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Outgoing Mayor Jackie Biskuspki On Her Biggest Wins — And Why She Regrets Bringing Amazon To SLC

Brian Albers / KUER
SLC Mayor Jackie Biskupski in her office at City Hall

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski is wrapping up her first and only term at the end of this year. She made history as the city’s first openly gay mayor when she was elected in 2015. But she also clashed publicly with members of the city council and Gov. Gary Herbert during her time in office on issues like homelessness and the planned inland port. KUER’s Nicole Nixon went to City Hall to talk with Biskupski about her time in office.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nicole Nixon: What do you see as your biggest win in your four years in office leading Salt Lake City?

Jackie Biskupski: I don't know that there is a biggest win. We came in to tackle a lot of really hard issues — things that were not being addressed — and we've touched on all of it. You look at what was happening with homelessness when I first came into office and where we are today. We've been able to reduce our crimes across the entire city 30%. That is thousands of fewer victims — thousands — since I've been in office.

Climate change — big shifts. All eyes are on Salt Lake City right now. The historic franchise agreement that I brokered with Rocky Mountain Power is now leading our state on a journey to clean air.

Energy is a part of our problem, but it's only part of our problem. So we also took on transit. We have the first ever transit master plan being implemented right now. We just started the high frequency routes in August and a prime example of success is the route on 9th South [which] has almost tripled the number of people using it. We are busing kids from the west side to the east side and a lot of them go to East High School. So, now you're seeing the youth taking advantage of this high frequency route with expanded hours to stay at school longer, participate fully in their after school activities. It's a game changer for those kids. That should have happened a long time ago and didn't. That's exciting for me as a mayor.

NN: Going back to Rocky Mountain Power and renewable energy. Both mayoral candidates say that they think [the city can run on 100% renewable energy] by 2023. Is that possible?

JB: No. If you try to push for 100% renewable quicker, what happens is that the legislation is written in a way that says residents can opt out of the renewable energy if they choose to. Well, the only reason they would choose to is if it costs more.

If you remember, we were going 100% renewable by 2032 in 2016. We have now been able to shift that to 2030 because the price break is shifting. So, as the price break shifts, we can shift our dates. So we are moving Rocky Mountain Power to 2030 now because it won't cost the residents more money. Now will that shift occur again? Probably. But I don't think it's going to jump from 2030 to 2023. Will we gain a couple more years? Yep, and hopefully we'll see those shifts.

But as a leader, you've got to be mindful that when you're moving an entire community to 100% renewable with an opt-out option, you don't want to give people a reason to opt out.

NN: Do you have any big regrets about the last four years?

JB: I'm really disappointed in Amazon. I helped bring them here. I was sold the idea that they would be stellar community partners, helping our community in significant ways. They came and disappeared. That’s very unfortunate for a company of that size. We have a lot of companies showing up to help clear the air here and there's a coalition of companies here that are working on that, but [Amazon is] not part of that group yet.

I hope they wake up to their role. That the money grab and the power grab and all of that building of this monstrous empire isn't the end game, that the end game is to be a global citizen-company that cares about who they're providing services for and the people that work for them.

NN: Do you think that you were treated fairly by your critics? Was the feedback that you got about policy or more about your personality, do you think?

JB: I think anyone would be in agreement with me that female leaders are scrutinized much more greatly than male leaders. Nobody talks about the clothes our president wears. But if you're a female leader, your clothes are talked about, your hair is talked about. Honestly, I mean it's absurd.

I've had the opportunity to work with female mayors from all around the world who are working on climate change. So right now, you have the first female mayor of Rome, the first female mayor of Paris, the first female mayor of [Quebec]. These major cities and leadership coming from these women — they're experiencing similar things as female leaders do in this country. 

At the end of the day, the men who are working on climate change and who are working on creating more equity understand the value of getting more women into leadership roles. That the days of the good ol' boy network are really creating our own demise and that we must help lift up female leadership all around the world.

NN: Where do you think Utah stands on that? There's been a concerted effort from a few groups to get more women in office in Utah, or at least push women to run. Do you think that there is a sexism problem with women in politics here?

JB: If you look at our ratios of female leadership in the House and Senate here and back in Congress, I mean, we have no women right now representing us in the federal government in Utah. We don't represent even 25% of the legislature.

We have an image here that we have a real opportunity to overcome. There’s a real movement by women in this state right now — and some men who are real strong allies of female leadership — wanting us to be the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and to finally bring that to fruition for our country. Women don't realize, I think, that equal protection has not been ratified and we are not treated equally in this country. We do not have the same rights as men and it's time. Our state has a lot of women, both from the left and the right, coming together and saying, ‘Let's overcome this image we have and let's be that 38th state.’ The value of that in lifting up women in this state would be extraordinary, but it would also send a message across the country that this is not the worst place for women to live, it's actually one of the best places because we're leading on change here.

NN: What is next for you? You've said that you want to spend more time with your family, but have you thought about running for office again in the future?

JB: No,I've been in public office and working in government now for over 20 years. My priorities will be climate change and equity, equality-type work, moving that needle. We have until 2030 now before there's kind of a tipping point in climate change that is a point of not being able to recover from. When you know as much as I know about the research and the science and you're tracking what's happening with climate change like I have been, I absolutely have a moral responsibility to continue to do that work, and I will. And I have always felt that I had a moral responsibility to do equality and equity work.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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