Satya Rhodes-Conway has worked with mayors from around the country on some of the most pressing issues facing cities.
Rhodes-Conway, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science from universities on both coasts, moved to Madison almost two decades ago for an environmental internship and fell for the city’s charms. She was hired at the UW-Madison think tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) and served three terms on the City Council.
Now, she wants to apply her expertise and collaborative approach to leadership as Madison’s next mayor.
“I work every day with cities,” she said during an interview at the modest home she shares with partner Amy Klusmeier on the East Side, where a “Tammy!” Baldwin campaign sign still hangs in a front porch window and their dog, Leo, and three cats share comfy space with packed bookshelves and original art on the walls.
“I see what’s possible,” she said.
Rhodes-Conway, who would be the first openly gay mayor in city history, has long displayed a certain mettle. She was chair of the Lesbian-Bisexual Alliance at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, played rugby while pursuing her college degrees and came out even though, while still a teenager, a member of her family was shot and that person’s partner murdered by a man for being lesbians while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“You have to make a conscious decision not to live your life in fear,” she said.
In 2007, she won her council seat, focusing on constituent service and transportation and serving on a special committee that recommended the city support private ownership and nonprofit operation of the Overture Center as a means of ensuring the then-financially struggling art center’s future.
She didn’t seek re-election in 2013 in order to focus on her day job as managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project. But she serves as chair of the city’s 13-member Oscar Mayer Strategic Assessment Committee, taking a big-picture look at a triangular swath of mostly industrial land that includes the former meat packaging plant. She’s also a member of the Madison Food Policy Council.
“She’s an incredibly hard worker,” said Ald. Ledell Zellers, 2nd District, a supporter. “She is very knowledgeable about a wide variety of issues facing cities in general, and Madison in particular. She has the knowledge, ability to lead and energy to get things done.”
A criticism from some on the council, however, is that Rhodes-Conway can come off as a bit too academic, more ivory tower than boots on the ground, and too professorial.
“You need a balance,” she said. “I’ve successfully balanced having a good store of knowledge of what’s happening in other cities and having practical experience on the ground in neighborhoods.”
Academics, activism, rugby
Rhodes-Conway was born in Espanola, New Mexico, rather than nearby Santa Fe, because the clinic in Espanola would let her father in the delivery room and the hospital in Santa Fe wouldn’t. Her father manages art collections and estates, and her mother is an artist and community activist.
The family moved to Ithaca, New York, when Rhodes-Conway was 3 or 4 years old, and she grew up and lived there until she left to attend Smith College. Ithaca, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, is a college town, educated and progressive, she said. Her parents divorced when she was 5, and her mother came out as lesbian. She has four living siblings, two on her dad’s side and two on her mom’s.
As a child, Rhodes-Conway said she wanted to grow up to be Wonder Woman. While still in middle school she became attracted to politics and joined campus protests against apartheid in South Africa.
“I started caring about national and international issues pretty early on,” she said. “It took a while to transition to electoral politics.”
A self-described “bookworm,” Rhodes-Conway was attracted to science, especially biology and ecology. She took singing and piano lessons and did amateur theater.
“I don’t think I was very good, but it was fun,” she said. She studied photography in high school and college — her grandfather, who worked in the science of color printing, gave a first camera — and two of her original framed prints hang in her home.
At Smith, she chose biology over music and as a leader of the Lesbian-Bisexual Alliance worked with black and Latino organizations and student government to confront homophobia and racism on campus. She co-founded the botany club, called “The Bad Seeds.” Her mother’s partner encouraged her to play rugby, and she played second row — the engine of the hard-pushing scrum — for the college.
“I thought I was a thorn in the side of the administration,” she said. But at graduation, among other honors, she received an award for demonstrating the best balance between academics and campus involvement.
She anticipated a career in academia, but wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. Just after graduation, her grandfather and younger brother were killed in a car crash. “It was real hard on all of us,” she said. Under the circumstances, she didn’t want to leave home and worked for a construction company for two years.
Eventually, she was accepted to graduate programs at the University of North Carolina, Duke and Yale, but chose the University of California-Irvine, where an adviser focused in the reforestation of tropical rain forests. She joined the rugby team there, too.
“It’s a great way to get to know a bunch of people right away,” she said. “Some of my oldest and dearest friends are rugby teammates.”
She liked to teach, and after graduation the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology retained her as a lecturer. She could have stayed but began looking for something else, hoping to work for a nonprofit environmental organization. In 2002, an internship came open in Madison, and she accepted, despite never having seen the city. It took only a month before she knew she would never leave.
“Living in Long Beach was very Californian — driving everywhere, poor air quality,” she said, while Madison felt familiar, reminding her of a larger version of Ithaca. On a beautiful fall day, walking down State Street after the Dane County Farmers’ Market, she called to chat with a friend in California. The friend asked, “You’re not coming back, are you?” Rhodes-Conway replied, “I don’t think I am.”
Soon after, she walked into her boss’ office, saying she loved the city and hoped the internship could transition to a permanent job. The supervisor said he’d been thinking the same thing.
Tipping point issues
The Mayors Innovation Project launched after then-Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz approached COWS director Joel Rogers about the possibility of creating an entity that could gather mayors for peer learning on best practices. Cieslewicz still sits on the advisory board of the project, which includes more than 50 cities and has served more than 250 cities over the years.
In her job, Rhodes-Conway plans conferences centered on several big topics with time scheduled for presentations and discussion. “It’s not one way,” she said. “It’s an exchange.”
For leisure, she likes to read, knit, attend theater and travel, and relax at Klusmeier’s cabin outside Viroqua. Her partner is president of the southern Wisconsin chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Soon after coming to Madison, she got involved in electoral politics. She started volunteering for then-U.S. Rep.Tammy Baldwin in 2002, helped run Lori Nitzel’s unsuccessful bid for City Council in 2005 and began testifying before the council on housing issues. When Ald. Brian Benford decided not to seek re-election in the 12th District in 2007, Rhodes-Conway won the seat.
She served for six years before stepping back to focus on her job but has remained active in local politics, serving as a board member for the Dane County Democratic party. She said she was encouraged by others to run for mayor and cites as priorities access to affordable housing, transportation, stabilization of families and neighborhoods, better stormwater management and preparation for climate change.
Some specific ideas include expanding use of the Affordable Housing Fund to rehab existing stock and buy land for development, especially along future Bus Rapid Transit lines and supporting green infrastructure for right-of-ways to keep rain out of stormwater drains so runoff doesn’t pollute the lakes. She said she wants to look at potential impacts of climate change to city infrastructure, department by department.
“I’m not running because I want to sit in the mayor’s office or because I have ambitions for higher office,” she said. “I’m running because I want Madison to be the best city it can be for everyone.”