and Hart broadly said the city needs to build more and complete bicycle and pedestrian paths that are safe, and Soglin discussed the challenges of providing protection from automobile traffic. Shukla made a goal of expanding protected bike lanes by about five miles.

From a transportation system perspective, candidates were in agreement that implementing bus rapid transit is a priority.

“Bus rapid transit is our most immediate goal,” Soglin said.

Obtaining federal funding for bus infrastructure and the state authority to create a regional transit system are challenges to overhauling the transportation system, Soglin said. However, Shukla felt confident his experience working toward compromises in rural areas to protect water quality gives him the experience to convince state leaders otherwise.

“We can have leadership that can build coalitions around the state to try and sway some of the Republican votes,” Shukla said.

Cheeks said as mayor, he would advocate for a comprehensive transportation plan to bring the conversation back to being people-focused.

To move the city toward using 100 percent renewable energy, Soglin said continuing to invest in electric buses and solar-fueled city facilities are key strategies. Shukla emphasized rapidly electrifying the city’s fleet, Hart suggested more incentives for business and Pettaway called for minimizing cars on the road to reduce emissions.

Cheeks said he would add a position in the mayor’s office focused on sustainability to address the city’s “piecemeal progress.” Rhodes-Conway suggested helping individual homeowners retrofit their homes for energy efficiency.

Law enforcement

In December 2017, a consultant released 146 recommendations for the Madison Police Department. The City Council approved the $400,000 for the study in a controversial vote.

Currently, an ad hoc committee is reviewing the recommendations and will submit its report to the City Council.

Rhodes-Conway supports the OIR Group’s report, which covers issues of racial equity, restorative justice, community engagement, mental health resources, criminal investigations and risk management initiatives. She said increased accountability is a priority.

“We lack trust between our police department -- and frankly our city -- and communities of color, and that’s unacceptable,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Pettaway called out her young son in the audience and said she worries about him growing up in Madison. She works with the police department on training officers to recognize their biases.

“When it comes to use of force, bias is very real,” Pettaway said.

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Shukla said increased transparency, accountability and training and a maintained commitment to hiring officers of color and women are important for the police department. He also questioned Police Chief Mike Koval’s use of his blog as a best way to communicate.

Hart has suggested that the police department patrol less. Cheeks would like to see transparency in police data.

“Of course police and community relations are not adequate,” Cheeks said. “We don’t need to give up on the idea that everyone should feel safe in their community.

Soglin said the police department is addressing the accountability for individual officers through its professional standards. He urged Madison residents to get involved in the conversation.

“The larger community of Madison, Wisconsin has to be engaged in this discussion,” Soglin said. “It cannot be left to people who are so adamant in one view or the other.”

Hunger and housing

To address chronic hunger in Madison, Hart said Madison has to first admit its a problem. Pettaway called for creating better community partners to repurpose unused food, and Cheeks said better transportation is needed to close food deserts.

Rhodes-Conway, who sits on Madison’s Local Food Committee, listed a number of recommendations such as expanding access to healthy food in schools and community centers, improving healthy retail access and expanding access to wholesale food markets.

As mayor, Soglin created a food policy director position, currently held by George Reistad, in the mayor’s office. He emphasized expanding community gardens and getting the Madison Public Market up and running.

Candidates stressed creative solutions to address affordable housing in Madison with Rhodes-Conway suggesting co-ops and and land trusts and Shukla pointing to Minneapolis’ elimination of single-family zoning. Cheeks said he would double the city’s affordable housing fund, and Pettaway said the city needs more mixed-use housing.

Soglin looked toward reusing large parking lots by encouraging owners to redesign with street grids and developments that include retail and housing.

“We are examining all of the shopping centers,” Soglin said.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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.