As has been the case at many events featuring candidates for mayor of Madison, racial equity was a big topic Wednesday at a Downtown Rotary forum.
Referring to a question about the city's struggles with racial equity, Mayor Paul Soglin told the crowd: “If you make any decision as to how you vote in this election, I hope you do it based on the answer to this question.”
Challenger Satya Rhodes-Conway also listed racial inequities as a top area of concern and said she's "running because everyone in Madison should have the opportunity to thrive."
But there were plenty of areas of disagreement, as the two offered differing perspectives on budget priorities, the city's relationship with the police and affordable housing.
On Wednesday, Rhodes-Conway gave examples of what she would have done differently as mayor and explained how she would re-prioritize going forward. Soglin often came across as combative, raising his voice and pointing his finger for emphasis as he defended his record and listed statistics to prove the progress made by the city.
“There must be accountability in the assertions that politicians make,” Soglin said. “I stand before you ready to be accountable for what I said eight years ago.”
Soglin's opening remarks focused on race and poverty and some of the “marvelous accomplishments during the last eight years.” As one example, the African-American unemployment rate was over 25 percent eight years ago, and is now a “bit over 6 percent,” Soglin said.
“Let me be very clear about something: this is not a racist city. You are not racists. The people of this city are not racist. But we share the legacy of the United States of America,” Soglin said, calling Madison a caring and compassionate city.
In her opening and closing statements, Rhodes-Conway said that “the opportunities that Madison has given me are not available to everyone.”
Asked specifically about initiatives to combat racial inequities, Rhodes-Conway noted that professionals of color “do not feel welcome in this community and feel like there aren’t opportunities for their children.” She said the city should better support entrepreneurs of color, create an office of community engagement and view neighborhoods for their assets, rather than labeling them as “challenged.”
Soglin argued to “continue the route that my administration has taken.” He too, pointed to the necessity of supporting entrepreneurs, especially of minority and women-owned businesses. He said Luna’s Groceries in the Allied neighborhood is a successful example of this. He also emphasized the importance of narrowing health disparities.
Abby Becker, city reporter for the Cap Times and moderator of the event, asked whether the amount of borrowing in the 2019 budget is problematic. She said $54 million of the 2019 operating budget is being spent on paying for debt, and the capital budget relies on a record $185.4 million in authorized borrowing.
Rhodes-Conway said the amount of debt service was worrisome and that “as capital budgets have continued to grow … we have failed to really distinguish between wants and needs.”
As examples, Rhodes-Conway said she “might not have spent millions of dollars” on the Judge Doyle Square project, and while the Garver Feed Mill and Public Market projects are great, “it’s not clear to me how much money they need.”
Rhodes-Conway said she would create “laser-focused” priorities of the budget to ensure the city is “not layering on projects that would be nice to have.”
Soglin said that from 2003 to 2009, the city of Madison did not “steadily take care” of its infrastructure, noting that Rhodes-Conway was on the City Council for some of that time. He said that when he inherited the office, he made a commitment to be more financially responsible. He argued that the Public Market is “more than just a public market” for business people and tourist, but will sell affordable fresh food and two-thirds of the vendors will be people of color who have gone through the city’s MarketReady program.
Soglin and Rhodes-Conway took different stances in response to a question on the police department.
“It does not make sense to me that the police department thinks they are not accountable to elected officials,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We have a pretty big trust gap between the police department and many of our residents.”
Soglin pointed toward positive changes, noting significant decreases in the number of juvenile arrests and homicides in the community.
Rhodes-Conway called affordable housing a "core challenge" and said the city has "not been using the full toolbox around affordable housing" and suggested using city funds to preserve existing affordable housing and purchasing land. Other cities have made it "easier" to develop workforce housing, she said, and said it's worth looking at initiatives like density bonuses and guaranteed approval time frames.
Soglin pointed to a higher vacancy rate since he took office and the over 1,000 units of affordable housing that have been planned or built, saying "show me a city in the United States that has done something like that."
Asked what changes could be made to the structure of local government to improve representation of Madison residents, Soglin said the residents, not the City Council or elected officials, must decide if the City Council should be a honorarium, part-time or full-time position.
Rhodes-Conway, who works at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy's Mayors Innovation Project on the UW-Madison campus, said she wants to improve city committees process, saying that many talented people serve on committees with “questionable results” due to lack of direction, quorum or unclear expectations.
Throughout, Rhodes-Conway listed her priorities as affordable housing, rapid transit, racial equity and climate change.
“If we don’t get this right, it will be exponentially more expensive and difficult to address these things but more importantly, real people will be hurt,” she said.
In his closing statement, Soglin again pointed to a Brookings Institute report showing that Madison “not only had shown economic progress over the past decade, but that it had been equitable and it has been shared among all racial and ethnic groups,” Soglin said.
“That took vision and innovation,” he said.