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Robert Gehrke: Jackie Biskupski’s legacy will be one of boom times and blow-ups in Salt Lake City

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski shown here discusses "Operation Rio Grande" plans with The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, August 14, 2017, recently finished her term in office.

Here’s a little confession: Last mayoral election, I was living in Salt Lake City proper for the first time and had a decision to make.

I liked Mayor Ralph Becker. I thought he had done a good job and I would’ve been happy to see him get another term. But his 2015 challenger, Jackie Biskupski, was also a very good candidate and, like a lot of voters, I thought that after eight years, maybe it was time to give someone else a shot.

It was a close call, but I voted for Jackie. Sorry, Ralph.

Robert Gehrke

There were more than a few times over the past four years I regretted that decision.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually like Biskupski. I liked her back when she was a legislator, I like her as a person, and I wish her and her family nothing but the best.

She is, of course, a pioneer — the first LGBTQ mayor in Salt Lake City, which drew some glowing national publicity and will be a key part of how history remembers her. Aside from that, her tenure, even under a generous assessment, was a mixed bag.

[Read more: Four ways Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski left her mark on the capital city]

Now, judging the legacy of any leader can be a tricky thing. She will invariably get more blame than is deserved when things go wrong and more praise when they go right.

And there have been quite a few things that have gone right.

A few months into her term, Biskupski created the city’s first Department of Economic Development that oversaw the creation of more than 6,000 jobs in its first two years. The Salt Lake City metropolitan area has the lowest unemployment rate of any large city at just 1.9% and has had one of — if not the — fastest growing economies in the country.

Major crime — murder, rape and assault — is down nearly 14% since she took office, according to data from the Salt Lake City Police Department. All crime is down nearly 15%.

Air quality across the region has improved, the city and UTA sponsored its first free-fare day (which brought a spike in ridership), and the number of electric vehicle charging stations grew to 38 (plus 16 at the airport).

Inside City Hall, Biskupski instituted paid parental leave, established an initiative to ensure the pay for women is on par with their male coworkers, and expanded diversity in city government.

History may be kind to Biskupski, as well. One four-year term isn’t really very long to harvest the seeds a mayor plants.

Her administration, for example, set a goal of operating on net 100% renewable energy by 2030, and worked with the council and the Redevelopment Agency to craft GrowingSLC, a five-year plan to address the city’s housing crisis. After blasting the council for pulling $21 million from other programs for affordable housing, she later embraced the effort — although sparred over whether her office or the RDA should have control of the money.

If, by 2030, the city is humming along on renewables, if the courts come back and side with her on her legal challenge to the inland port, she will rightly be credited for those accomplishments. And, if Salt Lake City ends up hosting the Winter Olympics a decade or so from now, she will have been one of the people who got that ball rolling.

But it was also a strained, turbulent four years, and Biskupski bears much of the blame for that.

Think back to Day One, when Biskupski executed a near-wholesale purge of department heads, wiping out decades of institutional knowledge. That move alone set her administration’s agenda back by probably a year or more.

She clashed with then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (that hothead!) on homeless sites. She battled then-House Speaker Greg Hughes over Operation Rio Grande. She brawled with Gov. Gary Herbert over the port. She fought with the City Council over, well, just about every single thing imaginable.

Biskupski told my colleague Taylor Stevens last month that she ruffled feathers because she challenged Utah’s patriarchy and got “constant criticism” from the media because she’s a woman.

“We come from a very patriarchal society of ‘Women need to know their place,’” she said. “And when you lead and you lead on a lot of bold initiatives like I have, there was a lot of, you know, ‘Who does she think she is,’ right? And yet the work matters.”

And maybe she’s right — to a point. Strong women often are treated differently than men and Biskupski is a strong woman. But the one constant throughout all of these conflicts, regardless of political party or gender or anything else, was Biskupski. So you can either believe everyone else was the problem, or she was.

You can take that with a grain of salt, recognizing my white-male-in-the-media privilege, but the relentless strife seems to have taken a toll on her public image. An October poll by Utah Policy and Y2 Analytics found that 53% of Salt Lakers disapproved of her job performance.

With a few weeks left in her term, Biskupski remained optimistic: “I will have a very long legacy of positive impacts on people’s lives that I’m very excited about.”

I hope, for the city’s sake, she’s right and, for her sake, she will be remembered as a pioneer who planted seeds. I’ll probably remember her, like many who voted for her, as a mayor who was blessed by boom times but, had she been able to collaborate with her governing partners, could have been so much more.

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