Reyes For Mayor, For Now

I don’t know who I’ll vote for for mayor of Madison come April. But in the February primary I’ll vote for Gloria Reyes. I’m not so much voting for Reyes or against incumbent Satya Rhodes-Conway as I’m voting for a longer, better conversation. 

Here’s the key point. If Rhodes-Conway does as well in the primary as I expect she will, the conversation will be over. If she gets, say, 60% of the vote, as she well might, then nobody will pay attention to the next six weeks of the campaign. It will be impossible for Reyes to raise money or generate any interest, much less excitement. 

But a mayoral campaign is the one real chance we get every four years to talk about the future of our city. I’m voting for Reyes in the long-shot hope that she’ll do well enough to make the remainder of the race competitive and the conversation engaging. 

For the record I think both women are good people and well-qualified candidates. Rhodes-Conway has done a decent job as mayor for the last four years and, on paper at least, Reyes may be the most qualified candidate ever to run for mayor who hasn’t yet served in the position. Reyes has been a Madison cop, a deputy mayor under Paul Soglin, the president of the Madison School Board, and a nonprofit executive among other endeavors. 

The city will do fine no matter who wins, but what I’d love to see is a real contrast of views. That’s mostly on Reyes. If she were running for an open seat she could simply recite her resume over and over again and she’d have a good shot at winning. But she’s running against a low-profile incumbent with a pretty good record who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Add to that the fact that Madison voters tend to want to give their first-term mayors another four years and it means that Reyes has to make a case that the incumbent needs to be replaced. 

I’m voting for Gloria Reyes in the primary in the hopes that we’ll have a spirited race to the finish line in April.

To date I don’t think she’s done that. To my mind Rhodes-Conway’s greatest weakness is her cautiousness. She just sits out too many important issues. While a mayor doesn’t need to get involved in every sidewalk-building fight in every neighborhood, she should have a position on police body cameras, for instance. Rhodes-Conway won’t say where she stands on that, while former cop Reyes has been forthright in her support for them. Good for her, but that issue alone isn’t enough.

If it were up to me I’d make the race about the Madison public schools. I don’t know if it’s enough to pull a challenger across the finish line, but I do think it’s the most important issue facing the city and Rhodes-Conway has been eerily silent about it. 

We have a district that’s losing enrollment in a city that’s gaining population. What is driving parents away? Like most other districts in the nation, ours is facing a teacher shortage. How can we attract the best teachers and keep them around? We have significant issues with regard to student behavior, which often impedes the ability of well-behaved kids to learn and sometimes results in real physical danger. Should the controversial Behavior Education Plan be scrapped or amended? The BEP was designed in part to address the racial achievement gap but that gap persists. Is it time to try a new approach? The district will soon lose its lackluster superintendent to retirement after only three years in the job. Who replaces Carlton Jenkins may be among the most crucial decisions any public body makes in Madison this decade. What should we be looking for in those candidates? 

Strictly speaking those are all school board issues, but the mayor needs to be at the table on every one of them. There is nothing more important to the health of this community than the quality of its schools and they are in trouble. With a school board seemingly ill-equipped to handle these challenges the mayor needs to use her position as the leader of the city to have some influence on those decisions. 

Whether you agree with my perspective on the schools or not, their future would be a conversation worth having between now and April. There is one contested school board seat on the April ballot — there is no primary — but that’s likely to be a sleepy affair with little public engagement. The mayoral contest is the marquee local race and it only comes around every four years. Let’s not miss our chance to have a good conversation about our future. 

Remote site early voting is open now (today’s the last day) around the city and primary election day is Feb. 21. Long-time city employee Scott Kerr is also on the ballot for mayor, but he’s not running a campaign beyond showing up at forums. Also on that ballot is the crucial primary for state Supreme Court. 

Have a nice weekend.

A version of 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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