Two youthful and ambitious Salt Lake City Council newcomers, crowned Tuesday by wide margins, may effectively shift the politics, policies and attitude of Utah's capital.
Political observers don't expect drastic changes. But the election of unapologetically progressive Kyle LaMalfa and career Democrat Charlie Luke could lead City Hall leftward. Both men concur with that premise. Both pledge to make the city's legislative body more aggressive by pushing more initiatives. And both vow never to be a "rubber stamp" for Mayor Ralph Becker, who just won a second term and endorsed their opponents.
That proud independence could affect the way neighborhoods look, where you can get an alcoholic drink, the fate of downtown streetcars, a year-round public market and convention hotel and whether the curtain ever rises on a $110 million Broadway-class theater.
"It seems to me, intuitively, that the gravity on the council might have shifted," says re-elected Councilman Luke Garrott.
Councilman Soren Simonsen, the council's other bona fide liberal, shares the enthusiasm. "It's probably safe to say the two new council members are a bit more to the left than those they replaced," he says. "I'm encouraged for the more progressive agenda. That freethinking is very positive."
LaMalfa and Luke are split on certain controversial items. LaMalfa favors neighborhood pubs, joined a lawsuit to stop a sports complex and adamantly opposes development in the Northwest Quadrant. Luke would fight neighborhood bars, withholds judgment on the legally challenged sports fields and is not against developing the Northwest Quadrant "with a great deal of planning."
Both men like streetcars provided some kind of circulator connects to their east-bench and west-end streets and both will fight for more vibrant commercial districts near neighborhoods.
But both share some economic skepticism over whether the city should subsidize a mega-playhouse, convention hotel and public market.
If past is prologue
Luke, who captured the east bench after blitzing District 6 incumbent J.T. Martin by more than 20 percentage points, is no stranger to politics. He ran Democrat Scott Leckman's U.S. Senate campaign against Bob Bennett, briefly oversaw former Mayor Rocky Anderson's first campaign, served on the Planning Commission, owns a government-relations firm and hosted a political show on KSL Radio.
"In some cases I tend to be fairly progressive socially, quite liberal," he explains. "But, at the same time, fiscally, I'm quite conservative."
Luke wants the city to get back to "nuts and bolts" basics such as street, sidewalk and sewer repair. So if big-ticket projects threaten that infrastructure budget, he would oppose them.
Luke's lone Planning Commission vote to endorse a rezone for the Parleys Way Walmart was not conservative, he argues, but "pragmatic." His hope was to let the city control the store design. And he points to his support among divided Yalecrest residents as evidence that he is a bridge-builder.
"What people can count on is that I don't take decision making lightly," Luke says. "In terms of collaboration, that's what the neighbors saw in me. I've never been an easy one to label, and I don't anticipate that changing much."
LaMalfa, who beat three-term District 2 incumbent Van Turner by 15 percentage points, calls his left-leaning worldview "something you could smell from a mile away."
Originally from Milwaukee, he came to Utah as a kid and has lived for the past decade on the west side, where he keeps a sprawling urban garden. After founding the Sunday People's Market at Jordan Park, LaMalfa joined a host of boards and committees, including University Neighborhood Partners, the Westside Leadership Institute and the Salt Lake County Social Services Block Grant council.
The trick to bringing in new voices, LaMalfa stresses, is to go to them rather than relying on public hearings or community councils.
"You've got to meet people where they're comfortable," he says. "It's at the church, it's at the school, it's on the street corner, it's at the coffee shop. It's a ton of work, and I'm the working leader.
"Being a community organizer in the 21st century is a lot like being an entrepreneur," LaMalfa adds. "I'm on the phone all the time, making and building relationships it's rigorous. I do see that as a fresh approach to what's happening on the council now. I hope you see me like Lyndon Johnson. He would call people on the phone and say, 'I need you to do this for me.' "
LaMalfa plans to "leverage" the power of the council office to empower residents in Glendale and Poplar Grove, who he says are too often detached and neglected.
Recently, he called together 30 west-side nonprofits to brainstorm. The result was the concept of a "River District," providing safe passage from Glendale to Rose Park, connecting neighborhoods and stretching eastward through the new "Nine Line" trail along 900 South.
Will new ideas mean a new coalition?
LaMalfa and Luke say it is time the council acts like the legislative body it is. Luke hopes to simplify the bureaucracy clouding small-business permits. He argues Caputo's deli never would have expanded to 15th & 15th had the owners known about the headaches at City Hall. And if the Sugar House streetcar ever sees phase two, he would steer it farther east rather than toward Westminster College.
LaMalfa would work to rebuild the business district on Indiana Avenue near 1400 West, where storefronts are abandoned and the footprint of a former school sits bare. "Heard of the Sugar Hole?" he asks rhetorically, referring to the stalled Sugar House project. "We have our own hole on Indiana."
LaMalfa advocates taking housing vertical, a renaissance of the 9th & 9th, or "nuevo nueve" hub, and a zoning overhaul to accommodate retirees interested in parking their boats and RVs on their properties. He also worries North Temple's zoning could encourage chain stores and threaten eateries like Red Iguana and "that funny little hotel with the garden gnomes."
"Maintaining that character is definitely part of my agenda."
If LaMalfa aligns with Garrott and Simonsen in pushing the progressive envelope "that's a fair assessment," the councilman-elect says Garrott predicts Councilman Stan Penfold will become the new swing vote.
Then there's the question of overcoming Becker's endorsements and past council allegiances. "A lot of these guys have campaigned against me," LaMalfa says. "What do I do with that?" He points to the mayor, Councilman Carlton Christensen, who supported Turner, and Councilwoman Jill Remington Love, whose brother-in-law founded Love Communications, which Turner hired for his mailers.
The Mayor's Office dismisses any prospect of a rift.
"His position on campaign support has absolutely no impact on the new-look council," says Becker spokesman Art Raymond. "We embrace the decision of the voters in Kyle's and Charlie's districts, and we look forward to working with them."
Whether a new coalition just formed may be known when LaMalfa and Luke cast their first votes in early January. That's when Simonsen, blocked from council leadership for years, is expected to put his name in the hat for council chairman.
Becker's agenda: Where new council members stand ...
On the Broadway-style theater:
Charlie Luke is not opposed but wonders "why now" when budgets are gutted. Kyle LaMalfa sees construction jobs for west-siders but worries they can't afford the tickets. He is opposed "unless we got a lot of partners involved."
LaMalfa likes the idea but "I'd love to start with bus service. Our routes keep getting shrunk on the west side." Luke is "very supportive" but wants a Sugar House streetcar to extend eastward rather than north toward Westminster College and the University of Utah. Both want some kind of neighborhood circulator.
On neighborhood bars:
Luke is opposed. "But if there's a restaurant that wants to have a full-service bar, that makes perfect sense to me." LaMalfa says, "Yes, I'm open to those things," adding he favors more business "nodes" with mixed uses and vertical housing.
On a year-round public market at the Rio Grande Depot:
LaMalfa, who founded the People's Market, has doubts. "Although it's a dreamy project for a guy that loves farmers markets, I don't want to see the city getting into something that isn't going to make us money." Luke calls it a great idea, "but it only makes sense if it's going to be sustainable."
On developing the Northwest Quadrant:
Luke is "not against the concept," but "we need to do so judiciously and with a great deal of planning." LaMalfa would oppose "a mini-city out there. I would like to see us build up, go vertical downtown."
Derek P. Jensen
SLC election: Seismic shift or political ripple?
The election of Kyle LaMalfa and Charlie Luke to the City Council could signal a fundamental shift in agenda setting, according to re-elected Councilman Luke Garrott.
"The administration sets 80 percent of our agenda," he notes. "Soren [Simonsen] says he would change that. Kyle says he would change that as well. I would be a supporter. That could be very significant."
Garrott says the days of being governed "by consensus" may also have ended. Simonsen agrees, noting the "interest from the new guys to push agendas."
One certainty: The 12-year lockstep voting pattern of west-side council members Carlton Christensen and the ousted Van Turner is now over. "It's huge," Garrott says. "The gravity is changing there. Kyle's election is a barometer of social change on the west side."
What could a more progressive council mean? Simonsen points to urban-design regulations, "form-based" zoning to promote mixed use, a focus on electric cars, air-quality initiatives along freeway corridors and perhaps closing the city's demolition loophole that created the "Sugar Hole."
"If there's a change, it's probably seeing a more independent spirit on the council," Simonsen says. "I don't think that will be detrimental to getting things done."
Derek P. Jensen