By the calendar, Mayor Jackie Biskupski is at the midpoint of her term leading Salt Lake City government, but she sees both more, and less.
Less, because she measures her tenure across the eight-year spectrum of the two terms she hopes to serve.
More, because, in her calculation, she’s achieved more, and in less time, than she anticipated — or that her detractors might concede.
“We have made progress beyond what I expected,” she says.
Biskupski, who turns 52 on Thursday, was speaking on one of the last days of a bumpy year that ended on a high note: In its final meetings of 2017, the City Council approved, with some tweaks, her administration’s proposals for creating a faster, cleaner transit system, as well as plans to subsidize and support affordable housing development in a city confronting a huge shortage of it.
“We set a course that in my mind was really for eight years, and so you look at it, we have accomplished our clean energy plan, we have our transit plan, we have our housing plan,” Biskupski said. “We created the Department of Economic Development, and they’ve brought 4,000 jobs into our economy since a year ago July. We have really bolstered our role in the state of Utah and are taking on the leadership as a capital city as we should be and that is very exciting.”
Add to that, she mentions, a utility agreement that puts the city on course to meet her goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving 100 percent clean energy use by 2032.
So much winning — to borrow another officeholder’s catchphrase.
The Economic Development office, in a year-end announcement, upped the projected jobs number to more than 6,000, along with a projected $483 million in new capital investment, including economic activity generated by new distribution centers Amazon and UPS are bringing to the city’s northwest quadrant.
And yet, Biskupski, who has gained national attention as an outspoken climate-change fighter, not to mention as the progressive lesbian mayor of crimson-red Utah’s capital, still contends with criticism at home — thinly veiled and, at times, out in the open.
Two years after her close win over two-term Mayor Ralph Becker — the first loss by an incumbent mayor since the 1979 introduction of mayor-council government — detractors grumble that she remains thin-skinned, combative and defensive, with a habit of claiming all credit for initiatives or successes that aren’t fully hers, and a governing style that puts her frequently in conflict with others — primarily, the City Council.
An end-of-year bonhomie between council and mayor’s office rode on the transit and housing plan approvals, not to mention an approved plan to hire dozens more police officers. But the good feelings on display seemed to mask lingering antagonism: At year‘s end, two departing council members had tough parting words about their difficulties working with her administration.
The mayor’s office gave a measured response, praising the council members for their service and blaming friction on a tough and busy two years for everyone. That de-escalation was taken as a promising harbinger, a hint that relations between mayor and council might be heading for a thaw — if the mayor’s office, as skeptics predict, doesn’t try to dominate.
Though their paths have often diverged, the mayor and council “ultimately want the same thing,” said council member Erin Mendenhall, elected last week by her colleagues as chairwoman.
“It’s just not efficient for the branches of government to be battling,” she said. “It is inefficient for us to work separately and expect that we will come together at the end on big issues. We’re building those opportunities to work together already.”
National stature, local critics
Biskupski is in a position big-city mayors often encounter: admired from a distance, but less popular up close.
“It’s been an interesting time for me,” she said. “When I first came into office, mayors across the country took note of my election. They were surprised and curious: ‘Who is this lesbian in a red state that is a single mom’” — she has since married — “’and became mayor of a capital city?’”
The U.S. Conference of Mayors made her vice chairwoman of Mayors/Business Alliance for a Sustainable Future. That led to similar leadership positions in sustainability-minded causes: She is a co-chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100% Clean Energy.
“What’s unique for me is that there are other organizations out there that have taken notice,” she said, citing former New York City Michael Bloomberg’s What Works Cities philanthropic initiative that helps cities run better.
“Those kinds of opportunities are happening because of me being recognized as a leader, but also, as we were working with the experts in our departments, it became very clear that there is capacity and capability to make the most of the opportunity.”
There have been a fair share of unscripted events that put her in the national news, or set her up for criticism. Take, for example, last summer’s police manhandling and arrest of a University of Utah hospital nurse, which brought an emphatic, but delayed response. For another, the city’s effort to deal with rising homelessness, including the August launch of the Operation Rio Grande enforcement initiative it prompted, was not universally supported and created its own moments of friction.
And then there were the quarrels in City Hall.
Biskupski was not the pick of the six of seven council members who endorsed a candidate in the 2015 mayor’s race, and her early moves on staffing her administration drew criticism, both coming and going. She let go of the city’s public services director, who had served more than 30 years. Her first choice to replace him didn’t last 30 days.
Those and other early missteps are almost two years behind her. She now praises a “very conscientious” and diverse administration — members of her immediate staff together speak a half-dozen languages — that is “driven by a strong moral code. They truly care about the people in this city, and they want to be proud of the work they do.”
Working with a council that endorsed her election opponent, she acknowledged, engendered “some hard feelings coming in as the new mayor.” But with changes in council leadership, “I can already feel a difference in the working relationship.”
“I’m very grateful for that because I think it’s time to let go and be moving forward and working together in a very collaborative way,” Biskupski said. “We all have the same goals. We all want these same issues to be at the forefront, and we have a real opportunity now to really work very closely together to effect change.”
#MeToo? Her, too
A conversation tangent brings up the subject of 2017’s emergent #MeToo movement — social media’s branding for the year’s transformational response to sexual aggression against women. The mayor applauded the efforts that put the spotlight on the issue and said they must continue, “because the oppression that comes with sexual assault or sexual harassment really has an impact on women in our society in a very negative way.”
“I certainly can say that I have felt judged more harshly as a leader than my male peers,” she added when asked for her personal experience. “Consistently, ever since I’ve been elected, I’ve always had to work harder and smarter to make sure that my goals could be achieved.”
Her report card
Grading her tenure, Biskupski said she’s “pretty stoked.”
“Because if you look at it, my budgets have been passed with very little change. We’ve been very fiscally responsible. We have taken action on just about everything that I talked about in my State of the City address. We’re at about an A-minus,” she said.
“We haven’t gotten everything done or launched,” she added. “But again, that vision I laid out in my State of the City [address] was something that I felt was an eight-year plan, but almost all of it happened in the first two years. That’s pretty amazing.”
As for the public’s assessment, the latest poll on her popularity is nearly a year old: The Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute survey, conducted amid a public hue and cry over the announcement of new homeless shelter sites, put her approval/disapproval rating at 51-43. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
That middling result, if it persists, could play into how she governs this year — hiring new police officers is likely to require a property tax hike, never a favorite option for a politician facing re-election — not to mention who might step up to challenge her in 2019. Stan Penfold, who left the council this month after two terms, deflected questions last month about whether he planned to run.
Biskupski said she wants “very much to have a strong partnership” with the city’s school system. The district is fully independent, but the mayor speaks of partnering to support and respond to unmet needs, like pre-K education for all city children and a new elementary school. She mentions her move to name a new top-level adviser for education, Angela Doan, a former teacher turned lawyer.
“There’s really a desire by the city, and I believe by the council as well, to help on education, and we have community partners that are in the wings waiting also to be helpful,” she said. “What we’re trying to say to the school district is ‘you are doing great things but there are still needs we are being told about by people who live in this community and we want to be able to help. We’re not trying to tell you how to do your jobs. We’re showing up and saying we have partners with resources.‘“
She said the city’s slow-burn housing crisis “weighs on me” and that she wants “more truly affordable housing coming online very quickly.” Projects put forward by a mayor-appointed commission — four in all, with a total 262 affordable units — got tax-credit funding in December. The first units built under those projects could be occupied by June 2019, she said.
Besides affordable housing, which also counts toward alleviating homelessness, the city has an overall shortage of 8,000 homes and also needs to create the transitional housing required for those who will be moving out of new planned homeless resource centers on their way to permanent housing.
Work on implementing the initial stages of the new transit master plan will get underway, she said. Besides transit, she wants the city to take advantage of an upcoming opening in its borrowing capacity to invest in long-overdue road and streetscape improvements.
“We’re looking at a potential bond,” she said. “We have a bonding capacity of up to $87 million, and the cost per household is less than $4.50 per year.”
Another goal: how to improve Library Square to make it a year-round asset and community resource.
Biskupski said she would offer more detail in her Jan. 31 State of the City address. But her plans clearly carry past the horizon of her current term.
“I definitely came in wanting two terms,” she said. “I want to make sure that all the plans that we are getting passed through the council get implemented, that we make real progress, that we create foundational shifts that the next leadership that comes in can just springboard from and continue to make progress.”