“I have a passion for this community. I have a passion for playing a role in helping Madison make real the greatness that we all hope for and imagine about and remember about the city,” says Maurice Cheeks. “I’m not just talking about a greatness for some; but for all who live here ... for everyone who calls Madison home.”
Cheeks has recently thrown his hat into the ring to represent District 10 on Madison’s Common Council. Elections will take place citywide this spring. Cheeks says that he is looking forward to partnering with many other passionate members of the community to make progress in the city he loves.
District 10 is a diverse district on the west side of Madison made up of Allied Dunn's Marsh Neighborhood Association, Dunn's Marsh Neighborhood Association, Midvale Heights Community Association, Nakoma League, Orchard Ridge Community Club, and the Summit Woods Neighborhood Association.
“When you see people talking about the ‘two Madisons’ or people talking about the changes that are happening in Madison right now, one of the districts that they are thinking about is my district whether they know it not,” Cheeks tells The Madison Times in an interview at Starbucks Coffee on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison. “It’s an interesting district. It’s probably one of the most socioeconomically diverse diverse districts in the city. I’m very excited to take up the challenge of representing my entire district equally.
“Everybody in Madison wants an opportunity for their voice to be heard,” he adds. “This is the sort of district where you have to be very diligent about listening to make sure that you are, in fact, representing all of the voices.”
Cheeks is currently running unopposed in his district that is now represented by Brian Solomon, who was redistricted and chose not to move or run in a different district. Cheeks, however, is campaigning hard, knocking on doors, going to neighborhood association meetings, and learning about the constituents of his district as if the seat was hotly contested.
“I feel an enormous amount of responsibility to the district. I’m still knocking on doors. I’m still campaigning like I have an opponent,” he says. “I really want people in the community to know my face and to know my name before I go to the ballot box. After the election, I want people to know that they can come to me with issues. I want there to be an open dialogue. My motivation for running is not anything other than wanting to serve the community.”
When Cheeks goes door to door to talk about his campaign, the most common concern he gets from his constituents is public safety. “As vice chair of the City’s Public Safety Review Committee, I think I certainly can appreciate that concern,” he says. “There are different levels of concerns in my district in different neighborhoods for different reasons, but it’s a very important issue in the city.”
Cheeks says he looks at issues of public safety from a holistic perspective. “We obviously need to address the issues that exist, but we also need to think about the future and [about] how the choices we make today impact our public safety in the future,” Cheeks says. “That means talking about youth homelessness, that’s drop-out rates, that’s having good schools, that’s having constructive activities for youth to be a part of inside and outside of school, that’s youth engagement in the community. There are a lot of things that we can put our attention towards now that will make matters of public safety better in the future as well as things that the City Council traditionally focuses on that make public safety better today.”
By day, Cheeks is the director of sales and outreach for Filament Games, one of the largest educational video game companies in the country. “It’s a fast-growing company. It’s a really cool place to work,” he says. “It mixes a lot of my personal passions — technology, education, and video games. It’s also a very mission-oriented organization. One of our greatest partners of all time is iCivics, a nonprofit started by retired [United Statees] Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. We’ve done a dozen or so games for her civic-education program.”
Since he first moved to Madison from Matteson, Ill. in 2007, Cheeks has been looking for opportunities to get involved in the community. Initially, he felt it would be beneficial to reach out to folks who were already engaged and affecting change in the community. “That’s how I met [Omega School Executive Director] Oscar Mireles and became a board member at Omega,” Cheeks says. “Omega works to provide high school equivalencies and GEDs to folks in Madison and the surrounding areas and I think that is a fantastic example of the enthusiasm and sense of responsibility of those who have a little bit of access reaching out to those who don’t and saying, ‘You know what? You matter.’”
Cheeks is also on the board of directors for the foundation for Madison’s Public Schools. He has been a tutor at Madison Memorial High School for the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Schools of Hope where he started to become exposed to more than just the professional life of Madison. “That’s when I started to see how much room there is for improvement in this community,” Cheeks says. “I saw so many educators who were really passionate about their work and I saw some of the kids and the families who were really, really struggling to enjoy the glory that we think of when we think of Madison,” he remembers.
“For me, the City Council is just a different way to serve,” he adds. “I’ve found opportunities to serve in the community before in various capacities — and that’s mostly a bottom-up approach — and I see City Council as a way to serve from a different angle. It’ll be an adventure, to be sure.”
Cheeks has been on City committees and County commissions — most recently as a member of the Dane County Youth Commission and the Dane County Redistricting Executive Subcommittee and the vice chair of the Public Safety Review Committee of the City of Madison — so he is prepared for long hours of discussion and long nights of hashing things out.
“I think public service is a fantastic opportunity. I would love to see more people get involved,” he says. “What I think a good example of progress in a community and growth and strength in the community is when you see power expanding and when you see power redefined and empowerment occurring. That’s absolutely something that I would like to be a part of. I want to help communities who don’t feel like their voices are being heard become heard.
“I think it’s interesting to see over the last few elections how much more engaged the Allied and Dunn [neighborhoods] voter turnout has been,” he adds. “We’ve seen the voter turnout increase significantly over the last 6 years. I think that suggests that people are more in tune and more engaged in their civic responsibilities than in the past. I think that politics in general have gotten more of a bad rap.”
That’s not all that is getting a bad rap .... more than one media outlets have remarked that maybe Madison has lost its mojo the last few years and that it doesn’t get as many of its extremely high national rankings in various categories of livability that it used to. Cheeks would like to help restore Madison to its glory days.
“I remember when Rebecca Ryan wrote a story about Madison and Mom Jeans [Is Madison Wearing Mom Jeans? – Madison Magazine, July 2010]. It was startling to me. It made the argument that Madison was resting on its laurels,” Cheeks says. “People feel like it’s difficult to get young, talented people to relocate to Madison.
“When I think of my experience over the past 5-6 years now,” Cheeks says, “I think there’s some truth to the “Mom Jeans’ thing. I hear people often say that Madison is not quite what it used to be. And if it is the case that we’re not getting those [high national] rankings that we used to get quite as often, I think there is a burden on us all — a burden of responsibility that comes with citizenship — that if you say you want to live in a great place and you want to be a part of a community, I think you have a burden of responsibility to make that place the best you can.”
Cheeks is excited about bringing a new voice to the Common Council this spring. “One of the things that I’m particularly excited about is being somebody that is relatively new to Madison and a transplant within the past five years helping to shape the future of the community,” he says. “Many people here have fond memories about how Madison was and people want that back.
“Especially now, with all of the press about Madison’s urbanizing and ‘changing demographics’…. I can appreciate that,” he continues. “As a person who came here rather recently, established roots here — my wife and I got married here and this is where we intend to stay —I’m really thinking about the future. How can we continue to strengthen this community and build this city? We want this city to be as great as it can be.”