Getting Past the Politics: YGB Interviews Mayoral Candidate Raj Shukla
Why are you running?
We’re confronted with a few challenges that are converging. In this moment issues of racial social and economic inequity that the world is grappling with, Madison is no exception.
We have a federal government and a good chunk the state government, a little less of it now, that is openly hostile to the values of this community. And hostile to the ways that we want to address some of our problems. Then we have climate change that will affect every facet of our lives for the rest of forever. That is how it is. Everyone is being called to do more: to bring communities together and make progress in the face of difficult challenges including people like me who are political newcomers. I feel that I am not a newcomer to leadership. I Chaired City committee called Sustainable Madison Committee. We have written legislation, built coalitions on council to pass resolutions to commit the city to the most ambitious climate change goals in the state. Other communities have since followed suit...I’m also the executive director of a statewide water policy group. I believe I am one of two candidates in the race with actual executive experience. Myself and Paul Soglin. The skillset is one of being able to articulate a vision for an organization being able to motivate and manage talented employees. It’s a skillset that requires you to make tough decision. We have issues like affordable housing and transit that is broke in the community. We have issues of racial inequality that play to the eye, but also to the spirit when you just talk to people that are living in circumstances that are blatantly unfair and that can’t survive. I want to be a mayor that can replicate some of the success i’ve seen professionally and certainly as a civic leader and I hope as a father. I want to bring people together to solve difficult challenges and set the bar higher than we have.
Who is Raj at the core?
When you ask people who i am and people who know me, they think of me as deeply principled person who is fiercely committed to working with everyone in order to make progress. I’m the son of immigrants who grew up in Waukesha. I’m the father of a child with a disability. Those two parts of who I am have built an ethic in me that you just don’t turn away from people. You do everything you can to build relationships with people even those who you disagree with and make progress to find commonality. I’m principled but pragmatic that prides community above all else.
What’s your biggest motivation?
A challenge. We’re looking at really big challenges that only get harder as time goes by. Our community is growing with different perspectives as we try to mesh. And we are dealing with the spectre of human climate change, which no one else in history has had to manage. We have giant challenges ahead of us. When I look at my daughters, I am motivated by the idea that I need to wake up everyday and do everything I can to make this world everything they deserve. Everything their friends deserve. The world that my parents deserve to. The world that my neighbor deserves...they have every much a right to a city that is clean, a city that is equitable, and a city that is prosperous. People motivate me. Spread love and I know that might sound cheesy, but it’s true. We need a lot more folks especially within political leadership who insist on treating one another with respect, with compassion, with creativity, and ambition. We owe it to each other.
Opinion on new jails? Disproportionality in prison sentences?
There should be no private prisons. None. I don’t think the solutions to our problems are in jailing more people. I think the solutions in our problems are in caring for more people. I’d like to create a truly citywide Madison model for early childhood care. WHen you look at the research as far the most cost effective way to repay the educational debts we owe young people in this community who are born facing bigger obstacles through no choice of their own and no choice of their parents, we need to repay that debt and the way you can do that and shrink some of the gaps in achievement at school and shrink some of the disparities. We have to focus on birth to three when 80-90% of your neurological development happens as a human being. That should be our focus. We need to have a commitment to early childhood care and necessary resources and systems. So that every child gets the resources they need to start off on an even playing field.
How are we going to solve disparities in schools? Student opportunities?
This is a difficult question. Especially when you have a state limiting resource to schools. Special education affects me the most. Most of the kids in special education are kids of color. Kids who need special education, but often don’t get it are also children of color. I do believe that representation in decision making is important. I’m seeing people of color on the school board and it’s eye opening to be having conversation with people of color having represented voices. I don’t think you can separate the disparities in schools form the economic disparities you are seeing outside of school. Challenges are of social welfare and not just education. Schools are a reflection of society instead of a driver. THey are important. Kids aren’t getting the right nutrition when they are outside of school. These are economic issues.
When it comes to student job opportunities, this is one of those areas where environmental goals and social justice intersect. I very much want to see how we can expand energy efficiency and renewable energy on people's homes in our community. There are financing questions involved, but imagine us making a concerted effort to expand, for example, people insulating their homes. You need people who know how to do that and people who can be trained on how to do that. So why can’t the city expand on some work that it’s already doing, but bring young people into a trade like that. Give young people a start on an area that the economy really needs and an area that the environment really needs and a path to employment that that young person really needs. We can give these kids the opportunity to be the hero in a big story: How we’re going to manage climate change and in the process give them a skill that may the foundation of them starting a business. A foundation of a lifetime of employment. That’s one way I’d like to see if we could approach this.
How can we create a more accessible city?
It starts with leadership. You learn this very viscerally when you lead an organization. Even in the most collaborative like the flat management structure I have at river alliance. The leader of every organization sets the tone. Right now we have a mayor whose first response is to deny and just say things are getting better. I don’t believe that’s leadership. That’s the opposite of leadership. Refusing to recognize the pain is not leadership to me. It’s important to people who are leaders in the business community to be unafraid of acknowledging where we need to grow and what progress we need to make.
Is Madison a truly ‘progressive’ city?
I don’t think that we’re meeting the expectations we have for ourselves. I chose to live here. All three of our daughters were born at Meriter hospital. All three of them attend the public schools here in Madison. We love this city and there’s a lot to love about this city, but here’s the reality. Unlike 40 years ago, we are a city with more people, with a diversity in voices that didn't used to exist and we need to embrace them in a way that we haven’t before. If we want to attract and retain world class talent, that’s going to power our economy going forward, we will need to demonstrate that we embrace a full range of ideas from everybody in the community, not just city government. Everyone in the community feels that same love. Too many people are shut out from what makes this community a great place. This isn’t acceptable to me.
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