Paul Soglin has been Madison’s steadiest leader across the past half-century. Yet he has always recognized that mayors cannot be permanent fixtures. After transforming the city during a remarkable six-year tenure in the 1970s, Soglin left office. After a 1989 comeback, he quit eight years later. Last summer, after another eight years on the job, he announced with the wisdom of an elder statesman that he would not seek re-election this spring. “The people of Madison have honored me by their trust and confidence over 22 years,” explained the city’s longest-serving mayor. “Making a city run well is something I do well. I am leaving the city of Madison different and I think stronger.”
That was an impressive valedictory declaration from a public servant whom this newspaper has repeatedly supported in winning and losing races. But what was even more impressive was the attention Soglin gave to the question of who might succeed him. The mayoralty of a great American city is not a prize to be handed off from one political figure to another. But when a leader has served as a steward for a community over many years, that leader’s thoughts regarding a potential successor must be taken seriously.
Of the candidates who had stepped up for the 2019 competition, Soglin singled out former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway as “eminently qualified.”
Noting her work with the mayor and other officials during her own tenure on the City Council, as chair of the Oscar Mayer Strategic Assessment Committee, and as a member of the Madison Food Policy Council, Rhodes-Conway said, "I’m glad I’ve earned his trust and confidence, and I’m working hard to earn the trust and confidence of people across Madison.”
Rhodes-Conway has, with a dynamic grass-roots campaign, earned that trust and confidence. This is why we are endorsing her for mayor in the April 2 election. We admire her vision for governing, which combines activist energy with a collaborative approach. And we have no doubt that she would serve as a progressive leader in the best tradition of this progressive city.
The only thing that makes endorsing Rhodes-Conway difficult is the fact that, after his graceful exit last July, Soglin reversed course and announced in October that he would seek one more term. This created a conundrum for us, because of our deep regard for the mayor and all that he has accomplished.
When Soglin had decided against seeking another term, he said Rhodes-Conway was “far superior in every way” to other candidates for the job.
Now, with the incumbent back in the running, a new question arose: Is Rhodes-Conway far superior in every way to Soglin?
The answer is “no,” she is not FAR superior. Rhodes-Conway and Soglin are both sincere progressives who relish policy debates about what will make cities work in the 21st century. They both have proven track records of seeking to make this particular city work. Their love for Madison and its people is clear, and from this love extends a shared passion for addressing racial inequity and poverty. This vital city, which has so much to celebrate and yet so much work to do, will be well served no matter who wins the April 2 election.
So why do we choose Rhodes-Conway? We believe she strikes the balance that Madison needs at this point in its history. She is experienced, as a former alder who has a track record of involvement with the transportation, planning and development issues that occupy so much of a mayor’s time. Yet she has a sense of urgency about taking next steps. “We can't wait,” Rhodes-Conway said in announcing a candidacy in which she promised to “step up and be part of the solution.”
We reject the notion that Soglin is tired, or that he would be anything less that a steady and responsible mayor in what would be his ninth term. But it seems to us that Madison should be looking for something more. The city is growing rapidly and that’s creating new tensions, especially around housing affordability. As the longtime managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project, where she has immersed herself in policy debates and the collaborations that help mayors make the leap from ideas to implementation, Rhodes-Conway runs this year with an ambitious plan. She wants to expand allowable uses of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to include anti-displacement efforts and land banking for affordable housing. She proposes to encourage housing cooperatives, promote land trusts as an affordable ownership solution, and encourage the creation of tiny house villages.
Rhodes-Conway is equally ambitious when it comes to transportation solutions, with savvy ideas for better aligning transit and land use policy, keeping transit affordable, and providing service for people who do not work 9-5 and who live in underserved sections of the city. She’s passionate about addressing climate change at the local level and she has awesome plans for making healthy food available for all.
It is exciting to imagine the city under the leadership of this experienced and energetic woman. She respects what Soglin has accomplished, yet she is ready to build upon it in the best and boldest ways. This is what Madison needs now, and this is why we believe it is time to make the change to Satya Rhodes-Conway.
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