In his first bid for public office, Raj Shukla is confident and ready to become Madison’s next mayor.
Shukla, 42, graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in political science, began his career in community and economic development in Milwaukee and then advanced through a series of positions, recently connected to climate change and the environment.
He’s now executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, which has a mission to protect and restore water, and chairman of the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee, which is leading an effort for the city to be first in the state to use 100 percent renewable energy.
A thread in his career, he said, is a desire and capacity to bring people, sometimes with diverse interests, together to a shared vision and common goals.
“That’s what you do as mayor,” he said during an interview in the dining room of his Near West Side home, where he and his wife, Victoria Frank, are raising daughters ages 10, 8 and 6, who are into gymnastics so much that an adjacent playroom offers not only books and toys but a low balance beam and mat.
“Bring people together. Find common goals,” he said. “That is something that I do very well.”
Shukla would meet challenges through a “Green Growth Agenda,” which outlines actions for a green, sustainable city; comfortable, efficient transportation; clean, healthy lakes and parks; a growing equitable city; and fair and essential services.
If elected, he would be Madison’s first Indian-American mayor and, according to the Indian American Impact Fund, perhaps the first in any of the nation’s 100 largest cities.
Ald. Allen Arntsen, 13th District, a supporter long active in civic affairs, said, “He’s a good listener. He’s open to ideas. He’s willing to make decisions, but he doesn’t act like he’s the smartest person in the room. He brings the qualities I’d like to work with as a mayor.”
But some observers wonder about Shukla’s lack of electoral experience and if he might be a one-issue candidate, too focused on the environment.
Former Ald. and City Council President Lauren Cnare, who’s supporting Satya Rhodes-Conway, said Shukla has a deep knowledge on an important topic, but that for the role of mayor, any person coming to the office should have experience with the rules of government in budgeting, expenditures, departments and the decision-making process.
“I do think having elected experience is critical,” Cnare said.
Shukla said he’s prepared, his city committee having crafted legislation signed by the mayor, and having worked with city, county and state government doing economic development for poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee, among other experience.
‘A point of agreement’
Shukla’s parents, Triveni and Girija, immigrated from India to the United States in the mid-1960s.
His father, a food scientist, first brought his family to Champaign-Urbana, where he earned a doctorate at the University of Illinois. The family moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, then Dodge City, Kansas, where Shukla was born, and, six months later, to New Berlin, the Milwaukee suburb, where the family set roots. He has two older sisters.
“It was the suburban life,” Shukla said, with his interests in tennis, soccer, basketball and playing the drums in music classes and a progressive rock band, In Green Inc.
Still, as an Indian-American, “you grow up being different in every room you’re in,” he said. “You learn very early about the value of trusting yourself and who you are and accepting other people as they are and making the best of the situation.”
Shukla said his parents often invited guests to their home and made them feel welcome.
“I just remember being surrounded by love and support,” he said. “I realize how lucky I am. It’s sort of something that drives me in everything I do. You’re given gifts in life. It’s our responsibility to make the world a place we want it to be.”
During and after meals, the family would talk about issues of the day, he said. His father, a Reagan Democrat who “realized the error of his ways,” had an influence, but his sisters taught about the need to seek a just and equitable world, he said. As a youth, his parents would take him to visit his sisters, who attended UW-Madison, and he knew he’d be a Badger someday.
In high school, he once served as a women’s health clinic protector, locking arms with others to provide a safe pathway for women facing insults and threats from protesters as they came and went from a clinic on Milwaukee’s east side.
He earned his political science degree from UW-Madison in 1998. While at the university, he did an internship with the national Democratic Party in Washington, D.C.
After graduation, he returned to Milwaukee.
In 2002, Shukla joined a program called Public Allies, and served for 10 months in Milwaukee, working with 30 team members to build capacity in local nonprofits. Frank, his future wife, was also part of that team. He then served as program officer for the Greater Milwaukee Committee, managing a $1.5 million fundraising campaign and external relations for an inner city reinvestment effort from 2003 through mid-2005.
In the meantime, in 2004, Shukla and Frank were married on the stage of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, where her father was a longtime artistic and managing director.
In the late summer of 2005, the couple moved to the Madison area, where she began a master’s program at UW-Madison. Soon after, Shukla volunteered for the American Red Cross when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. He spent three weeks there, managing communications and logistics, a witness to devastation, hardships and suffering.
“I saw what will increasingly happen in our world because of climate change and what happens when government ignores people in the middle of a catastrophe,” he said.
After returning to Madison, he became finance director for Progressive Majority Wisconsin, training candidates for state and local offices and producing online contribution tools.
Meanwhile, in 2006, he joined former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, which trains people to become activists and drive change across the globe. Initially, on his own time, he reached out to high school students, churches, Rotary clubs — “anyone and everyone” — to teach the science of climate change. He continues to do that work, although not as often. In 2008 and 2009, he served as a manager for youth engagement programs, securing $1.2 million for those efforts.
In his outreach, Shukla expected vitriol, but instead found “if you can get a conversation going and talk about things honestly, you can get a point of agreement.”
In 2008, he founded Brightbend LLC, a consulting enterprise that for three years helped integrate social responsibility into community outreach strategies for high-profile clients. From 2011 to 2016, he served as program manager for Madison-based Cool Choices, which drives voluntary programs for clients to reduce carbon emissions and business costs.
“It’s about getting people to work together on the issue,” he said.
In 2016, Shukla was hired as executive director at the River Alliance of Wisconsin, a 25-year-old nonprofit with a staff of nine and 2,000 individual and business members and 80 local watershed groups.
Sense of urgency
As his career progressed, Shukla continued volunteer work, not only with the Climate Reality Project but for a year as a Dane County court-appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system.
He also got involved in city government.
He was named to the Sustainable Madison Committee in 2013, and became its chairman. The committee is now forwarding an ambitious plan to the City Council to get the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and the community to that goal by 2045.
Shukla said he decided to run for mayor because city leaders seem more comfortable talking than acting, and that he wants to address racial inequity, growth, and climate change with a sense of urgency. The mayor’s office, he said, offers the opportunity to provide leadership and set a vision.
“We’re not talking about big things and getting big things done,” he said.
Specific proposals include faster permits for buildings that meet high environmental standards; moving to fare-free transit zones and implementing Bus Rapid Transit; using city purchasing power to reduce agriculture runoff; zoning reform, such as in Minneapolis, which has eliminated single-family home zoning in some spots; using the Affordable Housing Fund to help people with fixed incomes who are facing rising taxes remain in their homes; and spearheading a city-wide early childhood care program.
“As cities grow, there are challenges and tensions,” Shukla said, the sounds of his daughters playing upstairs with an occasional thud from tumbling, their huge, 12-year-old English Labrador, Zeus, lumbering about the house.
“I recognize the city is going to grow. We have to make room for everybody.”