When Brian Benford served on the Madison City Council in 2003, representing the north side, he was one of only a handful of Black alders ever to serve as a local elected official.
Today, he is the sole candidate running in District 6 and is poised to be the first person of color to represent the city’s politically active near east side. The spring election, scheduled for April 6, comes in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that has laid bare fundamental inequalities, and on the heels of local and nationwide protests over persistent racial disparities.
Many of the candidates entering local politics in 2021 say now is their moment to be directly involved in making decisions for their community and to represent the historically marginalized and vulnerable.
Some candidates are looking to take their Madison neighborhood leadership and experiences to the next level.
Though Madison has traditionally been a civically engaged community, the protests over the summer prompted even more interest in City Council meetings.
“There are a lot more candidates of color running, and I firmly believe that is a direct result (of) for far too long, we’ve been represented by people who might have been well intentioned but don't have the real life, lived experiences,” Benford, 61, said.
Benford said he’s also noticed some white politicians stepping aside.
Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, District 8, is not running for re-election and said in a statement that his “place in this movement is to actively recruit and seek out Black and Indignenous people of color with lived experience to run for office.” Local teacher Shawn Matson, who began a campaign for District 6, withdrew his candidacy in an effort to “not serve as a roadblock for District 6 to elect its first person of color to the Madison Common Council,” according to a campaign announcement on Facebook.
“As someone who is working to be an ally and co-conspirator, I had to ask myself whether I was operating in the interests of my values, not just my own personal ambition,” Matson said in the statement.
Though Benford is running without an opponent, 12 other City Council races are contested. There are more candidates of color running and, overall, more candidates — a total of 38, including incumbents — than in recent years.
Six districts are guaranteed to see new alders, and they will join the City Council during a difficult time. Madison is still responding to the COVID-19 public health crisis and wrestling with economic recovery.
Alders will face ongoing challenges including affordable housing and homelessness, demands for racial equity and justice, possible changes to the structure of Madison’s local government and redistricting.
Additionally, reimagining what public safety looks like in Madison, including funding of the Madison Police Department, will continue to be an issue for the new council and could center debates among candidates.
Some campaigns, like that of Benji Ramirez Gomez in District 2, grew out of involvement in the summer protests over police brutality and the movement to defund the police department. Others, including Kim Richman running in District 16, emphasize building relationships with police and argue less funding for police makes the city less safe.
Another challenge: Learning the ropes as a new alder while local government is mostly functioning in a remote way.
“It's a difficult time to think about entering into elected service but all the more important that we have people who are excited about that and willing to work and willing to really dig in and meet the challenges that the city faces,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, whose term ends in 2023, said.
While the city faces daunting hurdles, Benford said the pandemic has helped elucidate fundamental inequalities. He senses that Madison is in a “new age.” Looking ahead 10 years, Benford said he didn’t want to regret not being a part of bringing new, diverse voices to the council and uniting the city.
“I really believe here in Madison we can do much much better, and the key to that is city government,” Benford said.
Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, who was first elected in 1995, said there is greater interest in running for council this year though the number of alders retiring is on par with previous years. Verveer said the council is adept at navigating turnover. In 2019, nine new alders took office.
Rookie alders are typically “eager to get on the ground running,” he said, and “act like sponges in terms of taking in all that quickly needs to be learned.”
This year, nine incumbents will face challengers. Most City Council incumbents run unopposed, and the council hasn’t seen so many incumbents face challengers since 2013.
“The good thing about this rich diversity of candidates is even if you don’t win, it gives voice to the issues that you care about and brings attention to them,” said Alexia Sabor, chair of Dane County’s Democratic Party. “Running for office is exhausting, but even if you don’t win and you feel there's something that needs to be said, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to stand up and say that.”
Three district races will be narrowed after a primary election Feb. 16. The most competitive race will be for District 16 on the southwest side where five people are seeking the seat held by Ald. Michael Tierney, who is not running for re-election.
Two incumbents face primary challenges: Ald. Paul Skidmore will defend his District 9 seat on the west side against three challengers and Ald. Rebecca Kemble faces two challengers in her north side district.
Despite the large number of new candidates, eight districts are uncontested. Of those, five include incumbents: Alds. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1; Mike Verveer, District 4; Nasra Wehelie, District 7; Arvina Martin, District 11; and Grant Foster, District 15. Wehelie was appointed to replace former alder Donna Moreland, who left mid-term.
The Cap Times reached out to the 24 new candidates seeking election to the City Council and interviewed and corresponded with all of those who responded. Candidates interviewed for this story said they were motivated to run by the pandemic, longstanding racial injustice and recent protests over policing.
Gloria Reyes, president of Adelante, a local political group that supports candidates of color, said the advocacy around public health and law enforcement locally and across the nation demonstrates that people are eager for change.
Reyes, who is not seeking re-election to the Madison School Board this spring, said the crises affecting communities of color reinforce that now is a critical time for their voices to be heard.
“They're at a place where they feel they can have a voice and they feel empowered to sit at the table when these decisions are made, whereas in the past, it was really a space that we were not accustomed to be a part of for years,” Reyes said.
Organizations like Adelante and Blacks for Political and Social Action of Dane County (BPSADC) provide a formal support network for candidates of color entering the political scene, which can be a daunting experience for a newcomer.
Rev. David Hart, president of BPSADC, said the political action committee supports candidates of color and especially Black women running for office by providing tools, training and funds. He said BPSADC is “thrilled” to see the increased number of candidates — especially Black women — and more seats being challenged.
Prior to the 2015 election, the council had only had eight Black alders, all men: Eugene Parks, Joseph Thompson, Edwin Hill, Jr., Mike Shivers, Napoleon Smith, Brian Benford, Isadore Knox and Maurice Cheeks. In 2015, Alds. Sheri Carter, District 14, and Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, were elected as the first Black women to serve on the Council.
In recent years, the council has seen more firsts and become more diverse. This year, Hart described a “larger impetus to run, be counted at the table, have our voices heard.”
“The several pandemics of racism, of sexism and COVID have really awakened individuals, and they want to find a place where they can help and assist,” Hart said. “Particularly in districts where there are large communities of color that are not represented by an individual of color, I think there is a real urge to have our voices be heard in those districts.”
Jael Currie, housing director for YWCA Madison, is one of the five candidates in the District 16 race. She believes the presence of many candidates of color demonstrates “a need for representation that is truly for us.”
“Trust in and connection with the government is at an all time low. As a Black woman, I can say this is nothing new for me and members of Madison’s Black communities,” Currie, 33, said in an emailed statement. “We cannot expect officials, systems, and/or the government to represent us and our best interests if we don’t have a seat at the table, and opportunities to amplify our own voice as well as the voices of our communities.”
Along with Tierney and Prestigiacomo, Alds. Shiva Bidar, District 5; Marsha Rummel, District 6; Samba Baldeh, District 17; and Zachary Henak, District 10, are not running for re-election.
Hart noted that when an incumbent is challenged, it’s not necessarily a “knock” on their service, but rather new candidates feel that they have a fresher vision.
The nine incumbents facing challengers include Alds. Patrick Heck, District 2; Lindsay Lemmer, District 3; Paul Skidmore, District 9; Syed Abbas, District 12; Tag Evers, District 13; Sheri Carter, District 14; Rebecca Kemble, District 18; Keith Furman, District 19; and Christian Albouras, District 20.
In District 14, Urban Triage founder Brandi Grayson, 40, is challenging Carter, who has represented the south side for the past six years and is currently the president of the City Council.
Grayson, who called 2020 the year of the triple pandemic — COVID-19, social injustice and economic security — said creativity and innovation are needed on the City Council to make Madison safer and healthier. Challenging sitting alders is one way to get there.
“If we’re going to create change and really stand in the space where Madison is reflective of its population, then we must challenge incumbents,” Grayson said. “We must run really competitive races.”
Reyes underscored the importance of elected leaders of color who understand the complexities of police reform, public safety and pandemic response. Aisha Moe, 22, who is running in District 19, and Tyson Vitale, 31, another District 16 candidate, shared this perspective.
As a woman of color, Muslim American and a young person entering the workforce, Moe said she understands some experiences that haven’t been voiced on the City Council yet.
“I’m the type of person that believes in building a bold and compassionate future, and I understand the conversations that are building that future are happening right now whether we are at the table or not,” Moe said.
Vitale said, if elected, he would help the council make decisions based on what the most marginalized and at-risk community members need to succeed in Madison.
“I see an opportunity to really come together as a city and address these problems we've been talking about for a long time and haven't really solved yet,” said Vitale, who is also vice president of the Board of Directors for Outreach Inc.
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