Jackie Biskupski won’t even be on the ballot in November, but make no mistake: She is still looming large in the race for Salt Lake City mayor.
That couldn’t have been more evident than it was Monday evening, when the lame-duck mayor unloaded on members of the Salt Lake City Council, accusing them of selling out the city when it comes to the massive inland port development and advocating for “better council members.”
“Every single one of them needs to be held accountable,” Biskupski told about 60 anti-port activists this week.
City councilwoman and mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall fired back that Biskupski was a “failed mayor” and that city residents deserve better.
Tension between the mayor and the council has been the status quo pretty much since the day Biskupski got the keys to the office in 2016.
The inland port, in particular, has been a sore spot in that relationship. Where Biskupski has taken a hard line opposing the Republican Legislature’s envisioned sprawling shipping center in the city’s northwest quadrant, the council has been conciliatory.
After the mayor blew up negotiations between her and Gov. Gary Herbert in spectacular fashion last year, the only option she had left was a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Legislature muscling in on a municipality’s traditional duties.
The council resisted, trying to block the mayor from filing it without consulting with them, but she went ahead and did it anyway.
Again, none of this is new. So why did Mount Biskupski erupt so dramatically Monday?
Part of it may result from the tense budget tussle between the council and the mayor, which wrapped up last week and resulted in the council stripping away a substantial chunk of homelessness funding from the mayor’s budget.
But in the race to replace the mayor, Biskupski also has an opportunity to help sway support to her chosen successor.
She’s thrown her support behind state Sen. Luz Escamilla with just about everything short of an actual endorsement. Despite the mayor’s lukewarm popularity, her support could make a big difference.
As it stands there are four candidates — Mendenhall, former Councilman Stan Penfold, businessman David Ibarra, and former Pioneer Park Coalition executive director David Garbett — who are statistically tied, behind former state Sen. Jim Dabakis and Biskupski’s choice in Escamilla.
In that crowded field, where just the top two advance to the general election, the race could be decided by a couple hundred or even a few dozen votes. Biskupski could move the needle, particularly with a group of passionate activists certain to vote, by creating a narrative that Mendenhall and the council sold out the city’s interests.
It helps the cause even more to have Deeda Seed, a leader of the opposition movement, call Biskupski their “single greatest champion.”
I’ve written before, but it bears repeating: The mayor wasn’t just for the inland port before she was against it. It was the centerpiece of Biskupski’s economic development vision.
“Salt Lake City is already the Crossroads of the West and a prime location for an inland port,” she said in 2017, “but the northwest quadrant will catapult Salt Lake City’s economic place in the western half of the United States for the foreseeable future.”
It was Biskupski who signed agreements with developers in the northwest quadrant that basically gave them a blank check with few, if any, meaningful protections for the city.
When the Legislature passed a truly awful bill stripping away all of the tax revenue and giving the city no guarantees on air quality or wetland protection, it was at least in part due to the mayor’s strategic failure.
She is the one who cut off the negotiations with Herbert to modify the port bill, at which point it was the council that stepped into the void.
Most of the concessions that the city now has on the port — a piece of the tax revenue, some wetlands protection and some air quality assurances — are the result of negotiations by the council, not by the mayor.
The mayor was right to file the lawsuit. But aside from that, if the council had stood by and let Biskupski run the operation, the situation with the port would have been even worse for the city than it is today.
But it’s politics, and the mayor is doing a good job of recasting the narrative in such a way that makes her the “single greatest champion” of the port opposition movement and gives her the credibility to help sway those voters to support her favored successor.
In that sense, even though she’s not in the race, Biskupski can help influence the outcome and, in the process, do some rehabilitation on her mayoral legacy.