Toriana Pettaway understands her write-in candidacy for mayor of Madison is a long-shot, but she says the issues she’s fighting for are worth it.

Pettaway, 48, was raised in a military family that frequently moved across the country and around the globe, earned associate, undergrad and graduate degrees, and has had a career in human resources at the city, Madison Area Technical College and the state.

She’s long promoted racial equity and social justice through her jobs, her beloved Fountain of Life Covenant Church on the South Side and now, as the city’s first equity coordinator, a job for which she was hired from among 35 applicants in 2015.

Earlier this month, she fell one signature short on her nominating petitions to qualify for the mayoral ballot. She initially blamed the city clerk’s office but also blames herself and is now running as a write-in candidate, despite scant campaign staff or funding.

“There are hundreds, thousands of people in this city who don’t have the resources or connections I have, and fairness and justice doesn’t exist for them,” she said during an interview at her two-story duplex on the West Side, where she is raising two children as a single mother. She also has a 27-year-old daughter.

“She is honest, very giving from the heart, and a great caregiver and friend,” said Roxanne Johnson, children’s ministry programming director at Fountain of Life, where Pettaway oversees keeping children safe during services and activities. “She is very willing to work really hard for equal opportunities and racial reconciliation.”

As she advocates, some at City Hall note Pettaway can have strains with other employees, including managers, and question her efficiency and a willingness to blame others, as demonstrated with the ballot signature saga.

Pettaway said she takes responsibility for any shortcomings, but as she challenges practices and systems, she said, others must do so, too. “You hired me, but you don’t want me to address things going on in this city,” she said. “You can’t pick and choose what you want to take serious.”

“I’m keeping going, if for nothing else, to plant a seed to give hope to those who don’t have hope,” she said of her campaign for mayor, and her 10-year-old son, Ashton-Kendall Mazvimavi, and 6-year-old daughter, Turina, who were polite and undemanding during a nearly three-hour conversation. “I’m a woman of God. I’m going to run to give hope. I believe in the impossible. I believe in miracles.”

A nomadic childhood

Pettaway was born in Mobile, Alabama, but raised, seemingly, everywhere.

Her father, Allen Lang, was drafted during the Vietnam War and had a 30-plus year career in the Army and Navy. His assignments brought his family to 13 states, Germany and Japan, sometimes moving twice in a year.

For the first part of Pettaway’s youth, the family lived on military bases and she and her three siblings went to mostly parochial schools, where most classmates were from military families.

“It was like living in a bubble,” she said. “Being a black child, moving all over the country, you are the only kid of color most of the time. You have teachers putting you in a box.”

When the children were sent to Mobile for summers, local kids would ask, “Why do you talk white? Why do you sound like that? You think you’re better than us?” she said, adding, “We were always moving between two different worlds.”

When she was in middle school her father was assigned to San Diego. For the first time the family lived in a neighborhood and the children went to public school. “It was freedom,” she said.

Perhaps too much freedom. In high school, Pettaway and a girlfriend got into mischief, hanging with people who used and sold drugs but not breaking the law themselves. “That’s where I learned about street life,” she said. But she also was on the debate team and a multi-sport athlete and captain in basketball, softball and track. She wanted to be the first black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I really liked law and politics,” she said. “My dad, that’s all he ever talked about. My dad didn’t talk much, but you could get him to talk about politics.”

She intended to go right to college but held back “because of some of the crazy activities I got into in San Diego,” she said. Instead, she moved to Mobile to help her grandmother care for her great-grandmother. There she earned an associate degree as a paralegal at Phillips Junior College.

In 1993, when Lang retired from the military, he gave his wife, Georgia, who had sisters living in Madison and Mobile, the choice of settling down where she wanted. She chose Madison. Pettaway moved here, too, and worked as a payroll clerk for the state. In 1994, she relocated to the southeastern part of the state, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from UW-Whitewater.

While in school, she worked multiple jobs, and after graduation returned to Madison, where she held a series of jobs, including executive assistant at the Wisconsin Law Foundation and State Bar of Wisconsin. She earned a master’s degree in business management with an emphasis in human resources from Cardinal Stritch University in 2003.

Since 2004, Pettaway has held human resources-related positions for a nonprofit, the state and UW-Madison. She’s been a consultant, facilitator, trainer or part-time instructor at MATC since 2007.

Created to serve

Pettaway’s soul is nourished not in a classroom or office, but at Fountain of Life.

“That’s my family,” she said. “I would not have been able to make it as a single mom in this community without my church.”

Initially, she was jarred by the vibrant Pentecostal services there, which differed from the traditional worship at her conservative Southern Baptist church.

But she kept coming back after in early visits experiencing what is known as being “slain in the spirit,” a form of prostration in which an individual falls to the floor while experiencing religious ecstasy. One day, she felt God tell her: “You don’t have to understand it, but I’m going to grow you in this ministry.”

Pettaway began work on a doctorate at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle but couldn’t afford to complete those studies. She remained active at Fountain of Life and was project and office manager at Rev. Alex Gee’s Justified Anger movement at the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership in 2014-15 before becoming the city’s equity coordinator. She has done missionary work in Ethiopia and Haiti through the church.

She enjoys cooking, dancing and travel, and has a lighter, silly side that’s hard to contain once out, she said.

Wants to see change

As the city’s first equity coordinator, Pettaway holds a big job in a community struggling to close large disparities for African-Americans from education to economics.

She’s responsible for planning, developing and implementing the city’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative, which seeks to bring equity to city operations, policy and budgets.

Among her duties, she consults the mayor, council and 28 managers and helps train staff. She has already trained half of the city’s 3,500 employees on equity issues and tools, and for the first time recently provided guidance to 23 departments on 45 capital projects worth about $38 million in the 2019 budget.

In her bid for mayor, Pettaway touts education and jobs, but also life experience. “I know what it is like to lose my home to foreclosure,” she said. “I know what it is like to go from doing well to welfare. I have experienced homelessness.”

Her top priorities include affordable housing, transit, racial equity, sustainability and addressing climate change, with a theme of shared prosperity. Among specifics, she’d boost the city’s minimum living wage for employees and many contractors from $13.27 to $21 an hour, which she called “a game changer.” She would also redirect bus service to those with the greatest transit needs, thread equity through all city decision making and make city buildings more energy efficient.

“I was created to serve. That is what I was placed on this Earth to do,” she said. “I will give you my last.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.