Madison’s top two candidates for mayor addressed challenges facing the African-American community and the planned loss of a grocery store on South Park Street at a feisty forum Urban League of Greater Madison forum Friday.
Incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin greeted and hugged a couple of the 80 people who attended the event at the Urban League of Greater Madison before transitioning to an intense and sometimes combative demeanor that is becoming familiar at mayoral debates.
“If we’re going to make history, I want us as a community to make history as the city, the county that truly tackled the greatest challenges of our time in terms of disparity,” Soglin said in his closing statements.
Prior to the start of the event, Satya Rhodes-Conway circulated the room multiple times, introducing herself and thanking people for attending. Rhodes-Conway’s occasionally snappy responses to Soglin’s pointed comments drew laughter from the crowd, and she brought her trademark poise.
“One of the things that is holding our community back is institutional and structural racism and we have to address that if we want to move forward and be a great city,” Rhodes-Conway said in her closing remarks.
Urban League President & CEO Ruben Anthony directed questions to the candidates with representatives from 100 Black Men of Madison, Madison’s Black Women Rock, the NAACP Dane County and the African American County of Churches asking follow-up questions.
Rhodes-Conway emphasized her commitment to increasing affordable housing, improving transportation — so that people can have access to jobs — and investing in entrepreneurship, particularly for people of color.
But she said that too often the experiences of African-Americans in the community are conflated with the experiences of low-income people. An “equally critical problem” in the community is the qualms of the black middle class have about raising their children, retiring and continuing to invest in Madison.
“That represents the potential to lose a ton of talent and assets that our community has now,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We have to work to first, acknowledge that problem, and second, to make sure we are address it so folks have the opportunities and that folks have the services and the social opportunities and the entrepreneurial opportunities that they need to make this community a place that is really comfortable and that they can feel like they want to invest in in the long term.”
Soglin emphasized that improvements in Madison’s racial disparities will be made by addressing economic changes. Particularly, he said increasing the number of minority-owned businesses in the community is the priority.
“It is all about the money,” Soglin said. “When (Rhodes-Conway) says too often we are conflating it with economic inequality, none of this is going to happen — the educational achievements, the health achievements, the changes in all these other gaps — is not going to happen until we get intergenerational wealth and until we change permanently in society the incredible disproportion and great disparity, which is the ownership of businesses.”
Throughout the debate, Soglin touted his history of social activism, experience leading the city and “lifelong history of commitment” to uplifting communities of color.
“We are at a juncture in this city where we have to move to the next level,” Soglin said.
Rhodes-Conway’s commitment to engaging with the community and finding solutions to community challenges outside of City Hall came through in many of her comments. She specifically mentioned supporting grassroots programs like Aaron Perry’s barbershop health center and Sheray Wallace’s neighborhood-based health office.
Rhodes-Conway also reiterated her support of creating an Office of Community Engagement to do a better job of listening to Madison residents.
To address racial disparities in Madison, Rhodes-Conway said Madison needs to move past the “cognitive dissonance” of living in a progressive community that faces deep racial disparities.
“We need to be telling the truth about what’s going on in our community and to me that truth has to come out of the folks who are experiencing the negative impacts,” Rhodes-Conway said. “When people of color in this community tell me that we have a problem, I believe them."
South Madison grocery store
Despite a shared commitment to supporting food access in the community, the candidates heatedly discussed how they would respond to the loss of a grocery store on South Park Street.
The Pick ‘n Save at 1312 S. Park St., a 15-minute walk away from the Urban League, is the only major full-service grocery store in the area. SSM Health plans to purchase the property and demolish the store later this year in order to build a clinic.
Right next door to Pick ‘n Save is the city-owned 3.5-acre property at 1402 S. Park St., formerly the Truman Olson United States Army Reserve Center. The city released a request for proposals in 2017 to develop the property, calling for a grocery store on the site.
The city has not yet selected a developer and may re-issue the RFP altogether, possibly further delaying development on the site.
Rhodes-Conway, who serves on the Food Policy Council and twice dealt with the loss of a grocery on the north side when she was alder, said the city needs to prioritize having healthy food in the south Madison neighborhood.
“The grocery store should be number one on the list,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I think when we hear from the community on how important this is, we have to take it seriously.”
She said it appeared to her that the city was prioritizing another goal of the project — completing the Cedar Street connection from Park Street to Fish Hatchery Road via Appleton Road — over a new store. Soglin strongly disagreed, saying that Rhodes-Conway “doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Soglin defended his record on food access, including creating a position in the mayor's office focused on food policy.
“We are going to have to find a constructive alternative,” Soglin said. “If we can’t locate a grocery, we have to at least make sure there’s transportation access to a reasonably-priced store.”