Madison’s mayoral primary offers historic choices

February 19, 2019

After 22 years with Paul Soglin as Madison’s mayor over four decades beginning almost half a century ago, the central question facing voters in Tuesday’s Madison mayoral primary will be: Does Soglin deserve another term, or is it time for new leadership?

With Soglin’s name recognition, power of incumbency and multiple challengers dividing the opposition vote, many expect the only mystery to be resolved Tuesday is who will face him in the general election April 2.

But with strong fundraising by several challengers, high attendance at debates and forums and a healthy early voter turnout, “Tuesday’s primary is anyone’s to win,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, the council’s longest-serving member who’s made no endorsements in the race.

So far, Madison’s six-way mayoral primary has mostly pitted the mayor against his opponents, with challengers largely avoiding head-on attacks.

Joining Soglin on the ballot Tuesday will be: Ald. Mo Cheeks, vice president of business development for MIOsoft; former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at UW-Madison’s 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 one signature short on her nominating petitions, and is running as a write-in candidate.

“The challengers in this race have been fairly collegial,” Shukla said, accusing the mayor of being dismissive of the ideas of others.

Soglin makes no apologies for a campaign that he said is simply grounded in reality. Under his leadership, and through collaboration with others, Madison is among just 11 metro areas in the nation out of 100 surveyed by the Brookings Institution to achieve inclusive economic growth, his campaign noted.

“My tone is to provide specific workable proposals that are economically, environmentally and sustainably sound without exaggerated claims or efforts to pander,” Soglin said.

Challengers see something else.

“During the primary, we’ve had a healthy discussion about where our city is headed, and that it is time to live up to the progressive values that we aspire to,” Cheeks said. “Our city needs a mayor with a sense of urgency when it comes to taking on our persistent reputation as a tale of two cities, where this is a great place to live for some but not all depending on the color of your skin.”

The candidates have focused on similar themes such as creating housing that’s affordable to lower-wage workers and low-income families, considering racial equity in decision-making and addressing educational and economic disparities in the community, supporting better transit, especially Bus Rapid Transit, public safety, and addressing climate change.

Cheeks, 34, has been elected three times to the City Council. His campaign centers on what he calls an “opportunity agenda” including doubling the city’s Affordable Housing Fund from $4.5 million to $9 million annually; increasing funds for mentorship programs; creating 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.

Rhodes-Conway, 47, also served three terms on the City Council. Some specific ideas of hers 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 rights-of-way 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.

“Voters must decide if we’re going to be a city that acts to solve problems versus a city that only talks about them,” she said. “I have a track record of getting things done, a collaborative leadership style and the political courage to tackle Madison’s challenges.”

Shukla, 42, moved through a career in community and economic development, with positions recently connected to the environment. He chairs the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee.

He’s offered a “Green Growth Agenda,” with specific proposals including 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 citywide early childhood care program.

“I think the campaign has been about whether or not the city embraces the future or clings to the past, and who is best to take us into the future,” he said.

Hart, 39, whose campaign appears to have raised little if any money, is making his second bid for the mayor’s office. At public forums, he’s sought to inject some levity into the race, but also put a spotlight on what he sees as the city’s poor turnout for mayoral primaries and to comment on issues like race and policing.

Pettaway, 48, has a long work history in human resources and promoting racial equity.

Among specifics, she’d boost the city’s minimum living wage for employees and many contractors from $13.27 to $21 an hour, redirect bus service to those with the greatest transit needs, thread equity through all city decision-making, and make city buildings more energy efficient.

“Who has the best vision and who is dedicated to working for their families with more than intent, but experience and expertise in equity first?” Pettaway said.

In the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor, Soglin said in July he wouldn’t run again for mayor. But after placing a distant seventh in the Democratic primary, and following historic flooding in August that demanded quick action by the city, Soglin, 73, said he was re-energized and jumped into the mayoral race in October.

His current top priority, he said, is engaging with about 80 to 120 youths, mostly African Americans, who are involved in stealing cars, break-ins, violent assaults and other crimes. Soglin also wants to establish better budget practices, especially on reducing borrowing, persuade the state to allow regional transit authorities to raise revenue for strained transit systems, and continue efforts to get people signed up for health care coverage programs.

Soglin “has kept Madison moving forward, significantly reduced racial economic inequities, cut African-American unemployment, took a stagnant housing market and opened it up for all income levels, and collaborated with the county and state to increase the number of families with health insurance,” campaign manager Melissa Mulliken said.

Money flowing

Combined, the six candidates have raised $453,365 since last summer, dwarfing the $180,313 raised by five mayoral candidates for the same period in the 2015 mayoral race. The gap is even larger if a $50,000 loan one candidate gave to himself in the 2015 race is subtracted.

From July 1, 2018, through Feb. 4, Cheeks has raised $128,727, Shukla $128,217, Soglin $112,029, Rhodes-Conway $83,331, and Pettaway $1,061.

The timing of donations has differed among candidates. Cheeks started strongest, but in the latest reports, which cover activity from Jan. 1 through Feb. 4, Shukla raised $37,735, followed by Soglin, $35,336; Rhodes-Conway, $31,020; Cheeks, $15,609; and Pettaway, $706. Hart is not required to file reports if his spending didn’t exceed $2,000.

With potential for electing the city’s first African-American, openly gay, or Indian-American mayor, this year’s primary campaign has seen unprecedented attention from national organizations. Cheeks is supported by The Collective, which assists African-American candidates. Rhodes-Conway is backed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Shukla is supported by the Indian American Impact Fund.