Despite my fear that meeting the newly elected mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, would resemble an awkward blind date—all she knew about me was that I was wearing a red jacket—I recognized Satya Rhodes-Conway immediately. She looked just like she did in the mayoral debate videos that I’d watched (most of the city’s public business—city council meetings, mayoral debates, contentious school-board meetings, etc.—is readily available online).
Yet she didn’t present herself in quite the way I’d imagined a woman who’d just unseated an entrenched male incumbent in an ultra-liberal college town might. I’d expected a firebrand.
The woman I met at the Ancora Coffee on King Street near the state capitol building came across as someone more comfortable leading a committee meeting than a protest chant. A white woman in her late 40s with short, wavy, gray-streaked hair, and striking gray-blue eyes, Rhodes-Conway lacks the impassioned charisma of insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it’s clear why her calm, thoughtful intelligence resonated with Madison voters: She is serious, knowledgeable, direct yet reserved, and careful with her words.
When asked, Rhodes-Conway acknowledged that Madison’s lefty reputation is, in some ways, “well-deserved”: “Our residents are, for the most part, depending what word you want to use, liberal, progressive, left-leaning, and the city is, in general, a very high Democratic-performing city.”
Our meeting spot certainly lived up to my image of Madison. Ancora is a Madison chain that serves espresso “sourced from the finest fair-trade organic beans” and sells strawberry-basil pop pastries from local bakeries. A sign proclaims in block capital letters, we filter coffee not people. At one point, a young woman approached the counter and trilled, “You guys have all the good gluten-free!”
But, Rhodes-Conway stressed, Madison isn’t all sweetness, light, and power to the people. The local government, she said, “has not always kept up with that reputation.” There are areas in which the city provides a high level of service, and others in which it has fallen behind. She cited climate change as an area where Madison has lagged, adding that she is working to address it. Flooding in August 2018 reminded many Madisonians that the city needs to strengthen its resilience in the face of changing weather patterns. “Adaptation is critical,” said Rhodes-Conway in April.
How did Madison end up with an earnest female mayor not content to let the city rest on its lefty laurels? In early April, Rhodes-Conway, a former Madison City Council member who directed the Mayors Innovation Project at UW-Madison, beat the incumbent mayor, Paul Soglin, 62 to 38 percent. Soglin was first elected mayor of Madison in 1973, at the age of 27. A lawyer and activist who once gave Fidel Castro a key to the city, he went on to serve three nonconsecutive spans—from 1973–79, 1989–97, and 2011–19—earning the moniker “Mayor for life.” In unseating Soglin, Rhodes-Conway became just the second woman and the first openly LGBT mayor in the city’s history.
Rhodes-Conway’s margin of victory was arguably more surprising than her victory itself. She was helped by the fact that Soglin said in July 2018 that he would not seek reelection, praised her as “far superior in every way” to his other challengers, and then changed his mind in November 2018 and decided to seek another term after all.
But what explains the decisiveness of Rhodes-Conway’s victory? One answer, she said, is that she ran a “strong grassroots campaign” in which volunteers “knocked on a lot of doors,” in addition to reaching voters through social media, calling, and texting. Her campaign also had “a positive message, presented a vision, and talked about what’s possible.”
Part of that vision involves addressing Madison’s racial inequity: “I think people feel, white people feel, that we live in a very progressive city that is really good for people, and that is really not true for people of color and particularly for African Americans.” Black people account for 6.5 percent of Madison’s population, compared with 39 percent in nearby Milwaukee. A 2019 report ranked Wisconsin the most segregated state in America.
During her campaign, Rhodes-Conway talked about the city’s need to support minority entrepreneurship in the retail, service, and entertainment industries and said she would create an Office of Community Engagement. She also pledged to work with community groups and focus on neighborhood development.
In addition to advancing racial equity, she described her biggest priorities as expanding affordable housing, improving bus service, and addressing climate change. Our conversation doesn’t stray far from those topics. Despite being Madison’s first openly LGBT mayor, she does not raise the topic of LGBT equality, nor did she discuss it much while running for office (in 2014, Madison was named the 10th-most-LGBT-friendly city in America).
When asked which American public figures she most admires, she does mention several openly gay politicians, as well as Michelle Obama. “I’m trying to not name any presidential candidates,” she laughingly confessed. When I pressed, she politely but firmly demurred and pivoted to praising Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin—like Rhodes-Conway, an openly gay graduate of Smith College—for “her ability to calmly and quietly get the work done.”
She also brought up John DeStefano, the former mayor of New Haven. She said she once heard DeStefano deliver a speech in which he declared, “America can be a great nation or it can be a racist nation, but it can’t be both.” Rhodes-Conway was impressed: “To hear this older white man in a position of power name that, to me, was really powerful.”
Rhodes-Conway places a high premium on acknowledging privilege and bringing in multiple constituencies. Before making decisions, she said, she seeks out as many viewpoints as possible. Her instinct “is always to find a way to be collaborating or in partnership with somebody.”
At one point I asked, if she could fix one of Madison’s problems unilaterally, without needing the cooperation of the Republican-controlled state government, what would it be? After a moment’s hesitation—“Boy,” she said, “Just one or two?”—she replied that strengthening tenant protections would be number one. “That’s where people are hurting the most.” After that, she would tackle wage-and-hour laws and expand worker protections, including the minimum wage, earned sick time, fair scheduling, and paid parental leave. Finally, she returned to a central theme of her campaign: the need to restore regional transportation authority, which the state legislature effectively abolished in 2011.
When it comes to implementing progressive policies at the municipal level, she said, cities can and must lead the way, because that kind of leadership is “not happening at the federal level”—nor, depending on where you live, at the state level, either. Rhodes-Conway seems to believe that Madison, if properly run, could serve as a beacon to the world, not just Wisconsin.
Although she has called Madison home for nearly 20 years, she moved here from Long Beach, California. Her quality of life, she said, is simply better here, adding that “part of that is my privilege as a white person.”
Madison has many assets, including natural beauty, the university, and a strong economy. “It is a great place to live,” she said, emphatically. “And it can be a great place for everyone to live.”