It was a bitterly cold January night, but the Barrymore Theatre was packed for the Cap Times mayoral forum. Satya Rhodes-Conway was among five hopefuls joining incumbent Paul Soglin on stage.
An earnest, low-key former City Council member, Rhodes-Conway said that if elected she would pursue bold mass transit, housing and climate goals and not worry about the next election. Her campaign proved the effectiveness of a grassroots, door-to-door approach. She steamrolled Soglin in April by 62 to 38 percent, a staggering margin given the incumbent’s immense political history.
This summer, a writer from The Nation magazine visited with Madison’s new mayor, and noted Rhodes-Conway’s style: “She didn’t present herself in quite the way I’d imagined a woman who’d just unseated an entrenched male incumbent in an ultra-liberal college town might. I’d expected a firebrand.”
The writer continued: “The woman I met … came across as someone more comfortable leading a committee meeting than a protest chant. A white woman in her late 40s with short, wavy, gray-streaked hair, and striking gray-blue eyes, Rhodes-Conway lacks the impassioned charisma of insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it’s clear why her calm, thoughtful intelligence resonated with Madison voters: She is serious, knowledgeable, direct yet reserved, and careful with her words.”
Scroll forward to September’s Cap Times Idea Fest, where the new mayor joined a panel of prominent community leaders to explore the question: “How does Madison not become Seattle?” The title emanated from conversations around Seattle’s traffic gridlock and lack of affordable housing.
The Seattle session was right in Rhodes-Conway’s wheelhouse. She talked about needing to go hard after a bus rapid transit system and other transit initiatives as well as to encourage the creation of more affordable housing units through various actions including land acquisition and building subsidies.
That conversation, available via podcast and video, was one of Idea Fest’s most compelling. Backstage, after it was finished, I noted the mayor thumbing through every index card bearing written questions from the audience.
This week, when her first city budget was passed after modest tinkering by the council, her priorities became city policy. A few days before passage, she met with the Cap Times editorial board to talk for more than an hour.
Rhodes-Conway said she hosted about 20 listening sessions throughout the city and also spoke with employers. All, she said, were frustrated with the tight and unaffordable apartment rental market and the inadequate bus system. Many employers have good jobs to offer, she said, but people cannot find affordable housing nearby or easily commute to them on Madison’s buses.
“I feel lucky,” she told Cap Times editors. “We have a great economy in Madison. It is growing. We are attracting employers, we are attracting investment. … That’s great, but we won’t be able to sustain it if we don’t have a transit system that supports it, and if we can’t make a difference in the housing market. So that’s what the budget is about, that’s what we’re focused on.”
Garnering the most attention this fall has been Rhodes-Conway’s new $40 city vehicle registration fee. (When I called it a “wheel tax,” she interrupted. “Vehicle registration fee,” she said. “It’s a fee when it’s at the state level, so it’s only fair that it be a fee at the city level as well.”)
The $7.9 million per year the fee will generate is critical in pursuing $100 million in federal money for bus rapid transit, she said. The fee was criticized by some as regressive and too large, but Rhodes-Conway argued that other financing options were foreclosed and that all the money is necessary. She also rejected making the fee temporary, calling that dishonest, because mass transit funding will be an ongoing need.
She also argues persuasively that mass transit improvements are crucial even to those who drive because they relieve traffic congestion — especially in the isthmus — and reduce vehicle emissions.
The other hot button in her budget was her decision not to add new police positions even while proposing $200,000 for an auditor to oversee police operations. The council, however, voted to add three police officers before passing the budget this week.
“I would argue, that if you look at the numbers, Madison is an incredibly safe city,” the mayor said. “It’s safer than many of our peer cities.” She pointed out that her budget added $5 million in police spending to cover pay raises and other programmatic costs.
For homeowners, the overall city portion of property taxes will increase $94 on an average home worth just over $300,000.
So far, Rhodes-Conway’s tenure has been light on controversy. In August, she was criticized by Madison’s police union for comments she made about an officer’s response to an incident involving a black teenager in a mental health crisis.
The union called it a rush to judgment. In September, Mike Koval abruptly resigned as police chief and complained that his department was getting inadequate support from Rhodes-Conway and others.
And observers say some progressives have been underwhelmed by her lack of reflexive fealty to the far left, by, for instance, not being more outspoken in opposition to the Air Force proposal to bring F-35 jet fighters to Madison. F-35 opponents even protested outside her birthday party gathering earlier this month.
But anyone expecting stridency from Rhodes-Conway should have been forewarned. She recently sounded contrite, even apologetic, before the council about not keeping alders better informed about the registration fee proposal. I noted to her that the tone seemed to contrast with that of Soglin, her famously combative predecessor.
“Does it surprise you that I strike a different tone?” she asked me, smiling.
Back in April, the morning after she was elected, Rhodes-Conway told me she would try to be mayor for everyone, not just her younger progressive base.
Half a year later in, with her first budget behind her, she appears to be doing just that.