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Paul Soglin, Satya Rhodes-Conway advance to general election for Madison mayor

From the Election 2019: Soglin, Rhodes-Conway face off for Madison mayor series
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Madison mayoral candidates (copy)

Mayor Paul Soglin and former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway advanced from an energetic, expensive six-way Madison mayoral primary Tuesday, setting up a battle between the city's longest-serving executive and a facilitator for a UW-Madison think tank who would be the first openly gay mayor in city history.

Ald. Mo Cheeks placed third, followed by environmentalist Raj Shukla and comedian Nick Hart, according to unofficial results from the Dane County Clerk's Office. Toriana Pettaway, the city's equity coordinator, ran as a write-in candidate, but the clerk's office didn't immediately report Tuesday who received the small number of write-in votes. 

"We have a very clear choice coming up in the general election," Soglin told a low-key, modest-sized crowd gathered at the Laurel Tavern on the Near West Side. "It's a clear choice to how this city develops and grows."

Rhodes-Conway, managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at UW-Madison's Center on Wisconsin Strategy who served three terms on the City Council, told cheering, whooping supporters crowded into the Harmony Bar on the Near East Side, “This is a people-powered campaign and that’s how we’re going to win in April.”

The general election is April 2.

Barry Burden, a professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison, saw a mixed result for Soglin and opportunity for both finalists.

"Soglin is a fixture in Madison politics," Burden said. "Soglin performed better in outlying wards, especially those on the Far West Side. These areas represent some more-established communities where voters are probably more familiar with the mayor. He struggled in the Isthmus, campus area, and Near East Side.

"Voters looking for an alternative to Soglin divided their support among three candidates," he continued. "This presents a challenge for the mayor who has a solid base of support but faces many voters who opted for someone other than the incumbent. Both Rhodes-Conway and Soglin will both be chasing the more than 40 percent of the vote that went to other candidates. If she is able to consolidate much of the non-Soglin vote, he will be in trouble in the April election. "

Cheeks, vice president of business development for MIOsoft and elected three times to the City Council, was with supporters at Hawk's Bar & Grill on State Street but could not be reached.

Shukla, executive director of the conservation organization River Alliance of Wisconsin, thanked supporters gathered at The Roman Candle Pizza on the Near West Side. He said climate change, challenges from the federal government and the need for racial equality remain and encouraged backers to stay involved.

The campaigns had been reaching out to voters and raising money for months, but the race kicked into gear when candidates tangled over a host of issues but also displayed humor and wit in a first lively debate before an engaged, near-capacity crowd on Jan. 9 at the Barrymore Theatre on the Near East Side.

The race continued with strong fundraising by all but Hart and Pettaway, high attendance at debates and forums and a healthy early voter turnout. 

Through the campaign, candidates focused on similar themes such as creating housing that's affordable to lower-wage workers and low-income families, considering racial equity in decision-making and addressing educational and economic disparities in the community, supporting better transit, especially Bus Rapid Transit, improving public safety and addressing climate change.

Soglin, 73, mayor for 14 years in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s and now completing a second straight four-year term, in July said he wouldn't seek re-election in the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor. But in October, he jumped into the mayoral race.

The mayor on Tuesday told supporters that life for Madisonians across all ethnicities, races and economic backgrounds has improved since he became mayor again in 2011 but said more still needs to be done to increase job opportunities, housing availability and access to health care.

“That doesn’t mean we’re satisfied. That does not mean we’re content with our situation here in Madison,” he said. “But it does mean we are on the right track … We cannot go backwards.”

Rhodes-Conway, 47, offered a series of policy positions during the campaign, and in her speech listed bus rapid transit, “shameful racial disparities in this city and climate change that is coming for us” as issues moving voters.

“People are ready for new ideas and ready for political courage and ready to take on challenges," she said in an interview.

The mayoral campaign has already attracted a lot of cash, suggesting a costly sprint between Soglin and Rhodes-Conway to the general election.

From July 1, 2018, through Feb. 4, Cheeks has raised $128,727, Shukla $128,217, Soglin $112,029, Rhodes-Conway $83,331, and Pettaway $1,061. 

“You know I was pretty dramatically outspent in this primary," Rhodes-Conway told supporters. "The fact that I am standing here is testimony to the fact that people are more important than dollars.”

Combined, the six candidates raised $453,365 in that time period, dwarfing the $180,313 raised by five mayoral candidates for the same period in the 2015 mayoral race. 

State Journal reporters Chris Aadland and Steven Verburg contributed to this report.

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