Satya Rhodes-Conway stays the course
Challenges over the past 15 months — maybe greater than any others a Madison mayor has faced — have stalled progress on her ambitious list of goals for the community. But Rhodes-Conway, who fell in love with Madison “almost” at first sight, is no stranger to tough times.
Only a handful of people living today know what it means to be mayor of Madison. Dave Cieslewicz is one.
Cieslewicz, who served from 2003-2011, remains a keen observer of city government — how Madison works and doesn’t, including in the administration of the current mayor, Satya Rhodes-Conway.
“I don’t think anyone who has had that job has faced the kind of challenges that she’s faced in the last year,” Cieslewicz says.
Cieslewicz felt Rhodes-Conway, who was elected in April 2019, was off to a good start in her first year, especially with the progress of her ambitious Bus Rapid Transit initiative, funded in part by a controversial wheel tax Rhodes-Conway shepherded through the Common Council.
That momentum hit a wall in spring 2020.
The health and economic impacts of the pandemic and demonstrations against racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis rocked cities across the country. Madison was not immune.
Particularly where the demonstrations — and subsequent incidences of smashing, looting and statue toppling — were concerned, Rhodes-Conway was in the middle of the maelstrom, unable, it seemed, to please anyone.
On the morning of May 31, while volunteers were cleaning up dozens of downtown businesses that had been vandalized overnight, Rhodes-Conway gave a news conference at Lisa Link Peace Park on State Street and said, “If you are angry about property damage, be more angry about the unjustified killing of Black people. Property can be repaired, but we can’t bring people back to life.”
That response left some business owners and their supporters dismayed and upset, leading to a recall attempt that fizzled by the fall.
Just nine days after the Peace Park news conference, a private video message from the mayor to Madison police officers voicing her support for their efforts was leaked, enraging racial justice advocates.
“It’s no wonder,” The Cap Times editorialized, “local groups like Urban Triage [which promotes Black empowerment] have lost whatever trust they may have had in the mayor to take their concerns and requests seriously.”
Rhodes-Conway apologized for the video and, as months passed, tensions seemed to ease — though the mayor received a vote of no confidence from the police union.
In January, Rhodes-Conway wrote in a Cap Times column, “I’m confident 2021 will be a better year for our community.” She has ambitious goals regarding transportation, affordable housing, climate change and racial equity, and she speaks with enthusiasm about Madison’s participation in a guaranteed income pilot program, spurred by a $500,000 national grant funded by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and intended to support local organizations already working with people who are housing-insecure. Rhodes-Conway was one of the first 15 mayors in the country to sign on for the opportunity last year.
“It’s a great example,” she says, “of how cities can play a role as the laboratories of democracy.”
As for 2020 — unimaginable until it happened — she recalls, “It was an enormously difficult year. It was enormously difficult for me personally. But even more importantly, it put tremendous stress, strain and work onto city staff.”
Rhodes-Conway continues, “I think that all of 2020 was an exercise in charting a middle course. There was no way throughout the entire year, really on any issue, that we could please everybody. There was no way that government could move fast enough for the people who were calling for justice around race and policing issues. Although I think we moved relatively fast on a number of things there. But it’s never good enough, right?”
She’s resilient; she stayed the course. That may come partly from knowing life delivers blows that make even the toughest mayoral decisions pale by comparison.
Rhodes-Conway — Rhodes is her mother’s name, Conway her father’s — was born in New Mexico in 1971 but has no memories of the state; she grew up in Ithaca, New York. After divorcing, her mom, Anne Rhodes, met and fell in love with a woman named Claudia Brenner in 1977. As a kid at home in Ithaca, Rhodes-Conway was a bookworm, good in school. Fond, from early on, of Wonder Woman comics.
When Rhodes-Conway was 13, an aspiring filmmaker named Kevin White approached the family about appearing in a documentary that was eventually titled “Not All Parents Are Straight” and aired nationally on PBS in June 1987.
Six families were profiled but no one person had a bigger impact on viewers, White believes, than Rhodes-Conway.
“We opened the film with her,” White says.
In the film, Rhodes-Conway says, “I know that people are scared of lesbians and gay people because they’re scared of different things, but I don’t know where that fear of different things comes from.”
“So many people responded to her,” White says. “She was practical and emotionally intelligent about what mattered. It was a great combination and the reason her interview was one of the best, in terms of the kids articulating their experience.”
By 1987, Rhodes and Brenner had separated but remained close. “Anne and Satya were undeniably my family,” Brenner wrote later of that time.
On May 13, 1988, Brenner and a new partner, Rebecca Wight, were hiking the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. They were drinking cold tea and kissing by their campsite when a man named Stephen Roy Carr, who had seen them earlier on the trail, began firing on them with a rifle. Wight was struck by two of three bullets and died. Brenner was shot five times. She lived, and, miraculously, would make a full recovery, eventually writing a book, “Eight Bullets,” about surviving anti-gay violence.
Rhodes-Conway and her mother were among a tight group of friends and family who kept a vigil for Brenner at the hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
“My school was tremendously understanding,” Rhodes-Conway says today. “My teachers sent me off with work to do. They were totally understanding. Our circle of friends rallied to support us in a pretty incredible way. That power of community, what to do when something really bad happens, and for each other, was a really powerful experience.”
Rhodes-Conway took a year off between high school and college — she liked photography and got a job in a darkroom — and then enrolled at Smith College, a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts.
She thought about majoring in voice but chose biology instead. With friend Kate Wing, Rhodes-Conway founded a botany club called “The Bad Seeds.” They made T-shirts depicting a flower riding a motorcycle with an “I (Heart) Dirt” tattoo. They started a plant-sitting service so plants in the dorms wouldn’t die over winter break, and they won a campus prize for their work in botany.
Rhodes-Conway chaired the Lesbian-Bisexual Alliance and played for a rugby club. “A fantastic game,” she says. “It speaks to a wide variety of body types and different sets of abilities.”
She surprised herself by winning a second campus award, the Amanda Dushkin Prize, given to the Smith student who best maintains a high academic record while participating in extracurricular activities.
That award resonates, even now, a quarter century later.
“It was a complete and total surprise,” Rhodes-Conway says. “I was pretty active on campus around issues of race and racism and homophobia and heterosexism.”
She thought the administration didn’t like her.
“I think I was wrong,” she says now. “I think that award [indicates] they did appreciate our perspective and our activism. I think about that now when I see people setting themselves up in opposition to each other, or in opposition to the city. I think about how we can communicate across those gaps and how do we recognize and honor the importance activism has in our community.”
Another shattering event — the 1994 deaths of her grandfather and little brother in a car accident — led her to take time off from academia after graduating from Smith.
She eventually enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. “A difficult time in my life,” she says now, “figuring out which way I wanted to go.”
Rhodes-Conway earned a master’s degree in ecology at UC Irvine but also realized she didn’t want to be a research scientist. Adrift, she applied for jobs somewhat indiscriminately, found nothing of interest and wound up sending a flippant cover letter to an environmental group in Madison that needed an intern.
She got the internship. It was 2002. A month after her arrival — during a sunny stroll down State Street after the farmers’ market — it dawned on her she didn’t want to leave.
She worked as a policy associate on energy issues. Then, in 2005, she took a job with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, or COWS. It led to the role of managing director of COWS’ Mayors Innovation Project, which gathers American mayors twice annually to swap ideas on urban policy.
“It cemented for me,” Rhodes-Conway says, “just how important cities are in the world and in the politics of our country.”
Her own foray into politics began when a friend, Lori Nitzel, asked Rhodes-Conway to help on Nitzel’s run for Madison Common Council in 2005.
“It turned out I had a bit of talent for it,” Rhodes-Conway says.
Nitzel goes further, saying, “It was clear pretty early on she should have been the one running and not me. She’s amazingly well organized. She helped with every aspect of the campaign.”
Nitzel came close, but lost; two years later Rhodes-Conway was elected to an open seat in District 12 on the north side.
New alders are appointed a veteran alder as a mentor — Rhodes-Conway’s was Zach Brandon, now president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. It was an unusual pairing, the progressive newcomer with the most pro-business voice on the Council.
“We actually got along great,” Brandon says. “She’s almost exclusively data-driven. The way to convince her of something is not an impassioned argument on its own. It’s passion backed up by data.”
Rhodes-Conway, who left the Council in 2013, had to be coaxed into running for mayor. “I hate to be a textbook case,” she says, “but they say women have to be asked seven times to run before they take it seriously.”
Her friend, Jennifer Giegerich, volunteered on the mayoral campaign. “We’d always kind of jokingly referred to her as ‘The Mayor’ because she had that grasp of local government,” Giegerich says.
She viewed Rhodes-Conway as a terrific grassroots campaigner. “She was everywhere, talking to every group, no matter how small, answering every question.”
On election day, facing a legendary but seemingly dispirited Paul Soglin, Rhodes-Conway, nervous, went out and knocked on doors for a couple of hours. Then she paced. She needn’t have worried — Rhodes-Conway won with a stunning 62% of the vote, becoming the first lesbian and second woman to hold the Madison mayoral office.
Her biggest supporters were progressives: a large, organized and vocal presence in Madison politics — more so all the time, it seems. But since the election — the irony is hard to miss — they have been among Rhodes-Conway’s harshest critics.
“Every mayor I think in the last half century has gone through this,” Cieslewicz says. “People tend to get elected mayor from the left. But it doesn’t take long to be in office until you do something that they don’t like and suddenly you find yourself no longer the darling of progressives.”
“I think the mayor has become a pragmatic progressive,” Brandon says. “You have to build coalitions to get things accomplished. Screaming into the wind and taking votes for the sake of a statement doesn’t work when you’re the executive.”
The events of spring 2020 — the demonstrations, the vandalism, the leaked police video — linger in the public’s memory. Michael Johnson, president of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and long a leader on race issues in the city, calls the leaked video “a grave mistake that hopefully she can learn from.”
“When you’re a public official, your voice has to be consistent,” Johnson continues. “There’s a learning curve. I think she’s done some good things and I also think she’s made some mistakes.”
Rhodes-Conway would likely not argue the point, though she might add that a mistake-free administration has never existed and never will. She knows the challenges. In January, “CBS Sunday Morning” aired a segment lauding Madison’s response to climate change. The correspondent took a stroll with Rhodes-Conway, and while she appreciated his enthusiasm for the city, the mayor said, “When we make another sort of No. 1 or Top 10 [list], well, that’s clearly true of the white population. Is that also true for people of color? And the answer is almost always no, it’s not also true. And so that’s part of our work going forward.”
Rhodes-Conway lives with her partner, Amy Klusmeier, on Madison’s east side. They have a getaway place near Viroqua.
“I’ve spent a lot of time at their cabin,” Giegerich says, “just kind of hanging out, going to baseball games.” She wishes more people knew about her friend Rhodes-Conway’s “wicked sense of humor. You can be talking, and she has this way of dropping in something hysterical.”
The past two years have left the mayor with scant time for leisure pursuits. “I think I’ve picked up my knitting needles five or six times,” says Rhodes-Conway. She does subscribe to a once-a-month book service from A Room of One’s Own — something science fiction/fantasy, a favorite genre.
Asked where she sees herself in five or 10 years, Rhodes-Conway says, “Aside from living off the grid someplace away from everybody?” The public spotlight is not why she sought the mayor’s job.
Speaking more seriously about the future, she says, “I do think about it — what the path forward is from here. I can honestly say I haven’t come to any conclusions.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.
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