It looks like we’re going to have a spirited Madison Mayor’s race. On Thursday Gloria Reyes formally announced that she’ll take on Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who is likely to announce her bid for reelection later this week or next.
Rhodes-Conway has served in the oddest of times, so it’s hard to judge her tenure.
First, she confronted massive challenges from the almost complete shutdown of the city, and many of its revenue sources outside of property taxes, due to the pandemic. Then she had to deal with violence in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.
But the massive infusions of federal pandemic aid gave her money to play with in all manner of areas. I think she and city staff deployed some of those resources to remarkably good effect in dealing with homelessness. Now, she warns that the bubble of federal largesse will burst in coming years.
Through all of that turmoil she has maintained a low profile, at least by the standards of recent Madison mayors. Both Paul Soglin and I, as well as Sue Bauman before us, tended to be out there on most issues. We usually had an opinion on everything and we would, at least metaphorically, chase down reporters in the hall to share it.
By contrast, Rhodes-Conway picks her battles carefully. Many of her interactions with the press come in carefully worded written statements as opposed to free-wheeling interviews. Her highest profile fight was for a relative detail in the massive Bus Rapid Transit system that will overhaul Madison Metro. The mayor insisted that the BRT system had to cover a couple of blocks on State Street, much to the chagrin of merchants there. She won that fight.
The only other real scrum that comes to mind is one she stumbled into. In the wake of the downtown riots in the summer of 2020 she seemed to justify the property destruction by saying that if people were upset by that they should be more upset by the racial injustice that sparked it. And she followed that up with a video statement of support she intended just for Madison police that, inevitably, got out to the general public, leaving both cops and activists feeling like she was playing to the other side.
But beyond that, I think most Madisonians would have a hard time forming a strong opinion of this mayor. She comes off as serious, intelligent, earnest and controlled. Adjectives like outspoken, fun or creative would not jump to mind for most of us.
I know her well enough to conclude that this is just who she is as opposed to some grand political strategy. But as a political strategy it probably works to her advantage. She just doesn’t give potential opponents much to attack.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that people aren’t lining up to take her on next April. Only Reyes has stepped up so far, though I would expect that at least one, probably eccentric, minor candidate will also join the race. As Dylan Brogan reported in Isthmus earlier this fall, Reyes is a former school board president who also has run a nonprofit and served as a deputy mayor under Soglin. Before that she was a cop and it’s notable that former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray introduced her at her announcement.
But does she have a chance to defeat Rhodes-Conway? The odds are with the incumbent. For one thing, Madisonians tend to give their mayors a second term. It’s the third consecutive four-year term that gets tricky. Ask me or Paul about that.
It’s also hard to see how Reyes could run at Rhodes-Conway from the left, which is how you win in Madison. We have to go back to Joe Sensenbrenner in 1983 for the last time that a more moderate candidate knocked off a candidate from the left. Rhodes-Conway certainly has her critics on the left, but it’s hard to see them rallying around Reyes, who supported school resource officers in high schools until she saw the writing on the wall and finally voted to remove them.
On the other hand, it’s those very safety concerns that might be the best fodder for any opponent of the mayor. Rhodes-Conway has ducked the issue of police body cameras and she has been eerily silent on concerns about violence in and around Madison’s middle and high schools. Having been a cop herself, having overseen the Police Department in the mayor’s office and having Wray’s support all give Reyes strong credentials on this issue.
So, it’s possible that a candidate with a stronger stance on law and order would have a chance to break precedent and win from the center. In any event, I’m glad Reyes has jumped in. A mayor’s race is the one real chance we get every four years to have a community-wide discussion about our direction as a city. It’s important to give voters a choice in policies and styles of leadership. (In full disclosure, I did not feel this way in either 2007 or 2011 when I firmly believed that both the policy direction and style of the then-mayor were excellent.)
Reyes has a plausible chance to win. This will be a good race and it’s likely to focus on important issues of public safety. Whoever comes out on top in the end, the discussion will be good for our community.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.