The moment when Satya Rhodes-Conway, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, decided she could get into politics was when she was the most nervous: she was about to testify about affordable housing in front of the Madison city council. The feeling is understandable–while the representation of women in US politics is slowly but surely increasing, the overwhelming control of the profession by men sometimes makes it hard for women to break through. 

But then Satya realized something important.

“These are just people,” she thought of the (mostly) men sitting in front of her as she gave her testimony on as crucial of an issues as affordable housing. Once she reminded herself that the people listening to her weren’t necessarily any better or smarter than she was, she instantly felt more empowered and less nervous. This was the moment for Satya when it became possible to one day become an elected official too.

Before running for the Madison city council and eventually for the city’s mayor, becoming the city’s first openly gay mayor, Rhodes-Conway’s only other election was for chair of the Lesbian Bisexual Alliance (LBA) at Smith College, where she majored in biology. While she grew up in an activist household, her parents were mainly interested in specific issues more than electoral politics or state or local government. This background, as well as her scientific training, would come into play once she decided to run for mayor in 2017.  

Born in New Mexico and raised in Ithaca, New York, Satya received her master’s degree in ecology from the University of California, Irvine, after graduating from Smith. After living and working in California, she moved to Madison for a new career opportunity–and never left. In 2002, she got her first taste of campaigning when she volunteered to knock on doors for now-Senator Tammy Baldwin’s House reelection campaign, which she enjoyed doing. Baldwin is something of a hero for Satya, as she was the first openly gay woman elected to Congress, the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Wisconsin, and the first openly gay person elected to the Senate.

Satya became more involved in local politics when a friend running for the Madison city council asked her to manage her campaign, something she had never done before. While her friend didn’t end up winning her election, they ran a campaign they were proud of. Satya’s talent for managing did not go unnoticed, leading her to be recruited by other candidates for office and to becoming more involved in local politics such as the county and school board. Her work on campaigns and local issues in the Madison area put her in touch with city council members, which eventually led to the testimony on affordable housing mentioned earlier.

In 2007, Rhodes-Conway decided she was ready to run for city council when the member in her district was retiring. It was a tough race–there were four candidates running in the non-partisan primary, where she was one of two candidates to advance to the general election. After she won the election and had served on the council for a while, people started asking her to run for mayor. She didn’t want to run at first since she liked the current mayor, but this changed after she decided to step down from her post in 2013 to return to her job as Managing Director of the Mayors Innovation Project, an organization that helps mayors and their advisers “put cities on the high road of equity, sustainability and democracy.” Throughout this time she was continually being asked to run, and finally decided seriously considering it in 2017.

“I’m so far out of my comfort zone, I don’t even know where it is”: Learning on the fly while running an intense campaign

Rhodes-Conway describes her campaign for mayor as even more intense than the one she ran for city council years earlier. She ran a grassroots campaign, making an effort to speak with people all across the city and recruiting volunteers to knock on doors, just as she had for Tammy Baldwin more than fifteen years prior.

Rhodes-Conway won the election in April of this year, with 62% of the vote. Her upbringing to be attentive to issues greatly benefited her in her campaign, which focused on four main issues: affordable housing (not surprisingly), rapid transit, being prepared for climate change, and racial equity. I was particularly interested in her proposed initiatives for climate change, both because it is such an urgent issue and due to her background in science. Before Rhodes-Conway got into office, the city had established a goal of being 100% renewable by 2030, and she is now working to maintain that goal. New initiatives now that she is in office include making a carbon footprint reduction part of community requirements; training apprentices to install solar panels, building more solar city buildings and working with the private sector to fund these projects; and analyzing the impact climate change has had already.

When I asked the mayor what her most important takeaways were from the campaign, she told me, “I’m so far out of my comfort zone, I don’t even know where it is.” For an introvert like Satya, running for political office can be one of the scariest and most energy-draining experiences. She was constantly getting interview requests and had to put herself out there in ways she never had before. But she always stayed focused on why she was running, making sure the campaign was always reflecting what was important to her, and working as hard as possible to produce a campaign that she and her team could be proud of, no matter the outcome.

“I’m just me”: On being a “first” and who inspires her

I asked Mayor Rhodes-Conway to reflect on what it means to her to be the first openly gay mayor of Madison (and one of only a few in the nation), and who her Groundbreakers are. While she certainly recognizes the significance of being the first openly gay mayor of her city (but emphasizing “I’m just me”), what’s more important to her is the significance of that fact to others, particularly LGBTQ members of her community and young LGBTQ people. Seeing themselves represented in political office is extremely important, just as it would be for any minority or historically marginalized group. She also asked the city council to raise the Pride flag in the city for the month of June (Pride Month). The municipal building was also lit up in the traditional rainbow and there was a celebration with rainbow cake. Soon, in a great show of solidarity, the governor of Wisconsin had the flag raised at the state capitol (which also happens to be in Madison).

As for her Groundbreakers, two of them have already been mentioned here: her activist mother and Senator and fellow Smith alum Tammy Baldwin. They helped shape her early political life. Her other Groundbreakers are a group: the women who were in leadership positions at Smith College, something I as a fellow alum also identify with. Just like seeing an openly gay mayor is powerful for LGBTQ youth, seeing women leading organizations is important for women who are developing their voice and sense of self. In short: Representation matters.    

Having the opportunity to speak with Mayor Rhodes-Conway was a great honor for me. Even though she is only my third interview in this project of writing about Groundbreakers of Today, I realize that speaking with these Groundbreakers is as much an opportunity for me to learn as it is to gather information for these blog posts. Hearing the journeys people have taken to where they are today always provides a great deal to think about. What I took away from Satya specifically is the importance of focusing on issues versus individual politicians or even parties in elections. This is a much-needed, refreshing take–particularly in the climate that we are in today, having developed and passionately-held policy positions is going to be extremely important as we approach the 2020 election season, both for president and other offices. Candidates would do well to look to examples set by people like Mayor Rhodes-Conway in how they run their campaigns.

Satya has certainly come a long way from that nervous woman testifying in front of the Madison city council. Though she is a self-admitted introvert, she often had to step outside her comfort zone in order to achieve her goal of being elected to serve her city. And like many other women who feel hesitant about entering the political arena, Satya didn’t see herself ever being elected to office–until she realized she could. I imagine that this is how many of my Groundbreakers–both past and present–may have felt at one time, before they eventually realized that whatever they were fighting for was more important than any fears they may have had. The strength and dedication they all have to what they believe in serves as a continual inspiration to me as I continue this project. 

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