The morning after she became part of Madison history, Mayor-elect Satya Rhodes-Conway visited Paul Soglin, whom she defeated, took congratulatory calls and worked on hiring staff.
Amid that, in a telephone interview, she talked about how she will be mayor for everyone, not just her younger progressive base, about her profound respect for what Soglin did for the city, about her goal of rebuilding relations with a vastly different City Council, and about how a year from now she hopes to be known for bringing many heretofore under-represented voices into city decision-making.
Her demeanor was humble and unpretentious, as it was through the many candidate forums as well as in her endorsement interview with the Cap Times’ editorial board. It reminded me of the modest authenticity that propelled Tony Evers to the governorship.
After a primary in which Soglin only narrowly prevailed despite his nearly universal name recognition, many assumed Rhodes-Conway was in the driver’s seat for the general election, speculating that votes cast for other candidates would gravitate toward her.
For Soglin to win, observers thought he would need a huge turnout of older Madisonians grateful for his known-commodity leadership, providing big margins in the outlying “donut” districts of Madison, offsetting Rhodes-Conway's strength in the city center.
Instead, she won by a resounding 62 percent to 38 percent, marking a change that is both generational and transformational.
So what happened?
Soglin might have regarded himself as a feisty progressive warrior in the mold of the Bernie Sanders of 2016, but that narrative worked in neither his feeble campaign for governor last year nor in this election.
Eight years ago, Soglin defeated incumbent Dave Cieslewicz with his combative to-the-ramparts style amid progressive anguish in the early days of former Gov. Scott Walker. But times have changed, and Soglin appears to no longer be the leader people want post-Donald Trump. (It’s an aside, but I’ve been startled by the vehement disdain some “power structure” Madisonians have for Soglin, a level of enmity more fitting for Walker or Trump.)
Soglin’s campaign narrative seemed to settle on how the city had progressed under his leadership on racial and social justice. He pointed to a Brookings Institution report on the economic health of American cities, in which, among other metrics, Madison ranked as eighth most prosperous among the 100 largest cities.
But by an astounding majority, city voters wanted big-time change.
Rhodes-Conway captured that perfect storm moment. While she began with low name recognition and tepid financial backing, she proved to be incredibly popular among progressives, young people, women, her former northeast-side constituents as a four-term alder, and even progressive business interests.
She ran a gaffe-free campaign, and no city crisis emerged to slow her ascent. And she raised enough money to assure her name recognition. As Evers had done on three issues — health care, education and infrastructure — Rhodes-Conway relentlessly focused on four — affordable housing, rapid mass transit, racial equity and climate change.
She seemed to represent the leader the city wants in the Trump era — younger, preferably female and collaborative, someone with fresh ideas and energy. She won most major endorsements — including those of both the Cap Times and the Wisconsin State Journal — and campaigned tirelessly. She told me she was still knocking on doors on Election Day in the Cherokee neighborhood.
In 2011, when Soglin replaced Mayor Dave, he immediately recharted the city’s course on the Edgewater hotel project, the management of the Overture Center for the Arts, and on the central library remodeling and public market project.
I asked Rhodes-Conway Wednesday about any bold, immediate moves.
“No, I am focused on getting good staff and good folks appointed to committees,” she said. “I don’t want to be too hasty on anything. I’m going to see how the meeting with the mayor goes and then will be using the two-week transition time to make some decisions about what we’re going to focus on first.”
What do you hope people will say about your first year in office, when that time comes?
“I think probably the thing that I hope most is that people will feel like we really were able to take a different approach to community engagement and that we really made a priority of elevating the voices of the folks that are most impacted by city decisions and (that we are) listening to the community,” Rhodes-Conway responded.
Part of that will be her work with an inexperienced City Council, where nine of 20 members will be new: “Certainly I know how steep a learning curve it can be. But to me it represents a lot of opportunity; there are a lot of smart people who got elected last night, and I’m actually pretty eager to get to work with them to reset the relationship between the mayor’s office and the council,” an obvious reference to Soglin’s famously abrasive style.
As she campaigned, Rhodes-Conway said she was impressed that far from her east side base she found issues such as affordable housing and climate change resonated.
“Regardless of where I was in the city I heard many of the same things,” she said. “I was knocking on doors yesterday and talked to a number of people who were really excited about the possibility of change, so I just think that the city was ready.”
Finally, I asked her about Soglin. Because, I told her, that while many voters seemed to wave him away with a dismissive he-had-his-time send-off, there are many others who are deeply appreciative of how he shaped the modern Madison, a place so many of us have cherished for decades.
Rhodes-Conway responded: “I have deep respect for Mayor Soglin and he has served this city honorably and well for many years in many ways, and leaves an incredible legacy. And I’m committed to having as smooth a transition as possible. ... I think you know Paul and I are alike in that we both love this city and that we are both going to do our best to serve it.”
Nice to hear.