Incumbent Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway is finishing up her first term, after defeating longtime Mayor Paul Soglin in 2019 by over 20 points.
At her announcement on Sunday, on a stage filled with supporters, Rhodes-Conway outlined her priorities over the last four years, from affordable housing to improving transit to public safety and climate resilience. She framed her re-election bid as a continuation of those priorities, along with dealing with unexpected challenges.
“I was excited to enter the mayor’s office and get to work, and we did,” Rhodes-Conway says. “But out of the blue came a historic challenge. We were closely watching the news from overseas, and in early 2020, before most people in the public fully understood the disruption that was coming, the city and our wonderful public health department pivoted to focus on protecting the public and city workers from this deadly threat.”
The Mayor highlighted her leadership during a time of instability – protecting city workers, keeping transit running and holding fast to public health orders. She highlighted the city taking action to help people facing housing insecurity in the peak of the pandemic, which culminated in the city building the first permanent men’s homeless shelter in Wisconsin.
“Together, we stayed firm in opposition to public health orders,” Rhodes-Conway says. “All this hard work paid off. COVID is still with us, but Madison’s vaccination rates are among the best in the nation, our unemployment rate is low, and our economy is recovering rapidly.”
Another unexpected challenge? Holding safe and secure elections, during a time of pandemic and political instability. The Mayor highlighted her standing firm to the Gableman investigation, and commitment to increased access to voting.
“And when the 2020 election deniers came after us, filing multiple lawsuits against the city, threatening to jail me, and telling me to rip out our dropboxes, I stood up to the bullies and I won, “Rhodes-Conway says, “and we won’t be removing those dropboxes… we will fight for a state supreme court that believes in expanding the vote, not constricting it.”
But some issues in running a city are much more predictable, like public safety, housing, climate resilience, and transit.
Last year, the city of Madison unveiled their newest ambulance, bringing the number of city-run ambulances up to nine. That ambulance works in conjunction with the CARES program, launched by Mayor Rhodes-Conway last year to bring crisis workers and paramedics to select 911 calls instead of police. In its first year of service, CARES has already responded to over 1,200 911 calls.
Rhodes-Conway highlighted her work with the Madison Police Department to protect Madison residents and to create a more equitable police force. She pointed to funding in her 2023 budget that will create a position for a new police reform and innovation director, responsible for using data-informed methods to create new strategies for violence prevention.
One of the mayor’s biggest public safety priorities since taking office has been traffic safety. Mayor Satya pointed to her Vision Zero initiative, a plan to completely eliminate traffic fatalities in Madison by 2035.
“The data is in, and we are making an impact,” Rhodes-Conway says. “In the first three quarters of 2022, serious injury crashes are down 19% from 2021. But we are not stopping there. We have a good shot a $23 million federal grant to help us install safety infrastructure improvements across the city, and that grant is matched in my budget.”
Another key issue for Rhodes-Conway is one of the largest issues facing the city of Madison: housing. In her Housing Forward plan released last year, the mayor is aiming to build 10,000 new housing units every five years to address the estimated 70,000 people who could move into the Madison area by 2040.
As part of the Housing Forward plan, the mayor says she has helped to cut red tape on accessible dwelling units, or cottage houses. ” These, along with other housing options, are one way Rhodes-Conway says she’s worked to create more affordable housing throughout the city.
“In four years, we have more than doubled the affordable housing budget, and we have more rental units in the pipeline than ever before,” Rhodes-Conway says. “Direct city financial support has contributed to 21% of all new rental units in our economy.”
To help those experiencing housing insecurity at the peak of the pandemic, the mayor pointed to her new housing and economic initiatives. She increased funding for eviction defense by almost $2 million, is launching an assistance program to help low-income families with their utility bills , and earlier this year launched the state’s first guaranteed income pilot program.
Rhodes-Conway also pointed to the permanent men’s homeless shelter, which after years of hurdles during the pandemic, is set to kick off construction with the help of county and federal funds in 2024.
But for folks who would be living at the shelter, which is on the east side, they need reliable transportation to get to jobs and services downtown.
One of the biggest projects in the city of Madison today is the Bus Rapid Transit program, a massive overhaul of the city’s bus system. Rhodes-Conway says that creating a Madison that is easily accessible is one of her biggest priorities.
“We have to continue to invest in transit, and make easy for everyone to get to where they need to go,” Rhodes Conway says.
And Satya pointed to her blending of transit and green energy, pointing to the purchase of dozens of new electric buses with federal funds, as well as the nation’s first electric firetruck.
The roads are not the only place Rhodes-Conway says she sees green. She also pointed to solar energy initiatives under the MadiSUN program. solar energy now provides one megawatt of electricity to all city buildings, and three megawatts of electricity throughout the community.
Looking toward an initiative she hopes to see in her next term, Satya pointed to recent federal funding to fund a brand new air quality monitoring system throughout Madison, which will monitor air pollution across the city in collaboration with the Hmong Institute, the Latino Health Council, and the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness.
Rhodes-Conway says that she even wants housing to be green.
“We are working on making the new Triangle development the greenest housing development in the country, and we’re working in naturally occurring affordable housing to improve energy and water efficiency, while protecting tenants,” Rhodes-Conway says.
One of the hallmarks of her term as mayor has been Satya Rhodes-Conway’s ability to secure federal funding for a cavalcade of projects, from Bus Rapid Transit, to the new air quality monitoring system, to traffic safety improvements.
But in asking for a second term, Rhodes-Conway says there is still plenty to get done. She says issues like affordable housing, greener and safer streets, and improving transit will continue to be key issues.
Joining Rhodes-Conway at her announcement yesterday, amidst supporters and some city alders, were Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Congressman Mark Pocan, and newly-appointed District 17 Alder Sabrina Madison, all of whom endorsed the incumbent mayor.
Mayor Rhodes-Conway will face at least one challenger this spring: Gloria Reyes, who announced her candidacy earlier this month. In both announcement speeches, neither Rhodes-Conway nor Reyes mentioned each other by name.
The spring election to decide Madison’s mayor, as well as other local officials and a slew of state judicial seats, including a closely watched race for the state Supreme Court, will take place on April 4, 2023.
The deadline for candidates to declare their candidacy for Madison Mayor is January 3, and if more than two candidates enter that race, it would head to a primary election on February 21.
WORT News Director Chali Pittman contributed audio to this story.
Photo courtesy: Chali Pittman / WORT News Team