Looking to set themselves apart, the six people eyeing to become Madison’s mayor offered thoughts and proposals on the challenges the city faces at a forum Tuesday.
Mayoral primary candidates weighed in on a variety of issues, such as improving the city’s bicycle infrastructure, moving the community to 100 percent renewable energy and policing. There was agreement among candidates on a variety of topics, including keeping the housing stock in Madison affordable for low-income residents, closing racial inequities and pursuing action on climate change.
The forum drew more than 100 people to the Central Library. Liberal group Our Wisconsin Revolution, which formed out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign in the state, was the main sponsor of the event along with 12 other co-sponsoring groups and organizations.
Mayor Paul Soglin and four challengers — Ald. Mo Cheeks; comedian Nick Hart; former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, who works for the UW-Madison think-tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy; and Raj Shukla, executive director of the conservation organization River Alliance of Wisconsin — will be on the Feb. 19 primary ballot.
Toriana Pettaway, the city’s racial equity coordinator, who is running as a write-in candidate after falling one signature short of making the ballot, also participated in Tuesday’s forum.
The two candidates that receive the most votes in the primary will be on the general election ballot April 2.
In making their case to voters, Shukla said that while he may be “a newcomer to politics, I’m not a newcomer to leadership.” Hart, who brought humor to many of his responses, said he is running to get more people engaged in local politics, given the low turnout for mayoral primaries.
“I’m doing this as a civic duty,” he said.
Cheeks said the city has “shrugged its shoulders” to data about racial inequalities in Madison and wants to work with urgency to make the city more inclusive. Rhodes-Conway touted her experience of working with mayors in cities across the country as part of her job.
“You have to as mayor have the political courage to get things done,” she said.
Pettaway spoke of “bringing grassroots leadership that’s transformative, that’s innovative,” while Soglin listed accomplishments during his current stint as mayor.
“I want to continue this job. I want to finish this job,” he said.
The candidates were asked what they would do to increase support for formerly homeless people who live in “Housing First” apartments, which put little or no conditions on tenants and make support services voluntary.
Pettaway mentioned services that include child care, budgeting advice and transportation assistance. Cheeks said several residents in Housing First apartments deal with trauma, including mental health problems, and said he would prioritize a “mental health crisis and restoration center.”
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Eviction prevention services and ensuring those who face eviction have legal representation is critical to stop people from become homeless, said Rhodes-Conway, while also noting her support for Housing First.
Soglin said steps are being taken to address problems at the Tree Lane Apartments on the Far West Side and emphasized the importance of child care, health care, transportation and education. Shukla said he would seek changes in the city zoning code that could open up the possibility of more low-income housing.
Hart supported incentives and regulations for landlords to keep rental prices down but without impacting the cost to the property owner.
Two questions touched on how to move Madison to 100 percent renewable energy and what could be done to prevent future flooding like the flash flooding on the West Side and the sustained flooding threat to the Isthmus over last summer.
Cheeks suggested the creation of a position in the mayor’s office focused on the environment and sustainability. Soglin emphasized the importance of water conservation and working with Dane County and the state Department of Natural Resources on lowering the levels of the Yahara River lakes.
Pettaway said she doesn’t think the solution to flood prevention is lowering the lake levels, but rather working with local experts and lakefront property owners. Shukla suggested increasing the use of electric vehicles in the city fleet and prioritizing green developments in the permitting process.
More water retention features in developments would help prevent flooding, Rhodes-Conway said, adding her support that a “scorecard” on energy use be given to prospective tenants in new commercial buildings. Hart said the subject was “out of my wheelhouse” and agreed with the points of others.
The candidates also touched on the Madison Police Department and a report examining the department’s policies, practices and procedures.
Rhodes-Conway said accountability was most important, particularly with the police chief. Shukla said he would speak with Chief Mike Koval about whether it is most appropriate to reach the community through blog posts, on which Koval has expressed gripes with things like the juvenile justice system and the NFL national anthem protests.
“It kills the morale when people in our leadership say very controversial things,” Pettaway said about the Police Department.
Cheeks said there should be better access to data on arrest statistics, while Hart suggested police officers could act like firefighters and not actively patrol but respond when needed.
The larger community — not just those diametrically in support or opposition of the Police Department — need to be involved in changes to policing, Soglin said.
When asked what two words candidates wanted to be associated with their names, Shukla said “get involved” followed by Hart quipping “or you’ll end up with a mayor like me.”
Pettaway said “write-in candidate,” Cheeks said “progress and urgency,” Rhodes-Conway said “experience and vision,” and Soglin said “compassion and trust.”