When Sheri Carter first realized it she was stunned, she says. “I really couldn’t believe it.”
Barbara McKinney was similarly amazed. “I couldn’t believe that was true.”
But it is. Madison has not had an African American woman on the Common Council since the city incorporated 159 years ago.
Carter and McKinney could change that next Tuesday. McKinney is running against Matt Brink for the southwest-side seat now held by Lisa Subeck, who was elected last year to the state Assembly and is not running for reelection. Carter is challenging first-term incumbent John Strasser for another south-side district.
Milwaukee elected its first African American councilwoman, Vel Phillips, in 1956.
In 1969, 22-year-old Eugene Parks became the first African American elected to Madison’s council — as well as the first person of color elected to any public body in Dane County. Since then there have been other minorities elected to both the Dane County Board and Common Council, but no African American women have held a council seat, confirms Lisa Veldran, the council’s legislative administrative assistant.
The election happens at a time when severe racial disparities are getting attention. The city is also coping with the aftermath of the March 6 killing of Tony Robinson, an unarmed biracial teen, by a white Madison police officer.
McKinney moved from Ferguson, Mo., to Madison in 2006, to care for her son, Mike McKinney, a reporter for WMTV, who later died of cancer. She has three degrees, including an MBA and a master’s in policy analysis and public planning. She also has Subeck’s endorsement.
But McKinney points to her life experience as being more valuable for the job. She says she knows what it’s like to be a poor, single mother struggling to get by. She once lived in the same apartment building where Mike Brown — the man killed by Ferguson police last August — resided.
“I was able to move out of that community, not just because of my tenacity, but because I had a strong support system,” she says. “All of that possibility was because someone looked at me without judging and saw potential in me.”
When she first moved to Madison, she was surprised to find it a mostly white town. But she’s seeing the demographics shifting.
As an alder, McKinney wants to address public safety, economic development, affordable housing and transportation. But she wants to represent all her residents’ concerns.
“I also must represent the neighborhoods...where there’s growth and people are concerned about what Highway M is going to look like,” she says. “The person who represents that district has to represent the entire district.”
Her opponent, Matt Brink, the general manager of the Brink Lounge, which is owned by his father, Curt Brink, says his big priority is to address crime in the district, which he sees as growing.
He too was surprised that a black woman has never sat on council. “There’s context there,” he says. “How many have run in the past and how many have lost?”
Asked what he will do to represent minority residents, who suffer disproportionately from poverty, he says he wants to focus on developing the community center the city is establishing in the former Griff’s restaurant near Elver Park. The plan calls for a jobs program. Brink says he has a good relationship with building trade groups, which he sees playing a significant role.
“One of the biggest problems for people in this gap right now are finding high-wage-paying jobs,” he says. “The trades are a great way to do that.”
A lifelong Madison resident, Carter works for the state Department of Health Services. If elected to the council, Carter will focus on homelessness, affordable housing, disparity and economic development.
Like McKinney, she says her life experience is a valuable asset. “It brings a unique perspective to the council when you have people on it who represent the makeup of the whole city,” she says. “The clarity of certain issues are blurred because of the lack of diversity.”
She also wants to enhance learning opportunities for children and adults. “We really have to look at how we can move young people through to each level of education so they can be successful,” she says.
Her opponent, Ald. John Strasser, counters that anyone can address issues of disparity and inequality.
“How do we manage the city of Madison going forward in an era of shrinking budgets and increased demand?” he says. “That has nothing to do with whether you’re white, black, woman, man, gay, straight. It has to do with ability.”
Strasser says he has provided innovative leadership during his time on the council, and he wants to continue working on job and economic development in his district.
“What this district needs is economic opportunity. [Residents] need jobs today at the skill level they can step into,” he says.
“All people want to talk about is how do we train people for the jobs of tomorrow,” he says. “We can’t do that until we have [economic] stability in households today.”
He criticizes Carter for not explaining what she has accomplished in her life.
Plus, he adds, “she never says any new idea that she’s had...any problem that she’s had to solve. The reason is, she’s the manager of the status quo. While everybody gets excited about the first this, the first that, I think it’s a very poor way of managing a city. I hope people look at resumes and achievements [when voting]."