Gay rights pioneer Derek Kitchen says goodbye to Salt Lake City Council, looks back on his triumphs, ahead to his future in the Utah Senate

Derek Kitchen, a small-business owner and gay-marriage history maker, left his last meeting as a Salt Lake City councilman Tuesday night.

In January, the 30-year-old Kitchen will take on a new challenge, replacing outspoken Sen. Jim Dabakis as one of the few Democrats in the Utah Legislature. And while he told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’s looking forward to the work he can accomplish at the Capitol, he said his last evening on the council was “bittersweet.”

“From a policy perspective, I will miss having important conversations around land use and zoning and neighborhood development,” he said. “And then from more of the kind of high level, I will miss being a part of a tightknit, nonpartisan group of neighborhood policymakers. There’s seven of us. We became a bit of a family.”

Kitchen and his husband, Moudi Sbeity, own a Middle Eastern cafe in Salt Lake City’s Central Ninth neighborhood and were among three couples who successfully sued in 2013 to legalize gay marriage in Utah. Two years later, at age 27, Kitchen was elected to represent the city’s urban District 4.

During his comments at the council meeting on Tuesday, Kitchen took time to compliment each of his colleagues, staff and even constituents in the audience.

“I know that there were times when I came up short as a legislator,” he said. “But I also know that I was able to grow into this role over the years, and I feel much more capable now than ever before. So thank you for learning alongside me and teaching me and letting me be a part of this important process of self-governance.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Plaintiffs in the now-closed case of Kitchen v. Herbert, Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity, discuss the journey to marriage equality in Utah and what it's been like to be at the focal point of one of the highest-profile, history-making gay marriage cases in the country, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, at their home in Salt Lake City.

Housing helps

During his council tenure, he’s embraced economic development, improved transit and environmental quality. He also has led the city’s Redevelopment Agency board (made up of City Council members), which guides and promotes community redevelopment.

But among his proudest accomplishments, Kitchen cited his efforts to address the affordable housing shortage. That includes recent changes to the city’s Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance, which loosened zoning rules on so-called mother-in-law apartments with hopes of opening up new, smaller dwellings across the city’s residential neighborhoods. And during negotiations with the state over the inland port, a planned 20,000-acre distribution hub in the city’s westernmost area, Kitchen helped craft a deal to distribute 10 percent of tax increment in the area toward affordable housing.

“I’m feeling really good about my housing legacy,” he said.

At the end of what was Kitchen’s last meeting as chairman of the city’s Redevelopment Agency on Tuesday, RDA chief operating officer Danny Walz thanked him on behalf of the staff and presented him with a fleece blanket.

“I understand it may get a little chilly up on the Hill,” Walz said of Democrat Kitchen joining the GOP-dominated Legislature. “We’re excited for your next opportunity but sad to see you go,” he said before city staffers gave Kitchen a standing ovation.

At the council meeting later in the day, Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall and Mayor Jackie Biskupski also praised Kitchen’s work on housing.

“You certainly led the charge on affordable housing and we were able to take that leadership and grow it even further,” Biskupski said. “So thank you for leading the charge on that. It’s some of the only affordable housing going on in the entire state and that’s a big deal, a feather in your cap.”

A new chapter

Kitchen’s council departure will become effective at the beginning of January. Council members will have 30 days to fill his seat. Interested applicants will have at least two weeks to put in their names. The council then will interview the applicants in an open meeting and vote in a replacement.

Though Kitchen said he plans to stay out of that process, he hopes his successor will come to the council with values similar to his.

“I hope that they are somebody that, you know, cares deeply about city government and representing District 4 well,” he said. “District 4 is the most urban district not only in Salt Lake City but the whole state. So I hope it’s somebody that has an interest in good quality development and who is mindful of the rapid growth that’s happening in our central business district and the Central City area.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Outgoing Salt Lake City Council Member Derek Kitchen gives his farewell marks at the council meeting on Tuesday Nov. 27, 2018.

As he heads into the Utah Senate, Kitchen said he’s excited to focus on big-picture, long-range issues like air quality and other environmental issues, accessibility of public transit and housing. He’s also taking office on the heels of a spate of ballot initiatives that voters passed in November and said he’s keeping the results of those elections in mind.

“With the failure of Question 1 [to boost education spending], I want to come to some sort of understanding of how we could get more resources into classrooms in the state,” Kitchen said.

“I want to make sure we protect Prop 2,” he added, in light of recent negotiations to replace the medical marijuana ballot measure with a new bill called the Medical Cannabis Act. “The voters voted to bring medicinal cannabis to the state of Utah. I want to make sure that the Legislature respects the will of the people and doesn’t screw that up.”

Through it all, Kitchen plans to continue serving as an advocate not only for Salt Lake City residents but also for their city government.

“For me, this felt like a natural step, and so I’m just so excited and honored to be able to represent Salt Lake City in the Senate,” he said. “And I look forward to many years of good policymaking and hopefully some successes for the city under my belt.”

Reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this report.