Reyes Needs Another Issue

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway probably had little or nothing to do with the significant decline in crime in the city last year, but she’ll get credit for it. That’s fair because had crime gone up she’d get the blame, again whether or not she had had anything to do with the increase. 

Last week Chief Shon Barnes reported that in 2022, the two most troubling crimes of recent years — shots fired incidents and car thefts — were down by 21 percent and 5 percent, respectively. He credits good police work, specifically getting guns off the street, having a consistent approach to similar crimes, and assigning detectives who specialize in burglaries to car thefts, among other things. 

I have no doubt that those strategies were a big part of the reason for the decline and Barnes and his department deserve credit for that. But I think he would acknowledge that crime is a complicated thing, something that any police chief is quick to bring up when crime goes the other way. In addition to law enforcement, there are social and economic factors involved. Even the weather can play a role. And crime was way down during the worst days of the pandemic, a strategy nobody wants to try again. 

My own view is that the best thing we can do to reduce serious violent crime is to identify the very small number of mostly young men with lengthy criminal records who commit most of those crimes and keep them locked up until they’re not inclined to violence any more. This is not generally regarded as a progressive point of view, but I think it would work pretty well. And since most of the victims of these crimes live in marginalized communities, what’s more progressive than making those neighborhoods as safe as affluent ones?

Recent crime data suggests that Gloria Reyes won’t be able to ride that issue to victory.

In any event, let’s celebrate the decline, give the cops some credit, and be somewhat skeptical about any one simple explanation for what happened. 

But there is a simple political lesson from this: the mayor’s going to be even harder to beat. The one significant issue that her challenger, Gloria Reyes, had going for her was crime. Reyes has a strong background for that issue. She’s a former cop who oversaw the Madison Police Department and other crime fighting strategies as deputy mayor for Paul Soglin. She’s also been involved in community programs that seek to get at the root causes of crime. She has the backing of popular former police chiefs Noble Wray and David Couper. 

This news takes a lot of the wind out of those sails. This may not be all bad. It means that Reyes probably has to recalibrate and look for other issues to emphasize. For example, Rhodes-Conway has a habit of lying low on a lot of major issues, including police body cameras, the county jail, the public market, and violence (or anything) in the public schools. 

A mayor’s race is the one real chance the community gets every four years to have a good discussion about what direction we want to take. And that discussion shouldn’t focus on just one issue or, for that matter, on purely city government issues. As noted above, I think the mayor should have positions on the size of the county jail and on what’s happening in the schools because, like it or not, the mayor is seen as the leader of the whole community. 

Crime’s down. The mayor is up. But Reyes is not yet out. 

Postscript: Scott Kerr, a 42-year city employee and technician in the traffic engineering division filed papers at the last minute. His entry will force a February primary, which may be a good or bad thing for Reyes. If she comes close in the primary that will give her a big boost, but if she finishes a distant second, she’ll have a hard time raising money or generating interest for April. I see little chance for Kerr to gain any traction. 

This piece originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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