Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for being with us today.
Last week, I had the honor of addressing a wonderfully wonky conference hosted by the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: It is my honor to introduce our closing keynote speaker, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: Wow. I barely even started.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That kind of warm reception is part of the reason Madison, Wisconsin regularly earns top honors as one of the best places to live in the country. Serving as the state's capital with a population of just over 250,000 residents, in the last quarter, Madison boasted an unemployment rate of just 1.6%.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: There's so many things. Some of it is our geography, our beautiful lakes, the fact that we're on an isthmus. Some of it is our people. Our people are friendly and generous and caring and progressive. My name is Satya Rhodes-Conway, I'm the Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. Some of it is our institutions. The fact that we have UW Madison here, Madison College, some large national businesses. Some of it is our events, the farmer's markets, the Kites on Ice. There's so many wonderful things that happen in Madison, but there is I think just a Madison attitude, welcoming and curious and wanting to get things right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While I was in town, I dropped by to spend a little time with Mayor Rhodes-Conway as part of our ongoing series 23 Mayors in 2023. We are heading right in here to the Madison City Hall.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: At the same time that we're number 1 or top 10 on lists around livability and where to start a business and where to raise a family, we're also at the bottom of lists in terms of racial disparities, and not on the list of best places to start a Black family, [chuckles] just for example. We have a lot of work to do to make that most livable city be true for everyone in Madison. It's an abiding challenge. Part of the work that I've been trying to do over the past four years and hope to do for the next four is to make sure that Madison remains a place where everybody can thrive, not just people with means.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's work she doesn't have to do alone. I asked Mayor Rhodes-Conway to tell me about a person whose work embodies the spirit of Madison.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: One person who jumps to mind is Lisa Peyton Caire who runs The Foundation for Black Women's Wellness. She and her husband raised their family here and their kids went to our schools.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here's Peyton Caire kicking off the organization's annual conference last May.
Lisa Peyton Caire: On the backs of our mother's, the world has stood. On the strong shoulders of our mothers, we stand today. Good morning and welcome to the second annual Wisconsin Black Maternal and Child Health Summit. My name is Lisa Peyton Caire, CEO and President of The Foundation for Black Women's Wellness.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: They do literally lwellness programming, so they have yoga, but they also do advocacy and they're part of a collaboration that is focused on maternal and child wellness and reducing mortality. That's with our hospitals and our public health agency and a number of other folks. She I think really embodies something about Madison, which is seeing a problem and wanting to work on it and starting small and growing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Quick break. Back with more with Mayor Rhoads-Conway of Madison, Wisconsin right after this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back on The Takeaway, and we're still talking with the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin as part of our 23 Mayors in 2023 series. It was a balmy 50 degrees the day I visited, so the mayor and I decided to take a little walk, and as soon as we stepped outside of City Hall, we found ourselves in the shadow of the breathtaking Capitol building of the state legislature. Constructed entirely in white granite at the top of the massive dome stands a gilded bronze statue known as Wisconsin. It's more than 15-feet tall. If you peer closely, you'll see that sitting on the head of the mighty Wisconsin is--
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: It's a badger.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely wild.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: It's the most fabulous thing ever. You know we are the badger state, and we take that very seriously around here. You will find all sorts of badgers across Madison, but in particular, in the Capitol building, there are stone badger heads, but the best is definitely the fact that there's a badger on the top of the golden statue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I wondered how the work done inside that building affected this democratic mayor in a progressive city given that Republicans hold super majorities in both the State House and State Senate.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: It's incredibly frustrating. We've been preempted in so many things by the state legislature. We can't have a local minimum wage. We can't even think about an earn sick time policy. We don't control building codes. We have severe limits on our budget. You can just go down the list of ways that the state has taken away local control, but I think the thing that's most frustrating is that the legislature doesn't actually represent the state of Wisconsin. Our legislative maps have been so severely gerrymandered that those majorities are not reflective of the people of Wisconsin or of the way that they vote. They're reflective of the way the lines have been drawn.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We turned away from the Capitol building and took a short walk toward Lake Monona.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: This is Monona Terrace, that's our community and convention center flanked by the state's DHS building, part of Health and Family Services, and the Madison Club, and the Hilton, which has room blocks for the convention center generally.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Built-in 1997, the convention center is based on plans designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938. Wright's aesthetic is instantly recognizable in the sweeping curves of the low-slung building that hug the bends of Lake Monona still frozen on a March afternoon. If I walked out on that lake right now, would it hold?
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: It is that frozen, but it's on the edge of I might not. I'm trying to look over on the bay. I think there's still ice fishers on the bay, so that's how you know.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about indigenous communities and their relationship with the lake.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: We're on the ancestral lands of the Ho-Chunk Nation. They lived here all around the lakes for tens, hundreds of thousands of years. We actually have evidence of that now because we found in Lake Mendota-- a diver from the historical Society who was out for a recreational training dive found a dugout canoe. This was two years ago maybe. We did this whole process. They found it and excavated it and brought it up and started to preserve it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These small moments of connection of layers of meaning in a single place emerged repeatedly while I talked with Mayor Rhoads-Conway.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: I am biased, [chuckles] but I do love cities. I think cities are special because of proximity, and it's the proximity of people, but it's also the proximity of resources and ideas. Cities are where things come together and people's lives overlap and different ways of thinking overlap and different cultures overlap and different types of work overlap, and you get something really interesting out of those intersections. There's a whole economic theory of cities, right, which has to do with that concentration of economic activity, but you also think about that concentration and overlap effect in land use as well and in environmental impact where actually people who live in cities tend to have a smaller environmental footprint because we're sharing so much space and resources together. I think there is something about that intersection that makes cities special.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Smaller footprints are important to the mayor because she's chair of US Climate Mayors.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: Cities are the place that impact people's daily lives the most. If you think about the delivery of water and sewer services, the waste management, trash pickup, the design of streets and land use planning, all of this is cities, and all of those things have an impact on greenhouse gas footprints. There's a tremendous amount that cities and mayors can do, and that's part of what Climate Mayors works on farther faster in terms of climate.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Collaborative work between and among mayors is another theme for Madison City leader. I had a chance to witness it while we were walking through the convention center.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: Hey, Mayor Rosenberg. Here's another mayor.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh. Hey, another mayor.
?Mayor Rosenberg: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh [unintelligible 00:10:20]--
Melissa Harris-Perry: Katie Rosenberg, who we ran into there, has been mayor of Wausau, Wisconsin since April of 2020.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: Katie is the queen of selfies and the amazing mayor of Wausau.
?Mayor Rosenberg: We try and do good photos for people here. All right. We have a group of women mayors across the country. We have a text chain and we keep each other going and--
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: Yes. If you think about it, there's only one mayor in any given place, right? We don't have peers in our cities. In the way that somebody who runs an HR department could reach out to surrounding companies nearby and say, "Hey, what's your HR department doing? What can I learn? Here's a thing that I'm trying." Mayors can't do that in their places, so We have to look beyond our borders and connect with mayors nearby but also around the country and around the world. It's been really important and rewarding for me to have those connections, particularly with other women mayors both within Wisconsin and beyond. Some of it is, yes, sharing the ideas and the best practices and helping each other solve problems, but some of it is just the day-to-day emotional support of this is a hard job, and you don't really understand that unless you've been a mayor. Having other mayors to provide that moral support has been really important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While she works with and relies on other mayors from across the state in the country, Mayor Rhodes-Conway also stands apart because she's a history maker, the first openly LGBTQ Mayor of Madison.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway: I stand on some pretty big shoulders here in Wisconsin. People like David [unintelligible 00:12:22] and Dick Wagner and Tammy Baldwin and Mark Pocan who were firsts and have really paved the way for out, queer elected officials. I also know that young people see me in this office and it helps them to see themselves in elected office.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mayor Rhodes-Conway, Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, thanks so much for taking the time.
Rhodes-Conway: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure. It was great to welcome you here. I hope you'll come back.
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