Conventional wisdom has it that former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway emerged from last month’s Madison mayoral primary in a strong, borderline commanding position after finishing a close second to Mayor Paul Soglin.
In part, that logic is based on the notion that the large number of votes that went to other candidates will flow disproportionately to Rhodes-Conway in a tired-of-Soglin wave. The mayor has near-universal name recognition, this line of reasoning goes, so if he wasn’t a voter’s first choice in the primary, he’s unlikely to be their second choice.
Contrary conventional wisdom argues that Soglin was targeted by every other candidate, but now he has a single opponent with whom he can draw pointed contrasts — something he has always excelled at.
Also, some argue, Soglin’s chances will be boosted by a large April 2 turnout driven by a high-interest state Supreme Court race on the ballot. This year’s primary drew 38,753 voters, or 21.6 percent of those registered, according to the Madison city clerk, almost identical to the 22 percent who voted in 2011. That 2011 general election, when Soglin unseated incumbent Dave Cieslewicz, drew 93,976 voters, a 54-percent turnout.
So, obviously, lots could change between the elections. Conventional wisdom is not necessarily right or wrong, it’s just conventional.
Against that backdrop, the Cap Times editorial board interviewed the candidates separately for about an hour each in my office after the primary.
They framed their pitches, providing keys to this very short general election window. I am sharing, in their words, themes that stuck out.
Rhodes-Conway seemed determined to avoid focusing on Soglin, rejecting the suggestion that his personality, often regarded as irascible, is pivotal. “If it was just that Paul couldn’t get along with people I wouldn’t be running,” she said. “I mean, that is a problem, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not enough.”
Later, I asked her about how Madison is changing and to what extent the election is a generational choice. She is 47; he is 73. “So, respectfully, I sort of reject the framing of the question. Because I am not running against Paul, right? I am running for mayor, and I’m running because I see a set of challenges in this city that are not being met.”
Earlier, Rhodes-Conway had also addressed the generational question: “Nobody should vote for me because I am a Gen-Xer, right? Nobody should vote for me because I’m a woman. Nobody should vote for me because I’m a lesbian. They should vote for me because I’m qualified … and because I have the courage to lead.”
Rhodes-Conway, who heads an urban policy think tank at the Center for Wisconsin Strategy within the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued that Madison needs to listen more effectively to its own citizens and learn from examples she has seen in other cities.
She cited four core issues: affordable housing, rapid transit, racial equity and climate change.
“I wouldn’t be running except for those,” she told the board. “Not because they test well — I have no idea if they test well. Not because I think they are the most popular issues, but because those are the things that I spent the last 13 years (at UW) looking at, watching cities around the country.”
Calling herself a “policy wonk by trade,” her affordable housing answer exemplified her ambitious tone. The city, she said, faces a big shortage of affordable workforce housing: “Nurses, bus drivers, artists, baristas. Honestly, people like me, I could not afford to buy a house in my neighborhood now.”
Rhodes-Conway proposed pressuring developers. “We need to be leveraging the development process to be asking for what the community needs … I think, frankly, (that’s) less luxury housing and more affordable workforce housing. Not with city money in, right, but just via the development process, asking for what we want, using the leverage we have to work with the development community to get a better result.
“Right now … we’re fighting over what color the brick is, right, and where the bushes go, and how many bike racks.
“We need bike racks, but I want to be fighting over what’s the price point, what’s the mix of units, are you constructing the building sustainably, is it energy efficient, so people’s utilities bills are lower, right, the things that are important.”
Soglin, as one might predict, is having none of it.
He came in, sat down, and launched into a soliloquy: “So a couple of things right off the bat, if you don’t mind. First, change is change; change does not mean things are getting better. ... Secondly, one’s age has little to do with one’s ability to formulate, to lead, and certainly to be innovative.”
Soglin said that when he attended UW events by Rhodes-Conway’s organization, he’d think: “I’ve been there, done that, with 70 to 80 percent of the agenda. So whatever she’s doing as an academician, I have already been there and we are already implementing it.”
The mayor proceeded to assert that he inherited a financial mess in 2011, and that his performance in the years since — despite a hostile Republican state government — has been so effective that taxes are not a top issue.
“Very few Madisonians are deeply concerned about the whole issue of property taxes and city budgeting,” he said, referring to internal polling. He complained the topic arose only once in the pre-primary mayoral forums. “With what I perceive as a growing number of retirees having a difficult time making ends meet, the issue of responsible fiscal policy has to be at the forefront.”
To illustrate his dilemma, Soglin cited his support for a $15-an-hour city worker minimum wage only to be criticized that it’s not $20 an hour.
In fact, his comment encapsulates his case for re-election. “Every time I do something that’s exceptional, that’s getting us far ahead of where we were and far better than other cities, people who have done very little …. say, ‘Oh, we should do more,’ and they don’t explain how there are going to do it.”
Soglin pointed to a Brookings Institution report on the economic health of American cities, in which, among other metrics, Madison ranked as 8th most prosperous among the 100 largest cities. (As an aside, sources tell me that a private business poll shows that more than two-thirds of respondents say Madison is headed in the right direction when given the right-wrong option.)
As we wound down, Soglin was directly asked whether he is in trouble: “No, I consider myself to be in a very tough race.”
On that, the candidates agree.