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Critiques of her leadership style aside, Biskupski says she ‘loves’ being mayor

First Published      Last Updated Mar 12 2017 06:00 am

She cites strides in economic development and healing community divisions, but her critics still see her as insulated and opaque.

Jackie Biskupski "loves" being Salt Lake City's mayor and expresses few regrets amid critiques of her collaborative skills that have recurred since the early days of her administration.

"What I really care about is the fact that when my team is picking up the phone, the majority of the phone calls are all positive, that the emails and mail I get is positive," Biskupski said when asked in mid-February about the public perception of her.

Since that interview, she's won a political victory by lessening Salt Lake City's share of county shelter beds in a twice-redrawn blueprint for reducing homelessness. The rollout of her housing plan has ended persistent queries about its status, and many of her stated aspirations align with those of leaders at the city, county and state levels.

Yet observers — former Biskupski backers among them — have expressed unease that she has come to embody the very things she once disparaged her predecessor for being: a closed-door deal-maker with little appetite for conversation or compromise.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman and Redevelopment Agency Board Chairwoman Lisa Adams said that, while the mayor seems to share a desire to do what's best for the city, "the administration's definition of collaboration is — 'You agree with me, and if you don't, then we're not collaborating.' "

Tough crowds • Biskupski has faced harsher criticisms.

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka accused her of an "illegal lifestyle" in 1998, when she made a successful bid to become the state's first openly gay lawmaker.

In 2000, as Biskupski sought to persuade her House colleagues to defeat an adoption ban for gay or unmarried couples by pleading that "I am not less than human," they reportedly averted their eyes. Some turned their swivel chairs in the other direction.

She nonetheless forged a reputation for working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle during her 12 years on Capitol Hill — a "serious legislator," said Tim Chambless, an associate professor with the University of Utah's political science department and the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Former Salt Lake County Council Chairman Joe Hatch, who spurred on Biskupski's 1998 House run and donated $500 to her mayoral campaign in 2015, credits her for "incredible skills" as a lawmaker.

As an administrator, Hatch said, "the jury's still out."

Hatch told the apocryphal story of Josef Stalin's two letters to successor Nikita Khrushchev, to be opened after his first and second crises. The first advised Khrushchev: Blame me. The second: Write two letters.

"Jackie can blame a lot on [Ralph] Becker right now, and she should blame a lot on Becker," Hatch said, "but it's coming to a point where you're going to need to open that second letter."

The days that followed Biskupski's narrow November 2015 victory over Becker — the first incumbent to fall since the city adopted a mayor-council government in 1979 — hinted that while Biskupski was now dealing predominantly with fellow Democrats, she did not consider herself to be among allies.

Adams, who endorsed Becker, said she advised Biskupski to retain existing city staff until the completion of the budget cycle, and that three or four directors possessed invaluable talents and institutional knowledge.

Instead, Biskupski called for the resignation of all appointees. As for those specifically recommended by Adams, "she let every single one of them go," the councilwoman said.

It sent "a bad wave" through city government, Chambless said: "I wonder if, a year and a half later, she's recovered from that."

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