Yes, the mayor has blown it, but this recall is part of an unsavory backlash.
Sometimes you have to bring attention to something simply to point out that it’s a distraction that doesn’t really deserve attention or credible media coverage. The recently launched campaign to recall Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway is one such case.
There are plenty of good reasons to be unhappy with Rhodes-Conway’s leadership. The Mayor enabled a harsh police crackdown during Madison’s first weekend of protests against police brutality in late May, has badly botched her two-faced messaging about said police response, has so far supported mostly mild police reforms, and hasn’t issued any meaningful proposals for reducing the Madison Police Department’s funding, which is the best mechanism the Mayor and Common Council have for holding police accountable. The Common Council did finally pass a resolution in June creating a civilian police oversight board, which is at least a step in the right direction. Rhodes-Conway recently supported the removal of police officers from Madison high schools, a long-awaited move that owes much to sustained protests that began well before Rhodes-Conway took office. Rhodes-Conway is also pushing the Police and Fire Commission—under state law, the body with the real power over hiring, firing, and discipline of police—to pick a new Madison police chief within 90 days. Previous chief Mike Koval did resign about 10 months ago, and Acting Chief Vic Wahl has said he does not want the job permanently. But in the context of a nationwide uprising against police brutality and policing itself, it’s hard to envision that 90 days is enough time for a thorough, transparent search that involves community input to the necessary extent.
At the same time, cops and the political right are advancing a counter-narrative that asserts that Rhodes-Conway hasn’t cracked down hard enough on protests, has left police in the lurch, and has abandoned central Madison to dangerous mobs. This narrative, all of it wildly distorted and based in racial panic, plays well to bootlicking rubes in Madison—the kind who’ve tried to counter-protest by covering up graffiti-covered plywood with “We Support Our Madison Police” signs—and to resentment-driven white voters outside of Madison. Look out for “Recall Satya” yard signs soon, in front of the houses in your neighborhoods that are already decked out with kooky American flag shit.
It’s a familiar dynamic: The people we mostly have in power in Madison are moderate-to-progressive-leaning liberals who really only challenge the status quo with a gentle nudge here and there, but people outside of Madison (or in Madison, but outside reality) think we have a local government overrun with radical leftists. If only! During the protests and the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve often seen better leadership from abolitionist, Black liberation, communist, anarchist, and socialist organizations than we have from our actual elected officials. Nevermind that Rhodes-Conway has largely voiced support for MPD, and that a mayor doesn’t have that much unilateral power to undermine a police department under state law.
The recall petition filed against Rhodes-Conway and the messaging that accompanies it on the recall effort’s website and Facebook page play into the counter-narrative. The messaging makes some broad, general points about Rhodes-Conway supposedly abusing her power and not being responsive to constituents, but clearly the central grievance here is about public safety: “Rather than alleviating danger, she has exacerbated it. In consequence, just days ago Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney had to issue a warning that downtown Madison was unsafe. Many residents remain frightened. Visitors are steering clear. Rhodes-Conway continues to do worse than nothing,” the website states at one point. It’s true that protestors beat up a state senator who took video of rioters during a June 24 demonstration, though there are disputed accounts about his behavior and some were concerned about police or white supremacists using video to target retaliatory actions. Downtown Madison has still been largely safe over the past six weeks. In fact, one of the big themes of the past six weeks is that it takes very little for white people to start making exaggerated claims about how endangered they are.
Oddly enough, it’s true that Rhodes-Conway exacerbated danger, largely by declaring a curfew that gave MPD easy grounds for escalating things from a few instances of looting to riots that turned downtown into a landscape of tear gas and burning dumpsters. But the recall campaign’s angle is so disingenuously pro-cop that even Urban Triage, one of the main organizations leading protests against police brutality in Madison and one that doesn’t hesitate to criticize elected officials of any stripe, has come to Rhodes-Conway’s defense.
The person who filed the recall petition, Madison resident Jon Rygiewicz, ran for Wisconsin’s 76th District Assembly seat in 2016 as a Republican, with a policy platform that wasn’t especially well articulated. Incumbent Chris Taylor beat him with 83 percent of the vote. Rygiewicz has a Facebook page for a mayoral candidacy of his own, though the Facebook page for the recall effort claims in comments that the recall organization is separate from the question of selecting candidates for the recall.
Few political subcultures are more deranged than Madison-dwelling Republicans, who take the usual right-wing persecution complex to outlandish extremes and just seem feverishly desperate for even the least little scrap of attention. Rygiewicz’s YouTube channel illustrates this in a series of dimly lit and/or crushingly awkward videos from his 2016 campaign. In one, he speaks in the dark outside the Oscar Mayer plant, lamenting the food processor’s then-impending departure from Madison. In another, he explains his “libertarian” beliefs.
On Twitter, Rygiewicz likes and shares tweets from far-right grifters like Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, and former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, including the latter’s claims that doctors are somehow aborting babies that have already been born. He also apparently served as the Dane County chair for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential primary campaign. On his personal Facebook page, Rygiewicz has shared news articles about the recent Madison protests, including one that refers to a Black man accused of looting as a “thug.” In a post earlier this month, he wrote “NBC=George Soros,” invoking a long trend of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the billionaire’s supposedly malign influence in media and politics. “All Black Lives Matter!(even babies and non democrats) George Soros, not so much,” he wrote in another post in June.
In talking with both the Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal last week, Rygiewicz tried to frame the recall campaign as not especially ideological or partisan. He told the Cap Times‘ Abigail Becker that “people from all walks of life, all different views are coming together in order to remove and replace [Rhodes-Conway].”
What does this coalition look like, and what kinds of candidates would it get behind? The comments on the recall campaign Facebook page are heavy on law-and-order drivel, vindictive rhetoric about Black Lives Matter protests, and face-mask thruther-ism. Any political Facebook page will have its share of fringe commenters, but the page itself has liked comments attacking Dane County’s new mask-wearing requirements, one comment from a person who supports “turning the fire hose” on protestors, comments criticizing the Mayor’s focus on climate change, comments attacking a resolution that would prohibit MPD from using tear gas, and one comment saying “this why you dont elect people based on their gender or who they sleep with,” a denigrating reference to the fact that Rhodes-Conway is Madison’s first lesbian mayor.
In other words, this movement to recall Rhodes-Conway is backlash central, and people criticizing her from the left should not be duped into supporting it. The politics of the person running it are at best deeply confused and at worst virulently right-wing. I was cautiously optimistic about Satya’s mind for policy and the change she offered from Paul Soglin’s cranky leadership style. After the past six weeks I’m done. I want to be able to vote for a candidate who can unseat Satya and fiercely confront Madison’s liberal complacency. But this recall isn’t for voters like me, and it’s certainly not for anyone in Madison who’s been protesting, organizing, and speaking out for a better world.
Even if there were a credible movement for recalling Rhodes-Conway, recall elections are always extremely risky. The energy it takes to pull them off might be better spent recruiting and preparing mayoral challengers for 2023, encouraging more Common Council members to push for serious funding cuts to MPD, and just generally supporting the powerful, effective direct action we’ve witnessed in Madison since May. The last mayoral election lacked any seriously radical candidates, but at the moment young radicals in Madison seem more fired-up than ever about getting involved in local government, whether that’s running for office or trudging through long Zoom meetings to make sure city officials hear what they have to say. The presence of young, dynamic, unconventional candidates in this August’s primaries for Madison-area legislative seats is a good sign as well.
At the same time, we’re in an era where it’s clear that harebrained and ill-prepared political campaigns can score upset victories. So keep an eye on the recall effort, and don’t let your very valid frustrations with our mayor become fuel for deluded right-wingers.