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Madison mayoral debate

Candidates for Madison mayor prepare for their first debate Wednesday at the Barrymore Theatre. From left are Raj Shukla, Maurice Cheeks, Nick Hart, Toriana Pettaway, Satya Rhodes-Conway and incumbent Paul Soglin.

In a first lively debate, six candidates vying to be Madison’s next mayor tangled over a host of issues but also displayed humor and wit before an engaged, near-capacity crowd Wednesday at the Barrymore Theatre on the Near East Side.

The debate was largely cordial, often punctuated by laughter from the large crowd. But the candidates also offered positions on many of the major challenges facing the city, including racial equity, housing, transportation, public safety, flood prevention, economic development and actions by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in minority communities.

Mayor Paul Soglin faces four challengers on the Feb. 19 primary ballot: 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.

Toriana Pettaway, the city’s racial equity coordinator, fell two signatures short on her nominating petitions to qualify for the ballot but is running as a write-in candidate and was included in the debate by its sponsor, The Capital Times.

The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will be on the ballot in the April 2 general election.

The candidates offered broad visions and specifics.

Shukla talked about a city that’s “equitable, sustainable and vibrant” for all who live here. Cheeks said the community must “expand what it feels like and looks like to be a Madisonian.” Hart challenged the city to be progressive, not pretend it is. Pettaway spoke of grass-roots advocacy. Rhodes-Conway vowed political courage to implement solutions without thinking of the next election, and Soglin said he’d build on achievements and be critical when others don’t meet obligations.

The debate used a format with moderators challenging candidates on issues, as well as “lightning round” segments offering lighter questions about $20 dates, books, favorite local sports teams and more that challenged wits and produced a positive vibe.

The candidates offered a host of ideas and positions on racial equity and social justice, which have already emerged as central issues in the young campaign.

Hart, who contributed much of the levity through the evening, also struck a more serious chord saying, “Our city has to admit it is racist.”

Pettaway said the city has to look at what communities of color see as racial inequity. Soglin said the city has challenges, but that more recent data shows significant improvements in some areas that must be appreciated and built upon, such as supporting youth during out-of-school time. Cheeks called for new levels of leadership and collaboration.

The candidates were challenged on housing, including how to best provide for the homeless.

Soglin said the city has created 1,000 units of affordable housing and the overwhelming majority of projects have been successful, but that the Tree Lane apartments for homeless families on the Far West Side have been troubled because they concentrated the most needy families in one spot with insufficient support services. He said the city is making changes but not retreating from its commitment to Housing First for the homeless.

Rhodes-Conway said the city faces a housing crisis requiring a range of solutions, including more “tiny houses” for the homeless. But Soglin said tiny houses aren’t going to help families with many children. Pettaway said the city must use a holistic approach that includes employment and transportation. Shukla said Madison should revisit its zoning code, as cities such as Minneapolis are doing. Cheeks said he’d double contributions to the city’s Affordable Housing fund with an emphasis on workforce housing.

Several candidates offered priorities on public safety. Rhodes-Conway and Cheeks advocated addressing root causes of crime. Cheeks also promoted peer support to help address violence. Soglin voiced his support for peer support, and said the city must focus on housing, transportation, child and health care, education and employment. Hart called for more community policing.

The city, Rhodes-Conway said, must work on a trust gap between the police and the community, saying, “Things are not good right now.”

The candidates also spoke about actions by ICE last fall, when from Sept. 21-24, ICE detained 20 people in Dane County and a total of 83 in Wisconsin, causing fear and panic in the city’s immigrant communities.

Cheeks called the detentions “an act of terrorism.” Rhodes-Conway spoke of warning minority communities, if possible, standing up for those detained, and supporting immigrant communities in a variety of ways, including helping people stay out of the criminal justice system. Pettaway advocated for reaching out to meet people and forging new relationships. Soglin said he has already confronted federal officials.

The candidates also responded to the issues of climate change and damage caused by torrential rain and flooding in the late summer.

“We saw flooding in a way that really shocked the system,” Cheeks said, calling for collaboration among levels of government and vowing to have someone in the mayor’s office with a focus on environmental policy.

But Shukla said what happened should not have been a shock to anyone paying attention, that the city shouldn’t be constantly reacting, and noted his efforts toward helping the city reduce its carbon footprint. Soglin said Dane County and others haven’t taken necessary steps to lower Lake Mendota and called for public pressure to do so, but Cheeks offered, “Our city can’t afford to point fingers in a crisis.”

The debate used a format with moderators challenging candidates on issues, as well as “lightning round” segments offering lighter questions.

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.