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Madison mayor's race offers contrast in style, experience more than policy differences

From the Election 2019: Soglin, Rhodes-Conway face off for Madison mayor series
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Rhodes-Conway and Soglin

Satya Rhodes-Conway, Paul Soglin

After an energetic campaign that produced sharper differences in style than priorities, Madison voters on Tuesday will either give the city’s longest-serving mayor another four-year term or elect a former City Council member who’d be the first openly gay and second woman executive in city history.

Mayor Paul Soglin, 73, who has held the office for 22 years over five decades, said the choice is about proven leadership and innovation.

“I am one of the few mayors in the country and the only candidate in this race who knows how to solve the problems of racial disparity and equity,” he said. “Madison is a city that works and strives to be better, due in large part to my leadership and my ability to listen and learn from the people who know best: Madisonians.”

His challenger, former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, 47, managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at UW-Madison’s Center on Wisconsin Strategy, said the city is ready for change.

“Madison is at a crucial moment and how we respond now will shape the kind of city we are in 20 years,” she said. “I have the vision and experience to tackle these challenges. Most importantly, my collaborative leadership style will help me build coalitions and move talk to action.”

During the race, the candidates prioritized many of the same issues.

“The mayor’s race has revolved around many issues that arise as a result of the city’s growing pains,” said Barry Burden, professor of political science at UW-Madison. “Racial equity, transportation, affordable housing and water management are all related in some way to the rising population, rising cost of living, growing diversity, and increased development the city is experiencing.”

The candidates’ biggest differences come down more to style and personality.

“Willingness to listen, willingness to learn, willingness to improve, and willingness to work with others,” Rhodes-Conway said of her approach. “I’m committed to tackling our toughest challenges with a collaborative leadership style so we can create a Madison where everyone can thrive.”

Soglin said, “I know how to lead and listen as we break away from the ordinary. We unleashed Madison in building housing and closing gaps in disparity. I can deliver what Madison needs now. My opponent has never led, never implemented. She only claims she can do more of what I have done.”

The contest is partly a choice between continuity with Madison’s largely successful past and an adjustment in city priorities to meet rising challenges, Burden said. “Soglin is appealing to longer-term residents who are proud of Madison’s past and want to continue the path the city is on. Rhodes-Conway is appealing to newer residents who want a different style of governing.”

Primary lessons

Soglin narrowly won the six-way Feb. 19 primary with 28.6 percent of the vote, followed by Rhodes-Conway with 27.7 percent, Ald. Mo Cheeks with 23.3 percent, and Raj Shukla with 18.4 percent.

In the primary, a familiar pattern emerged, with Soglin showing strength on the farther East, North and West sides. Rhodes-Conway largely won the Isthmus and wards close to it, with Cheeks strongest on the South and Southwest Sides, and Shukla grabbing a smattering of wards.

Two important factors will determine the outcome of the general election, Burden said.

“The first factor is where voters who supported Cheeks and Shukla go,” Burden said. “Together those two candidates earned 40 percent of the vote that could easily tip the outcome. The second factor is the new voters who did not vote in the primary. They are likely to be younger and less tied into the inside details of city politics than people who voted in the primary.”

In 2015, a total 22,460 votes were cast in the February mayoral primary, but turnout more than doubled to 51,929 in the April general election.

Cash flowing

Despite Soglin’s name recognition and long tenure in office, Rhodes-Conway raised more money in a race that has been flush with cash from the onset.

From last summer through just before the primary, the six candidates raised a combined $453,365, dwarfing the $180,313 raised by five mayoral candidates in the same time period in the 2015 mayoral race.

In the most recent reports, which cover financial activities from Feb. 5 through March 18, Rhodes-Conway raised $125,754 and Soglin $77,265, the total again far greater than four years ago, when Soglin had raised $46,230 and former alderman and challenger Scott Resnick $43,109.

So far, from July 1 through March 18, Rhodes-Conway has raised $210,085 compared to Soglin’s $189,294.

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