Madison Davis '09 elected to Brisbane City Council
Madison Davis with California State Senator Jerry Hill.
Madison Davis ’09, the youngest woman to win election to the Brisbane City Council, owes her success, in part, to being a precocious 4 year old at a 1995 City Council meeting, brought there by her mother, Danette, a Parks and Recreation commissioner at the time.
“She dragged me along, as she did for most of the meetings,” said Davis. There, she heard about plans to open a city park. “People were suggesting rock gardens and koi ponds, and I would tell my mother in a loud voice what I felt about these ideas. In an effort to quiet me, she said, ‘Don’t tell me. Tell them.’”
Before her mother could stop her, Davis zipped to the podium and stood atop a chair. “I had to have the microphone lowered so I could tell the council members that they needed to ask children their opinion because that’s who parks are for. Parks needed flowers and grass and a puppet show and a playground.”
She spoke for a few minutes, and when she ended her speech, the room stayed silent. “Then everyone laughed and clapped at the same time. I felt so proud that I had stood up. Later, I was proud that I made a difference, because the park had flowers and grass and a playground and an annual puppet show. I learned that I could contribute to my city and that my voice could matter.”
Folks in Brisbane still remember that day, and they got to know Davis even better when she began babysitting, caring for the children of 35 families over the years.
At SI, Davis developed her skills as a diver and dancer, and she honed her sense of justice in Elizabeth Purcell’s English class. “I will always remember her quoting Margaret Mead and telling us to ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Her words echoed what SI taught — that we need to be for and with others and to be ambitious in our goals to improve the world and to better ourselves as we reach for new challenges. Every time I thought something was out of my reach, I recalled that quote from Margaret Mead.”
While studying business administration and marketing at SFSU, Davis worked as an intern at FunnyOrDie.com, a website based in San Mateo famous for its comedy sketches. She landed the job while serving as a face painter at a child’s birthday party. “I knew that the VP of Marketing for Funny Or Die would be there, so I brought along my resume.” She got the job and did marketing for the company for a semester before graduating and landing another job with FiveStars, a loyalty program for 10,000 small businesses around the country.
She knew the world of small businesses as her parents own MadHouse Coffee in Brisbane. “I understand the struggle of what it’s like to do business in a small town, and when I talk to shop owners across the country, I’m able to build a relationship with them. I want to see them succeed.”
That passion also drove her become involved in city government, as downtown Brisbane also needs revitalization. She first became a Parks and Recreation Commissioner, following in her mother’s footsteps, at 21. “My mom had been the youngest commissioner until my appointment,” she noted.
In the summer of 2015, she was approached by a family friend, Karen Cunningham, who asked her to consider running for city council. She agreed because she sees the coming months as a critical time for the city as it ponders how to develop 700 acres of land below San Bruno Mountain — a former dumping ground for San Francisco’s trash.
One plan calls for the construction of 4,434 homes on a mixed-use development proposed by Universal Paragon Corp, which owns most of the site. Such construction could triple the city’s population over the next three decades.
Davis opposes such a plan “because the land is toxic, filled with all sorts of carcinogens,” she noted. “I want to prevent the occurrence of cancer clusters. Thirty years from now, I don’t want to look back and live with any wrong decision the city may make.” She also worries that the move could destroy the Brisbane’s small-town feel.
Others want the land returned to its original purpose when it served as a Southern Pacific rail yard. They want some of the site set aside to accommodate trains for the state’s High-Speed Rail connecting Northern and Southern California.
For Davis, the site is important because it sits in the shadow of San Bruno Mountain, one of a dozen global biodiversity hot spots in the world thanks to the number of endangered, threatened and rare species living there.
Despite her hesitations, Davis is keeping an open mind before any vote so that she can weigh opinions and hear options for the site, including one proposal to use the land for solar and wind power.
To win the November election, Davis worked with Cunningham’s husband, Emmett, who served as her campaign manager. Her many opponents all pointed to her youth — she is 24 — as a detriment. “They said I lacked experience, and they hoped to catch me in a debate not knowing my facts. So I worked hard to read everything I could about all the issues, and I responded to my critics by noting that the experience that matters most is one’s track record and follow-through. As a lifelong resident, I’m committed to this city and hope to listen to everyone.”
Davis tried to do just that by going door-to-door to 950 homes and speaking with neighbors, many of whom remembered her from her first speech at City Hall when she was 4.
She also won points at a town hall debate by ending with the Margaret Mead quote she memorized in her English class at SI. “That resonated with people, and it became a call to action. Together, we can all make a difference.”
She discovered the dirty side of politics when she read outright lies that were posted by her opponents’ campaign managers about her platform. “One person claimed I was for a six-story development across from the park, and someone else said that I admitted I had no experience and would rely heavily on city staff. That started a war on Facebook between my supporters and his.”
She won handily despite the smear tactics, with only the incumbent mayor winning more votes than she. Even after the election, she learned a bit about what was to come when she began fielding calls from people eager to meet her to garner support for their projects. “People call me on occasion to tell me how the system really works. But I’m not too worried. I know how the system should work, and I’ll be fine.”
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