Five candidates with diverse histories, experience and vision will be on the primary ballot in a historic race to lead Madison, a city flush with economic vitality and resources but facing challenges involving racial disparities, increasing violence, affordable housing and homelessness.
Mayor Paul Soglin, who has held the office far longer than anyone in Madison history, faces Ald. Maurice Cheeks; former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, who works for the UW-Madison think tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy; Raj Shukla, executive director of the conservation organization River Alliance of Wisconsin; and comedian Nick Hart in a Feb. 19 primary.
Toriana Pettaway, the city’s racial equity coordinator, fell two signatures short on her nominating petitions, collecting 198 of the 200 valid signatures needed to appear on the primary ballot.
The top two vote-getters will square off in the general election on April 2.
Regardless of the outcome, the results will make history.
Soglin, mayor for 14 years in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s and now completing a second straight four-year term, would set perhaps unmatchable standards for tenure in office. Cheeks would be the city’s first African-American mayor, while Shukla would be the first Indian-American to hold the position. Rhodes-Conway would be the first openly gay and second woman mayor. Hart would be the first professional comic, although former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, 2003-2011, was a relentless punster.
Though the candidates have different priorities and strategies, some campaign themes — many related — have already emerged.
The candidates are focusing on racial and economic inequities and the need for more low-cost housing despite a Soglin initiative supported by the City Council that’s delivered 1,000 lower-cost units. And they are talking about education, health care, transportation, public safety and climate change, especially in the wake of severe flooding that punished the city in the late summer.
The next mayor will also guide major projects such as Judge Doyle Square, the Madison Public Market, and whatever emerges as the next big thing.
All of the ideas and positions, however, will be weighed in the context of maintaining or improving basic services, state levy limits and holding the line on property taxes.
Today, the State Journal offers an introduction to the candidates who will be on the primary ballot to lead the state’s capital city into the next decade.
Address: 3545 Nakoma Road
Family: wife, Melissa Cheeks; daughter, Hannah; son, Cyrus
Job: Vice president of business development, MIOsoft; City Council member, 10th District
Prior elected office: Madison City Council, 2013-present
Other public service: Board member for Wisconsin’s largest co-working space, 100state; board member for Wisconsin Progress Institute; co-founder and advisory board member of Wisconsin’s New Leaders Council; appointed leadership fellow with the National League of Cities
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business, Eastern Illinois University
Address: 56 N. Lakewood Gardens Lane, town of Madison
Family: Single, living with my significant other of five years
Job: Professional stand-up comedian
Prior elected office: None
Other public service: None provided
Education: Bachelor’s degree, sociology with an emphasis on criminal justice, Lander University, 2003
Address: 2642 Hoard St.
Family: Amy Klusmeier, partner of 10 years
Job: Managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project, a national learning network for mayors, based at UW-Madison
Prior elected office: Madison City Council, 2007-2013
Other public service: Chair, Oscar Mayer Strategic Assessment Committee; Madison Food Policy Council; executive board member, Dane County Democratic Party; member of AFT Local 223
Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology, Smith College, 1994; master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, University of California-Irvine, 2000
Address: 2115 Kendall Ave.
Family: Wife, Victoria Frank; three daughters, ages 10, 7, 6
Job: Executive director, River Alliance of Wisconsin
Prior elected office: None
Other public service: Current: Chair, Sustainable Madison Committee; Downtown Rotarian. Former: Climate Reality Leadership Corps; AmeriCorps Service Fellowship (Public Allies); American Red Cross Disaster Relief (Hurricane Katrina); Dane County court-appointed special advocate
Education: Bachelor’s degree, political science, UW-Madison, 1998
Address: 121 Standish Court
Family: Wife, Sara Soglin; three adult daughters
Prior elected office: Madison City Council, five years; mayor, 22 years
Other public service: Various hospital, performing arts, and civic organizations
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, UW-Madison, 1966; law degree, UW-Madison, 1972
Why are you running for mayor?
Cheeks: I love this city. I’m committed to Madison’s future being one where everyone can succeed in our new economy. Each neighborhood should be full of students ready to learn, families that feel safe, and people who can afford to live with dignity. I’m running for mayor to create a Madison that reaches our potential of working for all people.
Hart: Because only 12-20 percent of this so-called progressive city votes in municipal primaries, so why not get involved and see what kind of effect can be had?
Rhodes-Conway: I am running because I believe everyone in Madison should have the opportunity to thrive. Everyone should have a safe and affordable home, a good job, and access to resources to achieve their full potential. With the right leadership, we can make that possible.
Shukla: We live in the most dynamic, progressive city in the state. We have all we need to tackle racial inequity, grow the city wisely and confront climate change with urgency. But city leaders seem more comfortable talking than acting. I believe we are what we do, and I am running to make sure our city works for everyone.
Soglin: Madison is a thriving, modern, inclusive city with a healthy economy. We have work to do to close gaps and ensure that every family has access to affordable housing, safe transportation, great schools, good-paying jobs, health care, equal justice and quality child care. Under my leadership, we will continue to keep city government accountable, responsible, and we’ll make fact-based decisions.
What are the city’s top three challenges?
Cheeks: Madison is at a unique moment in time as we are rapidly growing and transforming. As we look to the future, the issues that are most critical that we course-correct on are: systemic racial inequality, health and safety concerns in our neighborhoods, and our city’s struggle to be affordable and accessible to everyone.
Hart: Environmentally, the condition of our lakes and water quality. Socially, accountability with Madison law enforcement and homelessness.
Rhodes-Conway: The most urgent is the lack of affordable housing. We have deep racial disparities in opportunity and outcomes in our community — this is unacceptable and it must change. Climate change affects us all; our city needs to not just be responsive to significant weather events, but our planning and policies need to be updated to not exacerbate the problem. And we need to address our transportation challenges to keep our city moving as we continue to grow.
Shukla: Racial and economic inequities keep Madison’s many benefits out of reach to far too many. We must act with common purpose. State and federal obstruction limits the city’s ability to solve problems. We must be creative. The growing threat of climate change will radically impact every aspect of our lives. We must act with urgency.
Soglin: Housing: Continuing my housing initiatives that resulted in 1,000 affordable apartments and 5,000 market-rate units so that everyone has housing choices. Health care: Since the ACA, the number of uninsured Madisonians dropped from 17,000 to 9,000. We need to get that to zero. Education: We will continue to collaborate for quality education for every child in our compassionate city.
How would you respond to those challenges?
Cheeks: I will expand the decision-making table so more people have a voice. Community members, elected officials, nonprofit leaders, schools, faith communities and the business community all recognize that they have a stake in conquering our city’s challenges. It’s time for Madison to have a mayor that puts personal politics aside and collaborates to lead us forward.
Hart: No response.
Rhodes-Conway: Advancing solutions will be a matter of leadership and experience more than anything else. My work with the Mayor’s Innovation Project exposes me daily to great ideas in the works across the country. My long history of working on policy in Madison means I know the good ideas and resources that are already available right here. And my working style and commitment to collaboration means I can harness these ideas and resources by bringing people to the table, to adapt and adopt innovative and effective solutions. I’ll make sure we consider racial equity in every investment we make.
Shukla: Provide early childhood care for those in need. Create more housing at lower cost. Move toward fare-free transit. 100 percent clean energy within a decade. Add youth representation in city government. Expand transportation options. Develop tight-knit neighborhoods. Explore municipal banking. Data-driven public health and safety. Modernize parks and amenities.
Soglin: We will use TIF, obtain affordable housing tax credits and work with the private sector. The Trump and Walker administrations made it harder for people to sign up for Affordable Health Care; now we must finish the job and expand coverage. The city will continue to collaborate with Madison public schools, like our Madison Out of School Time initiative.
Why are you best suited to be Madison’s next mayor?
Cheeks: I’m prepared to bring my diverse leadership experiences to the job of mayor to face our city’s modern opportunities and challenges. As alder, executive, dad and community advocate, I’ve produced results and collaborated with residents across the city. I’m ready to face our challenges head-on to ensure that Madison is safe, healthy and works for everyone.
Hart: I’m a comedian. I have zero political aspirations. I just want to leave this town better than when I found it.
Rhodes-Conway: My time serving Madison on the City Council taught me how to get things done. My experience working with cities around the country on affordable housing, transportation, equity, climate change responses and more has helped me see a vision of what Madison can be. It is that experience and vision that make me the best choice to be the next mayor of Madison.
Shukla: I am a veteran of AmeriCorps and a disaster relief volunteer with the American Red Cross in post-Katrina New Orleans. I have developed new technologies for social good. Now I direct a statewide water policy organization and chair a city committee that passed a community-wide commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. I solve problems and can help Madison do the same.
Soglin: Under my leadership, Madison outpaces Wisconsin in job growth and economic opportunity. We have increased investment in roads, infrastructure, public safety, neighborhood services. But we have more to do to ensure all Madisonians have equal access to opportunities. We are increasing affordable housing, investing in initiatives to reduce gun violence, reducing poverty, and collaborating with schools to close education gaps.