The three candidates appearing on the ballot in the February primary election for Madison Mayor met for the first time last night for a debate hosted by multiple west side neighborhood associations at Sequoya Library. The candidates took on a multitude of issues facing the city, from housing and zoning ordinances, to transportation, to public safety.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, the incumbent in the race, has served as Madison’s mayor since 2019, and previously sat on the city council from 2007 until 2013. Gloria Reyes is a former police officer, and sat as both Madison School Board President and Deputy Mayor under former Mayor Paul Soglin. Scott Kerr is a long-time employee with the city of Madison in the Traffic Engineering Division.
Housing was one of the top issues discussed at last night’s debate, as the city contends with the ongoing housing crisis and the changing character of neighborhoods across the city.
One of the first questions regarded a proposed change to city zoning ordinance that allows for more unrelated renters to live in a home that is currently zoned for single families. The change has seen heated debate by some neighborhood residents, who are worried that it will invite loud college students into a neighborhood, reports the Capital Time.
The change would not allow for single-family homes to be demolished throughout the city, but would allow more unrelated individuals to live in that home.
Rhodes-Conway says that there has been misinformation about the nature of the change, and that it is not intended as a way to allow droves of college students into a quiet neighborhood. She says that it is necessary to combat the rising housing costs throughout the city, saying that the change would cause chaos in small neighborhoods across the city.
“The funny thing is, it’s not going to really impact the family market, it’s going to destroy it,” Reyes says. “We need to think about moving Black and Brown people into homeownership, is what we should be doing. We shouldn’t be changing our neighborhoods.”
Kerr says that he agrees with Rhodes-Conway, and that the world is changing, and our neighborhoods need to change along with it.
“I can see where single-family homeowners are afraid of having a flophouse next door to them, where there’s a bunch of students turning it into, basically, Animal House,” Kerr says. “But I don’t think we’re going to see that.”
The next topic of discussion was transportation, specifically, Bus Rapid Transit.
Reyes began by saying that while she is overall supportive of BRT, she is concerned that the routes chosen by the city will cause some riders to have to walk further to get to their bus stop. She says that an equity report, outlining how the change in bus routes would affect people of color, should have been the city’s first task.
Rhodes-Conway, who made improving public transport a key part of her campaign in 2019, defended herself, saying that the Network Redesign, which goes into effect later this summer, was made specifically to address the length of time people of color already spend on the bus.
“What we found was that people of color and low-income people actually had much longer commutes on our bus system, and were forced to transfer between routes much more frequently than white people,” Rhodes-Conway says.
Kerr, who works for the city’s traffic engineering division, says that he too has several issues with BRT, saying that he thinks the plan was not well thought out.
“It’s taking out things that we put in place for Vision Zero implementation, where we have infrastructure to protect pedestrians that now we have to remove so that the bus can run through those areas,” Kerr says. “We’re going to be stripping parking off where the bus runs through, which means that if you have a business in the middle of a block, you no longer have a place to get deliveries or to have your customers to stop and come in.”
Finally, the candidates took on the subject of public safety. Kerr says that he wants to see more police on the street, and expand the budget for the police department. Kerr also says he fully supports body worn cameras for police officers, pointing to the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. In that event, the officers who beat Nichols to death were fired and charged with second degree murder after the body camera footage was released to the public, reports NPR.
When asked if crime is out of control in Madison, Mayor Rhodes-Conway says that no, it is not, and the rates of crimes like auto thefts and gun violence are on the decline.
“I’m really proud of the work that our police department has done,” Rhodes-Conway says. “Under Chief (Shon) Barnes’ leadership, they have taken a very strategic and targeted approach to the crimes that our community has said are the top priority, and that’s gun violence, traffic crashes, and stolen cars. In all of those cases, we are seeing things trend in the right direction.”
But Reyes disagrees that crime is trending in the right direction, saying that when she was on the police force, there were around four homicides a year. Now, Madison is trending ten homicides a year.
“We’re losing young Black kids to violence,” Reyes says. “It’s an equity issue. We need to wrap ourselves around young people, working with our schools. Our most vulnerable youth in our city, wrap ourselves around them so we don’t lose them.”
There was an increase of homicides during the pandemic, going from four homicides in 2019 to ten in 2020. There were eight homicides in Madison in 2022. Other crimes have seen a drop-off in recent months. Between June and October in 2022, the city saw a 21% drop in shots-fired calls and a 5% drop in stolen vehicles compared to the same period in 2021 , reports the Wisconsin State Journal.
The spring primary election will take place on February 21, and the 2023 spring general election takes place on April 4.
Last night’s debate was just the first meeting of the three candidates. There will be another debate tonight at 6:30, held at the Urban League of Greater Madison on Park Street.
In other news, there is one other candidate who is running to become Madison’s next mayor. The Capital Times reports Daniel Howell announced earlier this month that he will be running as a write-in candidate. Howell says that he missed the deadline to file nomination forms to get on the ballot because of his winter graduation from UW Madison.
Photo courtesy: WORT Flickr