Four years ago, Ralph Becker was polling in single digits amid a muddle of 10 mayoral hopefuls passive and staring at a political career on the brink.
Today, he is a fixture at City Hall, riding an approval rating in the 80s, a quarter-million-dollar campaign fund and his ubiquitous bicycle locked at the building's premier spot.
It's not Becker's only lock. All signs suggest the even-tempered mayor may run unopposed or essentially unchallenged in this fall's re-election race. That prospect, unprecedented in modern Salt Lake City political history, astonishes even Becker.
"I'm just not hearing any names," he says, looking earnest but relaxed at a table outside City Hall's cafe. Pressed to explain his good fortune, the Democratic mayor shrugs. "I really don't know. I try to be who I am and perform my role as mayor in the way you should perform."
His record is dotted with mostly progressive decisions certain to please city voters. And, with few exceptions, Becker has proved more custodial than controversial. His fans include the gay community, bicyclists, most environmentalists and business boardrooms. Yet, given all that, the unruffled mayor has never seen the near-fanatical following (or dead-set detractors) as his predecessor, Rocky Anderson. He appears far from invincible.
The filing period for 2011 mayoral candidates begins July 1 and ends July 15. But two weeks out, not a single challenger has surfaced, credible or otherwise. And that includes the usually eager Republican ranks.
"We'll see if there's a candidate on our side who steps up, and we'll go from there," says Thomas Wright, Utah GOP chairman. "I'm talking to a few people who are considering running."
The GOP hurdle is made steeper by history. After all, it has been 40 years since city residents have picked a Republican for mayor.
If no one steps forward in the officially nonpartisan race, the question becomes: Is that healthy?
"It's always good to have competition in elections," says Matthew Burbank, a political-science professor at the University of Utah. "If you are an incumbent, and even if you are popular, one of the things that should happen is you have your ideas tested against the electorate. It's simply not as good of a process."
Campaigning goes on • "Weird," "bizarre," "surprising" that is how insiders describe the so-far absent field.
Yet Becker insists he will campaign "the same way." He has raised $370,000 (with $240,000 in the bank), on pace to match his 2007 fundraising mark of $700,000. He has already planted 400 yard signs. And he is pledging to knock on 20 percent of the city's front doors by next month's filing deadline which could be a lonely march.
There are no contenders from the Legislature or City Council. Activists irked about oil spills, Jordan River encroachment, a possible panhandling crackdown, a Broadway theater "boondoggle," fencing dogs in Parleys Historic Nature Park, or building a second city on the Northwest Quadrant, all have bowed out. Same with veteran politicians now out of office meaning no county combatant and no Rocky III. And former Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, who recently resigned her seat for personal reasons, says she will wait until 2015 to tackle City Hall.
"There's always someone, a gold-standard candidate or someone, who puts their name in the ring. But I don't think that's even going to happen," says Polly Hart, a Becker supporter and veteran trustee on the Capitol Hill Community Council. "Most people who would like to be mayor are waiting for four years."
Last December, Wright pledged that the GOP would make a "strong push" to oust Becker. Six months later, there are still no names.
"Anybody who is smart, I think, knows he's pretty unbeatable," says Weston Clark, a former Salt Lake County Democratic chairman. "Ralph has sort of played it safe down the middle. He's been a good administrator of the city. He hasn't garnered the hard-core loyalists or the detractors. You can look at it as the calm after Rocky. People are kind of enjoying that peace."
Clark makes the case that Dave Buhler, Becker's 2007 general-election rival, was one of the strongest Republican candidates the city has seen.
"And he didn't even come close. It's really hard to sell a candidate to spend all the money and time on a race that just looks impossible," Clark says.
Late challenge? • Still, a late challenge isn't unheard of. In 1995, attorney Rich McKeown joined the mayor's chase near the end of the filing period.
He bested incumbent Mayor Deedee Corradini in the primary and lost the general election by 2 percentage points in a 527-vote squeaker.
"People could still get in the race if they were motivated if these were people that were fairly well-known," Burbank says. "If you were a first-time person running, you would want more time. It makes it very difficult."
A one-candidate show does a disservice to both voters and Becker, Burbank says.
"If you're not being pushed, it's not easy to make those fundraising phone calls," he says. "It also means you're not trying to mobilize people as much."
Hart adds: "It would be good to have an opponent just so we could have some good dialogue. People are not going to go to candidate forums if there is no debate."
Becker notes that his decade-long run in the Legislature frequently featured challenges from Republicans and Democrats.
But he says his grass-roots re-election effort will keep him engaged.
"I don't worry about a lack of activism and ideas from people in the community," the mayor says. "I maintain an almost fervent goal in engaging our community in decisions I make. And that's not going to change."
Boundless energy • Becker says he will tap feedback gathered during the stump to help set a second-term platform. And the fit, youthful, 59-year-old he biked to the top of Emigration Canyon two weeks ago to dedicate the Killyon preserve says he has the energy to do more.
"There are a lot of things in my mind that are in progress," he says, "that I want to see to fruition."
That includes the TRAX line to Salt Lake City International Airport and the "grand boulevard" on North Temple. He also points to the $125 million public-safety headquarters, a Sugar House streetcar that is "within reach" and the day his sustainability agenda takes root.
Becker argues that the contours of the race or the lack thereof are less about him and more about a "common sense of purpose," from the chamber to neighborhoods.
And if elections are democracy's voice, Becker's critics appear to be minimal and mum.
"Somebody will probably run," predicts Quin Monson, associate director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
But he says it will be akin to convincing a Democrat to run in Republican-ruled Utah County.
If no rivals emerge in the next month, Becker won't have to wait until November to plan his second term. It will begin July 15.
A third term? He won't go there yet.
Filing period next month
With little more than four months before November's election, not a single challenger has emerged to contest Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's re-election. The city's official filing period for all 2011 candidates opens July 1 and ends July 15.
Who isn't running
Here is a list of potential challengers who have opted not to run against Mayor Ralph Becker in 2011.
Former Mayor Rocky Anderson
Former state Rep. Jackie Biskupski
Former Councilman Dave Buhler
Former CountyCouncilman Joe Hatch
Rep. David Litvack
Former Councilwoman Nancy Saxton
Former Councilwoman Deeda Seed