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Madison mayoral candidates answer questions about flooding, police, housing

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MADISON, Wis. - The packed race for Madison mayor will dwindle from six to two after Tuesday’s primary. No matter who wins in April, the results will be historic.

A win for current mayor Paul Soglin would solidify his long tenure in office. Challenger Satya Rhodes-Conway, a former alder and head of a nationwide mayor think tank, would be the first openly gay mayor of Madison. Current city alder and business leader Mo Cheeks would be the first African-American to win. Raj Shukla, the head of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, would be the first Indian-American to take the job. Write-in candidate and race equity coordinator for the city Toriana Pettaway would be the first African-American to fill the role. Nick Hart would be the first professional comedian to lead Madison. The general election is April 2.

The candidates are focused on issues like affordable housing, climate change and flooding concerns and policing. Fox 47 sat down with the candidates to find out how they would tackle the issues facing Madison.

Satya Rhodes-Conway

Satya Rhodes-Conway served six years as a city alder and is now the managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

On why she’s qualified:

“For the past 13 years I’ve been the managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project, which is a national learning network for mayors and their staff. It is literally my job to answer questions from mayors from all around the country and help them work on policy, programs and implementation.”

On housing in Madison:

“We should be expanding the use of the affordable housing trust fund to allow us to help preserve existing affordable housing instead of just create new. That means we need to invest in existing affordable housing to make sure it's healthy and safe.”

On 2018’s historic flooding:

“Madison had a great crisis response, but we were not prepared for that kind of water coming at us, and we need to be. As mayor, one of the things I will do is a complete review of our infrastructure and operations with respect to climate change.”

On the Madison Police Department:

“We asked our police to be mental health officers, addiction counselors and youth workers. I think that's not fair. We need to bring resources to work with the police, people who are trained in all of those things so that they can take some of the burden off of the front-line officers and the officers can actually do the public safety work."

Raj Shukla

Raj Shukla is the executive director of the conservation organization River Alliance of Wisconsin. He chairs the Sustainable Madison Committee.

On why he’s qualified:

“I am the executive director of a statewide water policy group. We have worked with legislators of both parties across the state to craft legislation and advance clean water policy. Because of that role, it's my responsibility to articulate a vision, to lead and manage a talented team of professionals and to make really difficult decisions when your budget and your priorities don't always match. And that's what we have facing us right now in Madison.”

On affordable housing:

“There isn't a path to doing it without adding more housing. The first step is making sure that it is easier to build all different types of housing in all different parts of Madison so everyone has a space here. My thought initially is to look at our zoning regulations and make sure that we eliminate any exclusionary zoning that exists.”

On the Madison Police Department:

“What I hope is that we will have leadership that will maintain a commitment to accountability, maintain a commitment to transparency to the public and maintain a commitment to increasingly diversifying our force and then diversifying our leadership in our force.”

On how to prevent further flooding in the city:

“We have to make sure that we build our city in a way that keeps rain where it falls instead of funneling it to the lakes. We do need to examine if the lake levels need to be adjusted, and the county has already initiated a process there that I fully support.”

Mo Cheeks

City alder Mo Cheeks has served on City Council for six years. He is also the vice president of business development at MIOsoft Corporation.

On why he’s qualified:

“My experience leading in the public sector, my experience leading in the private sector and my experience being an advocate for our schools uniquely situates me to address this ongoing challenge that we have as a community. It’s sort of a tale of two cities, and that's what we’re working on here in Madison, trying to do is live up to our progressive ideals, and I am ready for that job.”

On affordable housing:

“It’s becoming too expensive for regular working folks to live in this city. As mayor, I’m going to work to double our city's affordable housing fund and work on our emphasis on workforce affordable housing so that's it's easier for teachers and firefighters and single parents to be able to live in this city.”

On preventing future city flooding:

“Protecting our people and our planet is paramount. On City Council we acted with a sense of urgency to increase funding for stormwater management, for planning to take care of our lakes and take care of our people. As mayor, I’m going to create a position that is going to be focused on that, a deputy to the mayor's office that's specifically focused on the environment.”

On the Madison Police Department:

“It’s important that we have a strong police force and a police force that's committed to community policing, but it's also important that we be moving towards proactive public safety initiatives, public health-driven initiatives that are going to address the root causes of some of the violence and crime that exists in our community. That's the work that I’ve been doing on the City Council for the past several years.”

Toriana Pettaway

Toriana Pettaway is a write-in candidate. She fell one signature short of getting on the ballot. Pettaway serves as the city's racial equity coordinator. She said she wants to expand upon her impact on the city.

On why she’s running:

“I started working in this position, and I realized that the impact that I am trying to have inside was not what I thought it was going to be. As I worked, I realized I need to be leading at a higher level.”

On affordable housing:

“I would put in place real, practical things that could happen, with owners of properties and property managing companies. I would say, ‘I gave you TIF (tax increment financing) funding dollars. This is what you're going to do.’ We know that there are barriers to favor property owners, but we don't have to do that.”

On preventing city flooding:

“A short-term solution is not the answer. Lowering the lakes, that's not the solution because what we do in Madison is also going to have an impact on other communities. We have to put our world’s best at the table with us and let them inform us on how to plan, how to build, how to create good infrastructure when these things happen.”

On the Madison Police Department:

“We have a great police department. We lead with excellence. I believe with our police department, one of the things I would love to see happen more is that there is actually diversity from the top down.”

Paul Soglin

Longtime Madison Mayor Paul Soglin served terms in the '70s, '80s and '90s and has been back in charge since 2011. He initially said he wasn’t going to run, but he changed his mind after a failed run for governor.

“When I said no, I was in the middle of a very strenuous gubernatorial campaign and I said ‘I don’t think I can handle another campaign.’ And then when, as we got into early October, I came to the realization that I can do another campaign.”

Soglin pointed to his successful leadership in a number of areas including racial equity within city employment.

“The city took steps backwards in the 14, 15 years that I was gone in terms of our own policies in regards to hiring. If you look at all the folks I’ve hired in department and division head positions and the way we've reinvigorated recruitment for diversity in city employment, we've made tremendous strides."

Soglin said that the city’s rapid response to the August’s flooding was because of his strong staff.

"If the mayor has done a good job, when that happens the mayor is not needed. In other words you put together a managing strategy, you make sure you have well-trained, and great leaders so when the crisis occurs, they're out there and they know how to do the job."

Soglin said that if re-elected he would place additional emphasis on working with minority business leaders.

“If we can increase that entrepreneurship I think we will tackle two other very important issues. One home ownership and secondly the matter that there’s not a cultural and social life that is proportionate to the presence of African American, Latin-X in our community.”

Candidate Nick Hart declined to be interviewed.

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