In the span of 12 years, Mo Cheeks found and fell in love with Madison, married his high school sweetheart and became a father twice, rose to be a technology executive and has been elected three times to the City Council.
Now, drawing upon a youth that he says taught the value of effort and teamwork and his experience representing one of the city’s most diverse districts, the 34-year-old Illinois native is seeking to be Madison’s next mayor.
If elected, he would be the first African American to hold the position.
“Our community is ready for progress,” Cheeks said over coffee at Madison Chocolate Company on Monroe Street, a “home away from home” roughly a half-block from his Near West Side residence, where his nine-month-old son was working on a nap. “I am ready for this job.”
Cheeks, vice president of business development for MIOsoft, a data quality and analytics company, has won recognition for his civic engagement, named one of the 25 most influential people in greater Madison by In Business Magazine and one of the 28 most influential African Americans in Wisconsin by Madison 365, both in 2015.
On the City Council, he cites as achievements helping forward a multi-faceted approach to rising gun violence and securing funds for peer support to address it, the development of a park in the Allied Drive neighborhood, passage of a “Ban the Box” ordinance for fair employment, and paid family leave for city employees.
Ald. Matt Phair, 20th District, a supporter who worked with Cheeks on addressing gun violence, said, “He just has natural born leadership skills. He’s the kind of person people want to be around. He treats people right. He has a real good sense of the moment and the bigger picture. That’s something you want in a leader.”
Cheeks sought council leadership positions and was elected as vice president in 2015. But in a break with council norms for succession, he badly failed in a bid for council president the following year, placing a distant third after 15 ballots and getting only one vote in the final round. He attributed the loss to internal politics on the nature of the council’s future.
“It was my first political loss. It was really a learning experience,” Cheeks said, adding that he followed the defeat by focusing on serving his district. He was re-elected with 84 percent of the vote in 2017. Former mayor Joe Sensenbrenner and five council members support his mayoral campaign.
Some, however, still are concerned that Cheeks, even though he has supported many initiatives, is too much lofty talk and not enough heavy-lifting walk.
“There’s real potential there,” said former Ald. and council president Denise DeMarb, who is supporting Satya Rhodes-Conway for mayor. “He says a lot of words and says them well. My concern is if Maurice is able to roll up his sleeves, work hard and take a stand on something. I haven’t seen that from him.”
Cheeks, citing achievements like violence prevention and family leave, said, “I’ve absolutely been rolling up my sleeves as a policy maker and a community leader, and I’m read to do that as mayor.”
Hard work, teamwork
Born in Chicago, Cheeks when he was five moved with his family to the city’s southwest suburb of Matteson, Illinois, and is the oldest of three sons. The neighborhood was diverse and his parents instilled values of hard work and teamwork, he said.
His father, Bill, had two jobs: a union construction truck driver and a small business owner. His mom, Heather, stayed at home and today is a personal trainer. Cheeks vividly recalls one night, his dad waking him at midnight and taking him to the site of a labor strike to show him, first hand, the look and importance of solidarity and community.
His father coached him in basketball, too, preaching the same ethics. Cheeks said he spent countless hours shooting and working on his game with the hope of earning a college scholarship. “Basketball was the ticket for me,” he said. But Cheeks, a starter on his high school freshman team, tore the ACL in his knee that year, and again in his sophomore year, ending his hoop dreams.
He shifted his aspirations to teaching, and earned a Golden Apple scholarship at Eastern Illinois University and taught in the Chicago schools for two summers. But he didn’t pursue a teaching career, instead accepting a post-graduation position with tech giant Apple Inc. as a K-12 sales account representative, choosing to relocate to Madison in 2007 and working with schools across the state. A lifelong interest in technology, he said, sparked when he was 10 and his mom let him disassemble and fix a broken cordless phone.
Cheeks met his future wife, Melissa, in high school. While he was at Eastern Illinois, she attended Purdue University to become a veterinarian and the couple continued a long-distance relationship.
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They both quickly fell for Madison. “The city of Madison has an energetic vibrancy,” Cheeks said. “Lots of culture. It felt like a city trying to look forward and the opportunity to be an exciting city for the next generation.”
Melissa completed her degree in 2011 and the couple married in Madison the weekend of Art Fair on the Square in that year. At home, Cheeks said he loves to cook, making a hot breakfast for his family every morning and homemade pizza with Melissa Friday nights. He has embraced parenthood, finding it as hard as warned but far more rewarding, bringing a new sense of civic responsibility.
“I want my kids to grow up in a city that’s more inclusive, more innovative and more safe,” he said.
Although witness to labor issues at a young age, Cheeks didn’t connect much with electoral politics until his junior year of college, when a professor suggested he attend a campus speech by the then-junior U.S. senator from Illinois, explaining that Barack Obama could become the nation’s first black president.
In Madison, Cheeks volunteered for Milwaukee Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett’s unsuccessful gubernatorial race against Republican Scott Walker in 2010. He did community work, tutoring at Memorial High School and serving on the board of directors at Omega School and as technology committee chair for Badger Rock Middle School’s planning team. He was appointed to the city’s Public Safety Review Committee and served on the board of the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools.
In 2013, Cheeks ran unopposed for an open seat in the city’s diverse 10th District, which covers Allied Drive, Dunn’s Marsh, Midvale Heights, Nakoma, Orchard Ridge and Summit Woods. He was re-elected in 2015 and 2017.
In 2014, he was a leader in the passage of local “Ban the Box” legislation, which removes questions about criminal backgrounds from initial employment applications.
In the spring of 2016, after three retaliatory gunshot homicides with black shooters and victims, African American community leaders, Cheeks and Phair forged an ambitious, 15-point plan with a top priority of peer support for teens and young adults at risk of committing violence, victims and families, and those re-entering the community from incarceration.
That fall, Mayor Paul Soglin proposed and the council approved $400,000 for peer support, which is now praised for helping reduce homicides and calming potentially violent situations. Funding was increased in the 2019 budget.
Cheeks said he involved youth in the planning process for the Allied Drive Park, which opened last summer with a basketball court, shelter and Wi-Fi. “It was really good for the kids to see they could engage with government and get things done,” he said.
He helped craft legislation to provide six weeks of paid family leave with the hope that it will also inspire the private sector to do the same. He would like to double it to 12 weeks.
On the night of Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, when, as Cheeks put it, America “elected a racist, sexist, bully to be president,” he got a text from his mom, asking how he was doing. Cheeks, distraught, didn’t reply. His mother followed with another text, “Don’t be discouraged. It is the local leaders people have to count on now.”
The message resonated. Cheeks felt motivated and ready to run for mayor, offering an “opportunity agenda” focused on housing, education, racial equity and economic development, safety, transportation, the environment and modernizing government.
Some specific proposals include doubling the city’s Affordable Housing Fund from $4.5 million to $9 million annually; increasing funds for mentorship programs; a comprehensive public safety plan; leading an effort to create a mental health crisis center; offering late-night bus service for shift workers, and creating a new environmental deputy in the mayor’s office.
“My style of leadership is a collaborative one,” he said. “We don’t have to be fighting over who gets the credit. At the end of the day, it’s about broadening who’s at the table.”