Following primary success, Satya Rhodes-Conway confident for general election fight
Satya Rhodes-Conway is Madison's next mayor after defeating incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin with a landslide vote.Image By: Daniel Klugman
When the dust settled on Feb. 19 and every primary vote was counted, Satya Rhodes-Conway heard what she had been hoping to hear for the past eight months: she would be running for mayor in the general election in April.
A former alder and current managing director at the Mayors Innovation Project at UW-Madison’s Center on Wisconsin Strategy, Rhodes-Conway announced her run for mayor last May, more than a month before another candidate joined the race. At the time, incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin was seeking the Democratic nomination for governor and later ruled out a reelection campaign. In a statement, he called Rhodes-Conway “eminently qualified” to be mayor.
Eventually, more candidates joined the field, including District 10 Ald. Maurice Cheeks, River Alliance of Wisconsin Executive Director Raj Shukla, City of Madison Racial Equity Coordinator Toriana Pettaway and comedian Nick Hart. Soglin later recanted and joined the mayoral race after he lost the gubernatorial primary to Tony Evers.
Since the crowded field contained several qualified candidates, Rhodes-Conway knew anything could happen on election day.
“It was a wide-open field and there was a lot of good candidates. I really honestly had no idea what was going to be the result,” she said. “Both Mo [Cheeks] and Raj [Shukla] ran great campaigns. They’re great guys and they brought a lot to the conversation.”
Madison voters confirmed the competitiveness of the field, giving four candidates at least 18 percent of the total. Soglin and Rhodes-Conway led the pack, with 28.6 and 27.7 percent of the vote, respectively. Soglin advanced to the general election for the third straight time, though his vote share dropped precipitously from previous primaries. In 2015, he pulled in over half of the primary votes and nearly did the same in 2011, when he received 49.5 percent.
Though Soglin’s two decades of experience as mayor may make him a daunting opponent, Rhodes-Conway said she is not focusing on him.
“I haven’t been following his campaign very much. For me, this is not about any other candidate and it never has been,” she said. “This is about our community and our city and what our city needs. I didn’t get in to run against anyone and I’m not in it now to run against anyone.”
Instead, she has pledged to make her campaign about the issues she sees Madison facing, such as racial inequalities and climate issues.
“The reason that I’m running is because Madison is facing a set of tipping-point challenges,” she said. “Our housing crisis, our increasingly congested transportation system, deep racial disparities, and the looming impact of climate change. The city is not moving fast enough or far enough on any of those challenges.”
Though Soglin has focused on many of these issues in his current term, Rhodes-Conway said she is ready to kick it into the next gear by giving Madison’s city council and the greater community more of a say in developing solutions. She also hopes to reach out to other local governments in surrounding municipalities to help fix problems threatening the whole area.
“None of the challenges that Madison faces are unique to Madison,” she said. “They’re all regional in nature.”
With a progressive platform and talk of change, Rhodes-Conway has stirred up excitement among local advocacy groups, earning her endorsements from Progressive Dane, the Four Lakes Green Party and the local AFL-CIO chapter. She has also gained the endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Though her proposals may be enough to attract some voters to her, Rhodes-Conway also thinks she appeals to voters through her grassroots campaign style and willingness to go out and speak with people.
She has positioned herself as a candidate who is not beholden to large donors, bringing in less money in campaign contributions than the other three main candidates. In her victory speech the night of the primary, she told supporters they could succeed despite being “dramatically outspent,” and identified campaign money as “definitely… an issue for some voters.”
She also contributed much of her success to her willingness to engage the community by knocking on doors and meeting face-to-face with constituents.
“I think that part of the reason we were successful is that we really got out into the neighborhoods and knocked on a lot of people’s doors, had a lot of conversations, had a lot of events,” she said. “I think that the combination of the message and experience I bring really resonated with folks.”
She said hearing directly from people what they wanted the city to do to fix the issues they were worried about helped shape her stances on certain issues. Though she met with residents from all across Madison, most of the concerns she heard were the same.
“Across the board, people are talking about the housing market and the lack of affordable housing and how hard it is to find an affordable place to live in this town,” she said. “I’m also hearing the need for better transit and people were really struck and worried by the flooding last year. The nuances of it might be different neighborhood to neighborhood but the themes have really been consistent.”
If elected, Rhodes-Conway would make history as Madison’s first openly gay mayor. Though it would likely not mean any change in policy, as Soglin has long been a supporter of the LGBTQ community, Rhodes-Conway thinks there is more to it.
“It’s certainly not about me and it’s less about the city and it’s more about young LGBTQ folks being able to see themselves in public office,” she said. “That’s really the thing I think about that’s the most important.”
The election in April will offer Madison voters a tough choice: stick with Soglin, the longest-serving mayor in city history, or go in a new direction with Rhodes-Conway.
Soglin has largely focused his campaign around his accomplishments in office, including a minimum wage hike and the creation of the city’s affordable housing fund. He has appealed to voters at mayoral forums by touting his experience and qualifications, having been the city’s mayor for twenty-two years.
In a campaign where the candidates have remained relatively civil, rarely going on the attack against others, the criticisms against Rhodes-Conway are largely based on her lack of experience. However, Soglin’s “eminently qualified” comment in July may be hard for him to shake.
“I thought that was very nice of him to say and to recognize my qualifications and the work that I’ve done with cities over the past 13 years,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I hope he still believes that because nothing’s changed on my side. I appreciate the compliment and I hope the voters agree.”
For now, both candidates are focused on the general election on April 2 when voters will decide on the next mayor. Though she came up over 300 votes shy of Soglin in the primary, Rhodes-Conway said she sees the close race as a good sign for her chances in the general election.
“I think that it’s pretty clear based on the results of the primary that Madison is ready for change,” she said. “I’m eager to be talking with folks all across this city about my vision, my experience, and what we can do in this community if we work together.”Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter