Madison’s three mayoral candidates outlined their policy platforms at a forum hosted by the Northside Planning Commission Wednesday.
Incumbent Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, former deputy mayor Gloria Reyes and veteran city employee Scott Kerr debated their proposals to address Madison's housing crisis, promote economic development and improve food accessibility on the Northside.
Rhodes-Conway mentioned her record of promoting the construction of housing in Madison, including increasing the city’s Affordable Housing Fund and permitting the development of over 4,000 new units. However, she said that though the city has made progress in permitting new housing units, the government should continue to remove barriers to development.
“We are in a housing crisis, and we need to be using every tool in the toolbox,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We need to create new housing at every level of affordability and, frankly, of every type.”
If elected as mayor, Reyes said she plans to create a housing advisory board consisting of developers and neighborhood associations to balance the need to construct affordable housing with the preservation of neighborhoods’ unique character.
“This cannot be a top-down approach,” Reyes said. “We have to keep the unique feature[s] of our neighborhoods and have an in-depth engagement with our neighborhood residents and our neighborhood associations to develop a plan of what they want their neighborhoods to look like.”
Kerr said the government should take a more hands-off approach to housing development as long as private developers don’t ask for city funding for their projects.
“We’re just not in the construction business,” Kerr said. “If private developers come into the city and want to build something on their own properties, I’m not going to force them to do more than what the zoning code is unless they ask for city money.”
The candidates also addressed the issue of food accessibility, especially on Madison’s Northside.
Reyes, recounting her own experience struggling with food insecurity in her youth, said the area needs greater access to an affordable grocery store.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Reyes said. “Why do we not have a grocery store that is affordable on the Northside?”
Reyes also called for the expansion of the Public Market to allow small and minority-owned businesses more visibility in the community.
Kerr said he supports encouraging nearby farms to give their excess produce to local food banks.
“We do have a good food supply here, it’s just getting it to the people who really need it the most,” Kerr said.
Rhodes-Conway said the city should address lack of food access by continuing its investments in the Healthy Retail Access Program, an initiative that funds businesses to provide healthy food in food deserts.
“We need to continue those investments, and I think we need to continue to support food entrepreneurship in our community,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Our food work at the city needs to really focus on food access.”
Many Madison businesses struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from PBS Wisconsin. Rhodes-Conway, Reyes and Kerr presented proposals to promote economic development and support new businesses.
Kerr said the government should be more cautious about which new businesses to fund because many “don’t make it 12 months.” However, he said the city should do what it can to support fast-growing startups.
“If we could come up with another major employer that’s going to expand quickly, supporting them in every way we can would be the best option,” Kerr said. “I’m cautious about what we put city money into, but I would sure like to hear that we’ve got another big employer with a great product coming out.”
At the city level, Rhodes-Conway voiced support for localizing supply chains, which she said would allow small businesses to benefit from each other’s success and create a more stable local economy. She also said the Commercial Ownership Assistance Program, which provides loans to businesses looking to own property, has been successful at supporting the success of small businesses.
“We help small businesses become property owners so that they can build wealth and control their own destiny,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I’d like to double down on that and keep doing that work.”
Reyes said the city should look for ways to retain current businesses while attracting new ones. She said she would encourage new businesses to open in economic centers such as State Street, which she said had been struggling to keep businesses open.
“I’ve been talking to business owners on State Street, and they’re concerned about their future,” Reyes said. “I think we’re going to have to really invigorate State Street.”
The mayoral primary election will be held Feb. 21, and the top two candidates will advance to the April 4 general election.
Francesca Pica is the city news editor emeritus for The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple municipal elections and is a leading reporter on Madison labor issues. Additionally, she served as a summer intern for The Capital Times and currently serves as a WisPolitics intern.