Madison mayoral candidate Satya Rhodes-Conway arrived at Colectivo on the Square by bus. She trekked up a small hill glazed with ice, blue snow spikes in hand. Our 8 a.m. meeting was her first of many meetings that February day.
Her calendar was filled from our morning meeting to the end of the day with appointments for her campaign and her job as the managing director of the Mayor’s Innovation Project. Such a tight schedule has left her in a self-described “email hole.”
Her current position at MIP — one she’s held for 13 years — has allowed her to work with cities across the country and observe trends in key issues she’s campaigning on, like affordable housing, equitable transportation, climate change and racial equity.
She has seen the pain other cities have gone through, like an increasingly competitive housing market that leaves people displaced. Watching and learning from the challenges other cities have gone through has fueled her ambition to create a city where everyone would have the opportunity to thrive.
“The issues I’m running on are not about me, they’re about the city,” Rhodes-Conway said, between bites of her croissant. “I’m starting to see [displacement due to a competitive housing market] here and that really bothered me because you can look around the country and see that happening and you can see … the cities that waited too long and the pickle that they’re in. I didn’t want that to be us.”
While the incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin has experience on his side — a combination of 22 years at the helm of the city — he took home only 28.6 percent of the vote, just a few hundred more than Rhodes-Conway, in the February 19 primary election.
On the other hand, Rhodes-Conway not only has six years as an alderperson and her experience working for MIP under her belt, but can also cite her collaborative leadership style and the political will to make necessary changes.
“I’ve always been the type of person to say, ‘There’s a problem — how do we work on it, how do we fix it, what do we do?’” Rhodes-Conway said, as she prepares for the April 2 election. “If I think I have the capacity, the experience, the skills, the vision, the political courage necessary to help this city face those challenges, then I have to do it.”
In the realm of possibility
Rhodes-Conway studied biology as an undergraduate at Smith College and earned her master’s degree in ecology from the University of California-Irvine. She initially set her sights on continuing her studies through a PhD program there, but abandoned the idea when she considered that her graduate studies were “not an unequivocal success.”
“I didn’t pick well,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Honestly I didn’t think I knew going in that I really wanted to do applied science and the department I picked was very theoretical … The department was great and everybody there was wonderful to me, but it was not a great fit.”
While Rhodes-Conway didn’t get her PhD, she did discover a love for teaching. Living in Long Beach, California, after graduating, she was offered a position as a lecturer for the university.
“I knew that wasn’t long-term and I had to figure out what to do next,” Rhodes-Conway said.
She started applying for jobs from there. When her search turned out unsuccessful, she looked to internship opportunities.
When she applied for an internship at the State Environmental Resource Center in Madison — an agency that no longer exists — she wrote her cover letter in the form of a multiple choice question.
“I was writing a lot of multiple choice exams and I thought, ‘What the heck?’” she laughed.
She got the internship, where she worked on state-level environmental policies. At the time, she thought she’d only be in Madison for a few months. That changed toward the end of her internship.
In September, she was walking around the Square visiting the booths of a crowded Dane County Farmers’ Market, her friend called and asked her about her adjustment to Madison. In return, Rhodes-Conway raved about the city’s beauty and the work she was doing.
“She said, ‘You’re never coming back [to California] are you?’ And I [was] like, ‘No, I don’t think I am,’” Rhodes-Conway said.
Soon after, she went into her boss’ office and told him how much she liked the work she was doing.
She said she should be hired full-time. He agreed.
“From a campaign perspective, it’s certainly challenging to have that many opponents and to get your message out,” Rhodes-Conway said. “But I think it was good for the city to have a crowded primary and have options. I firmly believe in democracy and that only works if people have choices in elections.” Satya Rhodes-Conway, Madison mayoral candidate
She worked for the State Environmental Resource Center for three years, until it was shut down. Her boss at the time pointed her to her current position at MIP, which required an extensive knowledge of policy.
“I’ve always been interested in actually making a difference in the world and initially I thought I could do that through science,” Rhodes-Conway said. “What I discovered was that the way you do that is through policy.”
Rhodes-Conway had no formal training in policy at the time. Whatever policy work she was involved in dealt with matters of the state and national level. She knew nothing about electoral politics or campaigns until she got involved locally while helping her oldest friend campaign for Madison’s city council.
“I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into when I offered to help, but I ended up managing her campaign,” Rhodes-Conway said. “She did not win, but in the process I learned a ton about running for office and campaigns and met a bunch of people who are active locally in campaigns and electoral politics.”
Rhodes-Conway became involved with issue activism when she connected with community members. She became invested in their work on affordable housing and ended up testifying in front of a city council meeting about the issue.
“I had butterflies and I was shaky,” she said. “And I got up … and I was talking and I was looking at them and it occurred to me that, not in a bad way, but these are just folks. There’s nothing special about these people except that they got their name on the ballot … They’re just people.”
That realization put running for the city council in the “realm of possibility” for her.
She first started thinking about running for alderperson when she found out the well that served her house was contaminated.
“The neighborhood was really worried and felt like it wasn’t getting good answers from the water utility, didn’t know what was being done. So we started organizing,” she said. “I was not at all at the lead of this, there were some amazing women doing the organizing, but I was watching and following because I cared about my water, obviously, and I got involved to help.”
She eventually became interested in running for her district because of a “convergence of events” — around the same time she became more active within the community, her alderperson announced he wasn’t running for re-election.
“That all combined to make me think that this was important, this was possible, and that I could actually help make a difference [in city council],” Rhodes-Conway said. “So I threw my hat in the ring.”
From 2007-13, she represented district 12 and served on numerous committees, including the Food Policy Council, the Sustainable Madison Committee, Long Range Transportation Planning Committee and more. She said a number people asked her to run for mayor on multiple occasions throughout that time.
They kept asking even after she was no longer serving as alder.
In the spring of 2017, she had a series of conversations with local community leaders about unresolved issues in Madison.
“They kept saying to me, ‘Somebody’s got to be leading on these issues.’ None of us saw the leadership that we needed coming out of city hall,” she said. “Having identified the problem, I felt like it was up to me to step forward to work on it.”
A city ready for change
Nine candidates originally declared their intention to run for mayor, but in what Rhodes-Conway called a relief, only six made it on the ballot.
“From a campaign perspective, it’s certainly challenging to have that many opponents and to get your message out,” Rhodes-Conway said. “But I think it was good for the city to have a crowded primary and have options. I firmly believe in democracy and that only works if people have choices in elections.”
Soglin took away much of the victory in Madison’s peripheries, whereas Rhodes-Conway garnered much of her support on the isthmus.
The battle was an historic one, between Madison’s “mayor for life” and a plethora of potential firsts — the first African American mayor, the first Indian-American mayor and for Rhodes-Conway, the first openly gay and second woman mayor.
Soglin captured 52.8 percent of primary votes when he ran for re-election in 2015 — an increase from the 49.5 percent he garnered when he went up against incumbent Dave Cieslewicz in the 2011 primaries.
This time around, he won just 28.6 percent of the city’s vote, a narrow victory over Rhodes-Conway, who earned 27.7 percent. The rest of the vote was split between Ald. Mo Cheeks, District 9, and Raj Shukla, chair of the Sustainable Madison Committee. Comedian Nick Hart and racial equity coordinator and write-in candidate Toriana Pettaway took away less than 2 percent.
Rhodes-Conway has consistently cited four issues as central to her campaign — affordable housing, Bus Rapid Transit, racial disparities and preparing for climate change — platforms many of the candidates, including Soglin, ran on as well.
“Broadly, not just the candidates, but many people agree what the top issues are,” she said. “What’s important is, ‘What are we doing [about] them? How are we approaching them? What are the solutions you can bring forward?’ Mayor Soglin has had a long time to work on these things, and there are still issues. There are still challenges.”
Because the issues Rhodes-Conway is running on are “regional in nature,” she said there has to be cooperation between local municipalities, the school district, the county and the state.
In a city that has prided itself on being a progressive bastion, Rhodes-Conway was surprised to find that same energy does not trickle over into city government. Rhodes-Conway wants to see inroads in Bus Rapid Transit, relaxation in some of the “crunch” in the housing market, continued success with the economy, a high quality of life, and — though she doesn’t quite know what this would look like yet — an office of community engagement that would improve constituents’ access to the government.
“Every city is facing climate change, every city has concerns about safety. How they manifest might be specific to place, but the themes are very common,” Rhodes-Conway said. “In some ways that’s reassuring because it means other cities have dealt with things and learned one way or another about what works and what doesn’t and we can learn from that … Which isn’t to say we don’t need Madison-specific solutions, because of course we do, but there’s so much we can learn from the experience from other cities.” Satya Rhodes-Conway, Madison mayoral candidate
Within five years, she said she “absolutely” can see a complete review of operations and infrastructure at the city level. She said these efforts will help the city prepare for the effects of climate change.
To do so, she said she wants to build a positive, collaborative and inclusive relationship between city council and the mayor’s office — something she believes has been lacking.
“We have to be working together,” she said. “We’re not doing that now.”
Michael Basford, chair of the Democratic Party of Dane County and Rhodes-Conway’s former opponent for her alder seat, said her leadership style is unique — one that allows her to connect with people and understand the needs of her community.
The Democratic Party of Dane County has had members that have supported candidates across the democratic political spectrum, but Basford said Rhodes-Conway has the ability to work effectively across that spectrum.
“She doesn’t occupy one space totally,” Basford said. “She’s really good at working with people on all sides within the party.”
To Basford, her campaign represents the interests of a new generation of voters.
Soglin has held the office on and off for nearly half a decade. His impressive 22 years in office is formidable, but also personifies a generational disconnect. The potential election of Rhodes-Conway could symbolize a “passing of a torch” from one era to the next, Basford said.
“It’s time that we have somebody who represents a younger generation,” Basford said.
Rhodes-Conway said her campaign has never been about her opponent, nor about criticizing the current administration.
Rhodes-Conway’s drive to become mayor, rather, is fueled by the city itself — to make it a place equally accessible for everyone.
“I think I have something to offer. I think this community needs someone who has political courage to tackle these challenges,” she said. “I think that’s me.”
Special city, universal problems
Having working with local governments across the country, Rhodes-Conway has found that every city thinks it’s special — but that their problems are anything but.
She said Madison is special for many reasons — its environment and geography, its kind and politically-aware people, and its potential, to name a few.
“I went to a neighborhood association meeting … in the Indian Springs neighborhood and they had prepared a series of incredibly thoughtful questions, both about the city and about their neighborhood,” she said. “I love that, it means they’re paying attention and they care … I think that’s something really special about Madison.”
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Madison is currently confronted with some “growing pains” as it welcomes a sizable increase to its population, but Rhodes-Conway said this is a problem for which cities have found solutions in the past. She added that Madison faces some of the worst racial disparities in the country but said those problems aren’t unique to the city.
“Every city is facing climate change, every city has concerns about safety. How they manifest might be specific to place, but the themes are very common,” Rhodes-Conway said. “In some ways that’s reassuring because it means other cities have dealt with things and learned one way or another about what works and what doesn’t and we can learn from that … Which isn’t to say we don’t need Madison-specific solutions, because of course we do, but there’s so much we can learn from the experience from other cities.”
As the campaign draws to a close, and the end of the sprint is now just a short distance away, Rhodes-Conway has continuously made a point of identifying these issues as pertinent for the whole city — not just with her candidacy or her campaign. The city, she said, must be available to everyone — from teachers and firefighters to baristas and students. These people must be able to live in a city they can afford to call home.
“We’ve got a long way to go before that’s really true for everyone,” Rhodes-Conway said. “But it’s not about what we build … it’s about people. It’s about people being able to live their lives and be happy and healthy.”