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Biskupski Grabs Headlines As Utah's Most Progressive Mayor, But Can She Get Re-Elected?

Renee Bright / KUER

This month marked the halfway point in Jackie Biskupski’s term as Mayor of Salt Lake City. Although she’s had some challenges and stumbles in her first two years, Utah's first openly-gay mayor is proud of what she’s accomplished so far.

The mayor said she’s had some “real big wins over the last two years,” including progress on “providing services to those who are experiencing homelessness, housing, economic development and job creation.”

Biskupski was elected in 2015. In an upset, she beat popular two-term incumbent Ralph Becker. Since then, she’s grabbed national headlines as a progressive, LGBT mayor in a deeply Republican state.

Credit Whittney Evans / KUER

Biskupski has won praise for her ambitious plans to combat climate change and wean the city off fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, with a goal of 100 percent municipal use by 2032.

Outside Magazine wrote a glowing profile on Biskupski last month. The article called her an emerging “state and national leader on climate,” and applauded her for speaking out against President Donald Trump on his sweeping reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

But not everyone is thrilled with the freshman mayor’s performance locally.

In her first year, frustrations boiled over when the city secretly decided where to build four homeless resource centers. After a major backlash, Biskupski dropped plans for two of them.

“I regret being kind of pushed into that corner of saying yes to four,” she said. “I knew it was not good for our city, I knew it wouldn’t be received well, and I knew that responsibility of four resource centers should not rest on our shoulders.”

Stan Penfold retired from the city council earlier this month and said the last two years have been rocky.

He acknowledged there’s a learning curve for any new administration. But he said Biskupski may have crippled herself with one of her very first decisions as mayor, when she forced out several longtime department heads.

“Mayor Biskupski was pretty broadly criticized for letting a lot of experience go when she first came in,” said Penfold.  “I think that really showed that first year when they were trying to get up to speed.”

The former councilman says there’s been an ongoing communication breakdown between the mayor’s office and the council.

“There’s a different kind of flow, or sometimes no flow of information between the two branches,” he said.  

“That makes it kind of challenging, especially if we’re looking at big picture, long-term, visionary stuff for the city: housing plans, transit plans, homelessness,” said Penfold, who’s rumored to be exploring a mayoral bid himself.

Last summer, the city, state, and county came together to tackle crime and drug use near the homeless shelter downtown. The effort, dubbed “Operation Rio Grande,” is still ongoing, but the city’s role is less clear.

Crime is down near the shelter, but residents in other parts of the Salt Lake Valley have complained it’s moved to their neighborhoods.

Homelessness has been one of the most visible issues for the city, said Tim Chambless, a former political science professor with the University of Utah, and people expect real change.

“We see the problem,” said Chambless, but solutions — and how to pay for them — are less clear.

“We’re not solving the problem necessarily, we’re shifting the problem. And out of sight, out of mind, doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.

Biskupski gives herself an A- for her first two years in office. Her list of accomplishments includes getting five-year plans for transit and housing passed. She also created an economic development department that’s helped lure big projects to Salt Lake City, like an Amazon fulfillment center.

“We’ve brought 6,000 jobs into our economy the last two years,” Biskupski said. “That is unprecedented.”

But Penfold graded the mayor more harshly.  

“I think we’re doing about a C, really,” he said.

“I think Biskupski has struggled,” said Penfold. “I don’t think the city runs as well as it has run in the past. I think we’ve got a lot of new people, there’s a lot of inexperience.”

But Biskupski says she’s already looking to a second term.

Credit Whittney Evans / KUER

“I’m running again,” she said. “I wanted two terms. We knew that these fundamental shifts we came in to create would take some time to make sure they evolved, that the following administration six years from now could just pick it up and run with it.”

Biskupski won her 2015 election with 52 percent of the vote. A year later, her approval rating was at 51 percent. Chambless thinks Biskupski will see another slight dip in approval this year.

But he said there’s one thing she does really well.

“I think she has acted to make Salt Lake City a more welcoming city,” Chambless said, “to people of color, minorities, the gay community, to visitors. That is, I think, really important.”

Biskupski’s proud of the city’s commitment to refugees and immigrants.

And between her and the freshly-minted Salt Lake City Council, half of the city’s elected leaders openly identify as LGBT.

“It says so much about how this community is growing and evolving,” Biskupski said. “Really looking at people as individuals and electing them based on merit.”  

The mayor has gotten attention nationally, but Chambless said that if Biskupski wants a second term, she’ll have to take advantage of the next two years to show Salt Lake City residents — not just national news outlets — that she can solve local problems.

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