Democrats battle in close mayoral race in Utah's capital

AP News
Posted: Oct 28, 2015 3:33 PM
Democrats battle in close mayoral race in Utah's capital

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The tightest race in one of the country's most conservative states this year is a mayoral battle between two Democrats in the liberal stronghold of Salt Lake City.

Two-term incumbent Ralph Becker has nabbed high-profile posts while in office, serving as president of the National League of Cities and as one of President Barack Obama's appointees on a climate change task force.

But as he tries to join a small club of three-term Salt Lake City mayors, Becker faces a tough challenge from former state lawmaker Jackie Biskupski. If Biskupski wins, she will be the city's first openly gay mayor.

Becker ran against Republicans in his last two general elections. But while he's been in office, Salt Lake City has skewed more liberal and diverse, making it ripe ground for Democrats to square off, said Tim Chambless, a professor at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Salt Lake City's mayoral election is officially nonpartisan, and an August primary whittled a field of five candidates to Biskupski and Becker.

"You have two very good candidates running because this is just about the only place in the state of Utah that they can win," Chambless said.

Utah is home to the conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and its population is more than 60 percent Mormon. But the state capital is its cultural and urban hub, home to a public research university and the young people and academics who follow.

Salt Lake City has attracted more traditionally left-leaning groups as its population has grown in recent years to about 191,000.

A Biskupski win would cap more than a year of strides for LGBT advocates in Utah after the legalization of same-sex marriage and the passage of an anti-discrimination law protecting gay and transgender people.

Biskupski became Utah's first openly gay lawmaker and fought for LGBT rights when she was elected to the Legislature more than 15 years ago. She said there's more to be done in Utah for LGBT rights, and she's willing to be a prominent face for the gay community.

But political observers say her possible historic win isn't what's making it a close race.

Equality Utah endorsed both candidates because Becker also has been an "unyielding ally" for the gay community, said Troy Williams, executive director of the state's LGBT-rights group.

Williams noted Becker championed a 2009 city anti-discrimination law and officiated dozens of marriages at the county clerk's office when Utah's same-sex marriage ban was initially overturned in 2013.

Instead, Becker and Biskupski have sparred over matters such as the city's homeless population, environmental preservation and parking meters — quality-of-life issues that affect everyone from mobilized LGBT residents to the city's pocket of Republicans.

Chambless said Becker, a former Democratic leader in the state House, has raised his national profile but is struggling because he's put in less face time with residents and local groups in recent years.

Biskupski, who resigned from the Legislature in 2011, has worked in Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder's office and co-founded organizations that support women in law enforcement and politics.

Becker said he reminds voters of changes to the city over the eight years he's been in office, including a revitalized downtown, streetcar service and bicycle-friendly routes. He also highlights his longtime battles to limit billboards, leading a billboard-backed political action committee to post ads around town supporting Biskupski.

Nate Sechrest, the PAC's treasurer and general counsel for Reagan Outdoor Advertising, said the group hasn't consulted Biskupski about the ads but hopes a new mayor will be more willing to work with it.

Biskupski said she has some concerns about billboards, but the digital versions are helpful for communicating emergency messages. She initially said she wouldn't call for the ads supporting her candidacy to be removed but reversed course recently.

Sechrest said the ads won't come down.

Chambless said the billboard issue won't resonate with most voters, but Becker has been smart to appeal to the city's 15,000 registered Republicans by touting endorsements from former Gov. Mike Leavitt and former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, both Republicans.

Salt Lake City hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1971.

Utah GOP chairman James Evans said Republican voters could swing the election if they vote in force, but it's hard to get them excited about the race.

"The greatest obstacle, I think, is that they're both such liberal Democrats," Evans said.


Follow Michelle L. Price at .