The new Madison City Council with four black members will broaden the council’s cultural perspective and potentially impact priorities and how issues are discussed, attract new community voices to City Hall and strengthen outreach, members and observers said Wednesday.
In competitive races, voters on Tuesday chose black candidates Barbara McKinney in the Far West Side’s 1st District, Sheri Carter in the South Side’s 13th District and Samba Baldeh in the 17th District, on the Far East and North sides. Re-elected in the 10th District on the Southwest and West Sides was Ald. Maurice Cheeks, who ran unopposed.
“At this time, with all the racial disparities and tensions the city is facing, we couldn’t have picked a better time to diversify participation on the City Council,” said Ruben Anthony, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison. “It tells me we are turning the corner in Madison, that the community has the collective consciousness to address issues head on.”
Carter and McKinney are the council’s first black women. They, along with Baldeh and Cheeks, will represent one-fifth of the 20-member panel.
“There are changes with every new council,” said two-term council President Chris Schmidt. “This probably is going to be one of the bigger shifts. It’s more reflective of the community as a whole. I think it will help us. We may see more people willing to come to the council willing to speak to issues and concerns.”
But the city still has clear gaps, Schmidt said, noting that no Latinos or Asians are on the next council.
Growing more diverse
Until now, in its entire history, the council has had eight black members, all men: Eugene Parks, Joseph Thompson, Edwin Hill, Jr., Mike Shivers, Napoleon Smith, Brian Benford, Isadore Knox and Cheeks, according to the city. For a short time in the early 1970s, Parks, Thompson, Hill and Shivers served together.
The new council, which will be seated on April 21, will have four blacks, nine women and seven new members. Also new are Amanda Hall in the 3rd District, Zachary Wood (8th District), Sara Eskrich (13th District) and Rebecca Kemble (18th District).
The election was likely a mix of a message from the community and the unique dynamic of each district race, observers said.
“It would be a mistake not to view it as a trend,” said Cheeks, who intends to seek the council leadership position of president pro tem. “It’s really clear Madison is a changing community. We continue to grow younger and more diverse.”
It’s interesting, Mayor Paul Soglin said, that McKinney and Baldeh were elected in districts not historically connected to the city’s black community.
Baldeh, a software engineer who moved to Madison from Gambia 15 years ago, has a long history of community service in his native country and here, and believes he won because he reached out to learn concerns and issues. His priorities are community engagement, poverty, racial equity, good schools, public safety, transportation and housing. He said his election “brings diversity in real life situations,” he said.
Carter, an executive assistant with the state Department of Health Services and longtime community activist, said her promise to be a voice for the district’s neighborhoods resonated and that she will have priorities of jobs, economic development, affordable housing, education and use of scarce resources in the budget.
She said the experience of each candidate connected with the electorate.
McKinney, associate director of Madison Area Urban Ministries, could not be reached Wednesday.
“I hope (they) will bring greater cultural sensitivity to the council, not that the council is insensitive,” Anthony said. “But any time you bring additional perspective, that will only help.”
The influx of black members comes amid a sharp focus on racial disparities heightened by last month’s fatal shooting of a black 19-year-old by a white Madison police officer during an altercation in a Near East Side apartment home. Late last month, the mayor and council announced they would create a task force to study police policies, procedures, practices and training.
The council was already focusing on issues of disparities, equity and poverty, but the election “will only strengthen that focus,” Schmidt said.
That could happen, Soglin said.
“One of the frustrations I’ve had in the last couple of years is the contradiction between commitments to equity-based decision making and actual performance,” he said. “Maybe that will change.”
As an example, the mayor cited the council’s decision in the last budget to move up the timing of new police and fire stations, which jeopardized other priorities.
“The experience we each hold will bring a more realistic edge to these conversations,” Carter said. “The women will bring a distinct perspective, too.”
Time will tell how council members get along with each other — 11 of the 20 members will be in their first or second term — and with the mayor, who has had strained relations with the council at times. Soglin won a landslide re-election over Ald. Scott Resnick on Tuesday.
It’s unclear if Cheeks, Baldeh, Carter and McKinney will forge some sort of informal black caucus to flush out and champion issues critical to the black community.
“That remains to be seen,” Cheeks said. “I hope we’ll continue to be a very collegial council. I do expect that.”
Soglin said he’s hoping for a positive and constructive relationship with the council. “One thing I’m sure of,” he said of the new members, “at least they’re not part of the group that resented my defeating Dave Cieslewicz four years ago.”
“I’m optimistic we’ve got a good, strong council and that we will work with the mayor and tackle challenges and not get mired in old discussions,” Schmidt said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. According to available city records and the recollections of city employees and past elected officials, eight black members had served on the City Council before Tuesday's election, not six. For a brief time, four served together.]