Underground Groundbreakers of Today #3: Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway

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. 

Underground Groundbreakers of Today #2: Liv Coleman

The 73rd House District of Florida, encompassing Manatee and Sarasota Counties in central Florida, has only had one Democratic representative in the Florida House of Representatives since it was established in 1967. The district elected Donald Trump by 25 points in 2016. Even Democratic residents of the district have barely had any contact with any Democratic candidates or the party itself.

So Liv Coleman knew she was in for an uphill battle when she decided to run as a Democrat to represent the 73rd District in the 2018 midterm elections. Her opponent was Tommy Gregory, a Trump-supporting Republican. Even being aware of all of the strikes against her, she would find that various other factors would make it even more difficult. Despite all of these obstacles, she still ran a campaign that was groundbreaking.

Like many people who ran for office in 2017 and 2018, Liv was motivated to run after Trump’s election and participating in the Women’s March in January 2017. Though she had some experience volunteering for the Democratic Party in the past, Liv didn’t have much experience in campaigning before deciding to run for the House seat. Her background is in education, political science, and East Asian studies, and she is an Associate Professor of Political Science with a focus on Japanese politics at the University of Tampa, as well as the chair of the department. Education has run in her family, and it is such an important issue to her personally and politically that she made it the cornerstone of her platform in her campaign. 

Naming her platform “Make Florida Schools #1,” Liv supported many much-needed improvements to the state’s public school system, including: more funding for higher teacher pay, bringing back public funds that have been diverted to private schools through voucher programs, eliminating high-stakes testing, and tuition-free community and technical college for at least a two-year degree. Making her case even more compelling was the fact that the Manatee County School District is the county’s largest employer. More generally, she ran so that her district would have strong representation for the public good instead of for special interests. These are issues that are (or should be) important to every voter, regardless of party, but unfortunately what should be basic issues beyond debate end up getting politicized in our hyperpartisan system, leaving hardworking people and students in the lurch.

While the Republicans had a number of candidates for the House seat in what became a tough race, Liv was the lone Democrat and had to fight to get any attention at all. At the same time, Tommy Gregory was known to have attended a meet-and-greet hosted by Peter Gemma, a white supremacist who is also involved in the Holocaust denial movement, which was not covered in the press until after there was a lot of public pressure to do so. This is just one example of the lopsided situation in which Liv found herself.

Knowing the odds against her, Liv, along with her assembled campaign team and her political science knowledge, examined the voting data of her district to see where she might make some headway. While the district is certainly heavily Republican, with 50% registered with that party, 25% are registered Democrats, and 25% are not registered with a party–that group, however, tended to lean Republican, as evidenced by the margin of victory Trump had over Hillary Clinton in 2016. The only way for voters to hear Liv’s important ideas was to speak to them directly, both at meet-and-greets and debates–but this, too, would prove to be a struggle. After bringing attention on social media to being excluded from a local discussion forum with Gregory and another Republican candidate, Liv finally got her rightful place in the debate. Her remarks quickly became popular online with people in the community who were similarly frustrated with the political process.

Liv ran her campaign about as cleanly and conscientiously as one could. She was able to outraise even her own expectations, despite being quite outfunded by her opponent. She ran a grassroots campaign on small donations, and accepted no corporate PAC money. She even, surprisingly, received support from Forward Majority Action PAC, a DC-based Super PAC, on the hope that certain Florida suburbs might flip for Democrats in the unstable political climate. She also had a number of important endorsements, including from EMILY’s List and the Planned Parenthood PAC. Liv ran a positive and upbeat campaign, in the spirit of one of her Groundbreaker heroes, the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Growing up in Minnesota, Liv saw how Wellstone fought for everyday people in a positive, grassroots way, which was an important inspiration for her.

Perhaps the starkest demonstration of the hyperpartisan environment in which Liv and many others were running, an issue such as guns, which was a particularly sore one in light of the recent massacre that took place in Parkland, Florida, earlier that year, was kept quiet during this campaign. Even though a poll conducted by the Florida Republican Party revealed that a majority of gun owners were in favor of stronger gun regulations, she was told by so-called “experts” to avoid the issue. She smartly realized that besides being the right thing to do, discussing the issue would also appeal to the suburban moms whose votes she would need to even have a chance. But Gregory was supported by the NRA and seemed to get away with not mentioning it in front of certain audiences.

Liv’s greatest challenge and frustration, besides being a Democrat running in a very red district, was being both a woman and a tenured college professor. While she had no issue calling herself the broader term of “educator,” a local reporter took it too far by calling her a “schoolteacher.” She also heard the all-too-familiar contradictory refrains of “Smile more,” “Smile less,” “Dress up,” “Dress down.” Her youthful look also did not help matters, particularly running in a district with one of the highest populations of people over 65. Despite all these frustrations, Liv did her best to engage with traditionally female-dominated professions, such as teachers and nurses.

On November 6, the results were in, and they weren’t surprising: Gregory won the race with 61.9% of the vote (64,285 votes), while she carried 38.1% (39,614 votes). Even knowing all of the obstacles, this was of course disappointing–but there were reasons for hope. As she puts it, even in a district as red as this one, about 4 out of 10 voters came out for her. Perhaps most interestingly, Liv fared better than both the Democratic candidate for the seat in 2016 and Hillary Clinton in that district. The 2016 House candidate received 34.92% (36,678 votes) in what was a presidential election year, which generally means higher turnout. So for Liv to have performed as she did in a midterm year is actually quite impressive.

What’s more important than the numbers is the groundwork Liv helped lay with her candidacy. She was definitely the underdog, but in many ways that wasn’t the point. What was particularly striking about Liv’s campaign was how the rarity of a Democrat actually running and engaging with people in the district was noticed by the few Democratic voters in the area. In her travels door-to-door in the brutal Florida heat, she heard from people that her campaign was the first contact they’d ever had by a Democratic candidate or the party. So while she was a clear underdog and winning was very difficult, Liv has helped cast a mold for other Democrats who may be inspired to run. She also helped send a message that Republicans should not take certain districts for granted–they may have won this time, but if forward progress continues, there may be closer races in the years ahead.

Speaking with Liv and writing about her experience has forced me to think about my definition of a Groundbreaker. Of course, someone who wins an election despite all the odds, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is easy to define as a Groundbreaker. But Liv’s story is more nuanced. Like many candidates across the country, Liv was just a “regular person”–not a career politician, despite being a political scientist!–who was shaken, like many of us, by the election of Donald Trump and wanted to do her part to try to do something about it. She is a Groundbreaker because, though she did not win, to me, hers is an example of how the parts of campaigning that are less spoken about–meeting with people, putting yourself out there despite long odds against you–are just as important as the more obvious ones like raising money. 

Liv hopes that her campaign can be an example to others like her, particularly her students, who want to do something to fight for change in their communities. Her decision to run despite the electoral history and, more importantly, despite the fact that Republicans usually run uncontested in her county, shows both her courage and the strength of her convictions. It also forced a discussion of issues that wouldn’t have happened in a one-candidate race. As she eloquently puts it, “I am drawn to any person, famous or not, who strives to do what is right, even or especially if it comes at significant personal cost.” She was heartened to find such people in her own community, many of whom likely gave her their votes. While her local Democratic Party organizations were critical to the success her campaign did have, the statewide Florida Democratic Party was not particularly helpful to her. The Florida Democratic Party, as well as statewide Democratic Party organizations in other red states, would be wise to look to her example for how to run future campaigns; with some patience and dedication, one day District 73, and others like it, could turn blue. Her fearlessness to run in the face of overwhelming odds should serve as both an inspiration and a call to action to others who feel outraged at our current system. Her experience shows me that it is worth fighting for what’s right, even if progress doesn’t happen as quickly as we hope. 

If you would like to learn more about Liv, you can follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LivColemanFL/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/LivColemanFL).

Underground Groundbreakers of Today #1: Virginia (Vigie) Ramos Rios

NOTE: After taking a hiatus for a while to decide the best direction for Underground Groundbreakers, I have decided to shift the focus from historical figures to people doing great work today. I explain further in my post below, but I’m very excited about this new direction and the opportunity to speak with people doing work that’s making a difference. Please enjoy!

By now, you likely have heard of rising star and youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has taken the political world by storm first for defeating the powerful long-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, the “party boss” of Queens, and now for giving an inside look at Congress to people who were never interested in politics before through social media.

She didn’t win her campaign alone, of course. She had an entire campaign behind her, as is seen in the recent Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at four progressive women candidates during the 2018 midterm elections. Campaigns like these would not be possible without a strong support system.

I was inspired to take this direction with my blog by watching the inspiring women in Knock Down the House. To have the woman behind the scenes of one of the most important campaigns of recent times be my first profile has been a great honor. She is a great inspiration to anyone who supports progressive policies and candidates, and isn’t afraid of the inevitable challenges of getting them across the finish line. Even though only one of the candidates profiled in the film ended up winning (Ocasio-Cortez), the film offers a vision of what it would be like to have a coalition of progressives from all parts of the country represented in Congress, from the poorest parts of New York City (Ocasio-Cortez) and St. Louis (Cori Bush), to the mining towns of West Virginia (Paula Jean Swearengin), to the area around Las Vegas (Amy Vilela).

I recently had the great privilege of speaking to Virginia (Vigie) Ramos Rios, who managed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wildly successful campaign for Congress in 2018. You may not have heard her name before, but she was instrumental in Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the primary over incumbent Joseph Crowley in June and in the general election in November. To say that hearing Vigie’s story first-hand, starting with her journey working on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, to managing a campaign for the New York City Council, to eventually managing Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to victory was an inspiration, would be a massive understatement. I am thrilled to be sharing her story and hope that others, whether hopeful candidates or budding managers, can be motivated by her example. [She also happens to be a fellow alum of my alma mater, Smith College!]

Vigie’s path from barely knowing anything about this senator from Vermont to managing arguably the most revolutionary campaign of the 2018 election is fascinating to say the least. While Vigie told me more when we spoke on the phone than I could ever cover here, I will do my best to convey her journey and her amazing accomplishments the way I heard them.

“I didn’t know there were so many of us”: Working on the Bernie Sanders Campaign

You could say, on paper at least, Vigie’s journey to managing AOC’s successful campaign began when she started volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2015. But that leaves out an important part of the story, one that gives a deeper view of why she believes so strongly in and works so hard for the progressive cause. In 2013, Vigie was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), an illness more common today than in years past but still not widely known. I first learned about the CFS as a fan of Golden Girls, in an episode where Bea Arthur’s character, Dorothy, struggles with the illness. As its name suggests, the illness leaves people constantly exhausted for seemingly no reason. Besides greatly affecting her physically, having this illness left Vigie in dire straits financially, eventually leading her to declare bankruptcy. It was this experience, unfortunately shared by many across this country, that drove Vigie to work for real progressive change, particularly in our deeply flawed healthcare system.

Vigie actually heard about Bernie Sanders from, as she put it, her “Baby Boomer mom.” After reading about his platform, which of course included revamping the country’s healthcare system to a Medicare for All model, Vigie felt inspired and looked into volunteering. She eventually came on as a volunteer to collect signatures so that Sanders would appear on the ballot in the Democratic primary. This effort was made difficult by the fact that they could only begin collecting signatures in December 2015, AKA the heart of winter, and there weren’t as many people to ask in Queens as there were in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Add this to the fact that Vigie was still dealing with her chronic fatigue, and this effort alone is admirable.

Working on the Sanders campaign gave Vigie a great deal of experience that would prove invaluable for her later work. She worked with a fundraiser, and, perhaps most importantly, learned from a lawyer how to clean up signatures on petitions–the key to any campaign, particularly a fledgling one. During this time, she also ran the Flushing, Queens office of the campaign.

It was when she was sent to California to work on the campaign that Vigie grasped how meaningful the Bernie Sanders campaign had become throughout the country. She worked tirelessly in two California congressional districts, which are huge geographical areas. They also included some of the reddest parts of one of the bluest states in America, ranged from urban to rural, and included some of the worst air quailty in the state. While all of this may seem like it would have been a challenge, Vigie found fellow progressives among them. At a rally in Bakersfield, north of Los Angeles, surrounded by so many like-minded people, she heard people all saying the same thing: “I didn’t know there were so many of us.”

“This was just the beginning”: Becoming a Campaign Manager

Bernie Sanders did not end up winning the Democratic primary, but Vigie felt no less inspired in her work for progressive change. She knew the excitement she had seen both in New York and California was just the beginning of a movement. After the campaign, she worked for an organization for activists, and ended up becoming campaign manager for Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn activist running for the New York City Council in 2017. She had met Brisport while running the Flushing office during the Sanders campaign. While the campaign did not result in a win, it was successful in that Brisport became the first Green Party/Socialist candidate since the 1930s to win a significant percentage of the vote, 30%. This was Vigie’s first experience as a campaign manager, and the work greatly excited and inspired her. It turned out that it would be just the beginning of her journey managing campaigns.

It is almost hard to remember a time when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not very well known, both in mainstream media and particular in the social media universe. But in 2017 she was almost completely unheard of, except by those who worked with organizations such as the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, and local Democratic Socialist groups (Vigie would organize the Queens branch of the DSA in 2018). Vigie saw Ocasio-Cortez speak at a Medicare for All rally in 2017, and thought she had real appeal and potential. She gave AOC her information, but actually did not get asked to become her campaign manager until February 2018, when the campaign was really in motion.

When Vigie came on board, however, she found she had her work cut out for her. They had no lawyer to check and clean up petition signatures and no print shop for flyers–all with two weeks before the campaign would kick into high gear. Fortunately Vigie’s experience with the Sanders campaign proved extremely valuable: she found a friend of the lawyer she had met during her time with Bernie to help clean up their signatures, and found a union/small business print shop in Queens to use instead of the DNC’s in Boston.

The Primary and Beyond: “We won, now the real work begins”

Vigie and the rest of the campaign worked nonstop all the way up to June 26, 2018, the day of the primary. As the campaign and many of her supporters knew, they were facing an uphill battle: not only was her opponent, Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, he was also the chair of the Queens Democratic Party. Even her most ardent supporters worried that Crowley was just too tough of an opponent, but that did not stop anyone’s enthusiasm or willingness to work hard. The issues Ocasio-Cortez was fighting for were too important to succumb to defeatism.

With Vigie running things, however, the campaign really came together. When June 26 came, they remained as optimistic as possible. Like a good and smart manager should, Vigie made sure that people were able to vote right up to when the polls closed at 9 that night. This was not only the right thing to do, but it was in an effort to make sure that as many people voted as possible, and if Ocasio-Cortez were to win, that the vote totals and margins would be as big as possible.

And, of course, to the surprise of many, particularly those in media who had barely heard of her, she won–and not by a little. She received 57% of the vote (almost 16,000 votes), while Crowley received 42% (almost 12,000 votes)–a margin of 15%. This was earth-shattering, to say the least. Crowley and his followers clearly assumed that a primary challenger, particularly someone as unknown as Ocasio-Cortez, would be easily beat simply by Crowley’s usual supporters in the district showing up. What they didn’t account for was the number of people both in the Bronx and Queens who met Ocasio-Cortez and were energized by her platform and what she stood for. The constant knocking on doors and boots on the ground made all of the difference in her victory.

Things didn’t slow down once Ocasio-Cortez won the primary–on the contrary, they got even busier. The campaign become inundated with press and media requests. The months between the primary in June and the general election in November were just as much work, if not more, than what had come before. The day of the general election, November 6, Ocasio-Cortez won 78% of the vote, with more than 110,000 votes. While it is true that the primary was more consequential in this case because of the level of the person she defeated, Vigie points out that getting over 100,000 in this district was quite an achievement in itself.  

What’s Next? Looking to the Future + the “Unsung Heroes”

Now that the successful Ocasio-Cortez campaign is over and she is making waves in office, what is Vigie up to now? Currently, she does speaking engagements for the Party of European Socialists. She also serves as an adviser to Tiffany Cabán, who is running to be the next Queens District Attorney.

After hearing Vigie’s remarkable and inspiring story, I was eager to hear who motivates her. I was expecting to her to list names of leaders of important movements that came before us, but her answer was actually even better than that. First, she named her parents: her mom taught her the importance of knowing what’s happening in your community, and her dad organized throughout the world. But then she said that she is more inspired by the countless names we never learn, the “unsung heroes.” For me, and for this ongoing project of shining the spotlight on people whose name most people might not know, Vigie’s answer was simply perfect. She encapsulates what I envision in an Underground Groundbreaker, and I don’t exaggerate when I say she is the ideal person to be my first profile of people doing great, important work today.