by Jonathan Gramling
collaborative style would benefit a new administration and council with many fresh faces.’ Nine of the 20 alders elected in April are new and two had been
appointed to fill vacant seats within the past year. Bidar had supported Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway who defeated Soglin.
Alder Bidar defeated Carter on a 13-7 vote. The last time that a vice-president was not elected president was in 2016 when Alder Mo Cheeks, an African American
man, was defeated ultimately by Alder Mike Verveer after the council deadlocked when Alder Denise DeMarb wanted to serve two terms as the president and ran
against Cheeks. Carter would have been the first African American woman to serve as the council president.
As I stated before, this decision is wrought with controversy and how one feels about this controversy is more than likely influenced by which lens one is looking
through. And there are a lot of lenses through which one can look at this issue. The following are ones that I thought about or have used to perceive how I feel
about the end result. It is hardly an exhaustive list.
1) Face Value – The vote is what it is. Any alder can run for city council president and Alder Bidar felt that she was best positioned and most experienced to lead
the council as president at this time. Bidar convinced 12 of her colleagues to vote for her and she won, which is the democratic way.
2) Consolidation of Power – Alder Bidar was a strong and early supporter of Mayor Rhodes-Conway during the election. Alder Rebecca Kemble, another Rhodes-
Conway supporter, was appointed to the powerful finance committee. As council president, Bidar would automatically sit on the finance committee. With nine of the
newly-elected alders having been endorsed by Progressive Dane and Mayor Rhodes-Conway being a member of PD, it could be said that the winning of the
council presidency solidifies the power of Mayor Rhodes-Conway, PD and supporters of PD. This is the nature of politics, to the victor goes the spoils.
3) The Sisyphus Rock of Race – Sisyphus is a Greek mythology figure who, for eternity, is condemned to push a large bolder up a large hill only to see the boulder
come crashing back to the bottom of the hill and then Sisyphus must once again begin pushing the rock upwards.
Back in 2016, Alder Mo Cheeks, an African American man, ran for council president after serving as vice-president. The council president at the time, Denise
DeMarb, decided that she wanted to serve one more term and contested Cheeks. After 15 rounds of voting, Alder Mike Verveer was voted in as a “unity”
candidate and Alder Marsha Rummel was voted in as vice-president. Fast forward to 2019, and once again, the African American who is slated to succeed the
president is once again defeated by a candidate not following the unwritten protocol. While there are reasons given that may even appear to be valid at the time,
the African American vice-president is kept out of the leadership position and falls out of the running for at least two years. Right now, the Rock of Race is in Alder
Barbara McKinney’s hands because McKinney was voted in as vice-president and is also an African American woman.
It seems that African Americans are always chained to the Rock of Race. If they run against protocol for a political position, more often than not, their motives and
actions will be viewed negatively and not as an exercise in leadership — with President Barack Obama being the exception to the rule. And then if they follow
protocol, they can then be blocked from the top when it is their time for the reason of the moment or it appears that they are not leaders because they follow
protocol and are denied a seat at the table of decision-making.
4) The Rich Get Richer -- More than likely, this did not play directly into the succession dynamics, but Alder Bidar represents District 5, which has, as its heart, the
University Heights area. More than likely, the lower-income families in the district live in Eagle Heights and other university housing. District 5 is relatively well-
off. Alder Sheri Carter represents District 14, which has the South Madison area as its heart although it also includes Arbor Hills and the residences on the
southern shore of Lake Monona. It is a relatively poor district. And so while this is the second time in the last decade that District 5 will be represented on the
finance committee, it has been a while — perhaps dating back 10 years or more — when the District 14 area was represented on finance. It is no coincidence that
when Alder Tim Brewer was on the finance committee, a TIF district in the Todd Drive area led to the present day building that houses the Bonfyre restaurant. Siting
at the table does make the difference and now a poorer district will “skip its turn in the rotation.”
5) The Subliminal Effect of Skin Tone – When my son was teaching English as a Foreign Language in China in 2005 until around 2010, I met up with him in
Shanghai for a 10-day visit. In Shanghai, the street of Nanjing Road is the heart of the commercial district, lined with department stores over 12 stories high. When
we got separated in one of the stores, I found my son surrounded by several clerks who were applying a lotion to his arm. So as to not prolong the sell, I bought
the lotion. When I examined it, I found that it was whitening cream, which with regular use, would have made my son’s skin lighter. In my many talks with Heidi
Pascual from The Philippines, Heidi talked about those with lighter skin tones and European facial features — courtesy of the Spanish occupation — were thought
to be prettier, smarter, etc. I’ve read many an article and heard many a tale about the dichotomy between European — Spanish and Portuguese — and Indigenous
in Latin America with people falling closer to the European side being viewed more favorably and thought to be prettier and smarter than those who fell more
toward the Indigenous side. How often have I seen European royalty depicted with snow-white skin tone? Skin tone also played a big role during American slavery
and I could see some of that at play when I went to Alcorn State University, an HBCU. Even in that “island of equality” Cuba, I understand that there are socio-
economic differences between those with African ancestry versus those who lean more toward Spanish.
The point of all of this is to say that the whole differentiation surrounding skin tone is prevalent throughout the world, reinforced by 900 years of European rule. Who
is to say that it doesn’t also come into play in Madison as well? I am not saying that it came into play in the council presidency election, but we must always be on
guard for this tendency which is imbued in our historical and social fabric.
There are probably other lenses through which this city council leadership election can be viewed. The council is a source of leadership for this community. In
some ways, all eyes are on it. Politics is always concerned with how things appear. The council needs to look at itself and see how this latest transition in
leadership looks to a diverse community and not just how they want it to appear or think they are doing. Private citizens and the private sector will follow their
This is the most difficult column that I have ever written. There are two people whom I have known for a long time at the center
of a controversy that I don’t want to write about, but I feel compelled to write about; that if I didn’t write about it, then I should
probably just give up my journalistic career.
The controversy is how the next city council president was elected last week. For the most part, the city council follows an
unwritten protocol for selecting its top leaders: the president and the vice president. The unwritten protocol is that the vice-
president becomes the next president. The alders have to vote on their leadership and there is no rule that states whom they
should vote for.
Alder Sheri Carter, the sitting vice-president who is an African American woman, was first elected in 2015 and expected to be
voted in as president when the new Madison city council met on April 16th. Carter supported the re-election of Mayor Paul
Soglin who was defeated in April.
Alder Shiva Bidar, an Iranian American woman, was first elected in 2009 and had served as council president one time before.
Bidar decided to break protocol and run for council president. According to Madison.com, Bidar ‘felt her experience and