Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis leads a pack of some presumed and actual candidates in the upcoming Salt Lake City mayoral race, a new poll shows — perhaps spelling bad news for current Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who has said she will run for a second term.
The poll, by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, shows Dabakis with the support of 26 percent of respondents, leading Biskupski by 12 percentage points. And while they’re not definitive, those numbers should definitely be seen as a “warning shot” for the mayor heading into the 2019 election, said Jason Perry, the institute’s director.
“Jim Dabakis not only has good name ID, but he has a larger-than-life personality and he has a lot of reach through social media, through other platforms that he has worked through as a legislator,” Perry said. “That makes him a tough opponent. Jackie Biskupski, however, has the office. She has a platform, she has an agenda, and she has the ability to do a lot of things between now and November.”
Salt Lake City has not had a one-term mayor since it changed to the mayor-council form of government in 1980.
The Tribune-Hinckley poll found Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Penfold each carried the support of 6 percent of the respondents surveyed. Ibarra earned 3 percent and David Garbett, who left his role as executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition to contemplate his candidacy for mayor, held 2 percent.
Still, the survey — which was conducted Jan. 15-29 and included responses from 305 registered voters in Salt Lake City — shows the vast majority of voters remain undecided.
“The clear takeaway from this poll is found in the 43 percent of residents of Salt Lake City who do not know who they are going to vote for,” Perry said. “That is a significant number, which means none of these candidates are on completely firm footing. They all need to make their case to the voters.”
Dabakis told The Tribune that he’s “thrilled” to see voters have early confidence in his bid and noted he’s looking forward to getting his campaign machine moving.
“I just want to keep fighting until everybody wants me to be the mayor,” he said.
In a Facebook video announcing his candidacy in December, Dabakis said the mayor needs to be a “great ambassador” for the city who coordinates with the Legislature on issues like air quality, transportation and affordable housing. He also indicated he would continue to fight for issues related to education, as he did on Capitol Hill.
“For me, this is totally not about the other candidates,” he said Thursday. “I know them all. I like them all and I think they’re great people. This is just about I feel I have this camaraderie with the people in Salt Lake and hopefully a shared vision.”
In a written statement sent to The Tribune, Biskupski didn’t reference the poll directly and instead said she’s looking forward to running a campaign that’s rooted in demonstrating the city’s accomplishments under her leadership.
“I’ve appreciated the strong support of city residents for my administration’s plans to tackle the city’s toughest problems, including affordable housing and homelessness, clean air, transit, and road repair,” she said. “We have created cultural shifts, and throughout this year residents will see the fruits of this work with more affordable housing completed, new transit lines, and major road reconstruction projects beginning.”
Biskupski focused on similar issues during a victory lap at her State of the City address last month. There, she celebrated the adoption in 2016 of a 100 percent clean-energy program, lauded the City Council’s passage in May of a half-penny sales tax increase that will help fund initiatives like transportation and public safety, and praised voters for approving an $87 million road bond city leaders say is needed to fix failing streets.
But the mayor has also faced some challenges since her election in 2015. She came under fire almost immediately for purging city staff when she took office, clashed with the county and the City Council over the homeless shelter site selection and saw backlash over her decision not to take part in negotiations on the controversial but consequential legislation creating an Inland Port in the westernmost part of the city.
“Any time someone is in office for a period of time, they start to pick up negatives, and this has been a more difficult year for [Biskupski], considering the very tough issues that she has had to get involved in,” Perry said. “This poll is about how good of a candidate Jim Dabakis is going to be but it’s also about the opportunities Jackie Biskupski has to tell her story over the next couple of months.”
While incumbents typically have an advantage in early polling due to name recognition, the Tribune-Hinckley survey showing Biskupski trailing Dabakis isn’t the only indication she may be in trouble moving into this year’s election.
A September poll conducted for UtahPolicy.com found 56 percent of Salt Lake City residents don’t think she should receive a second term in office. Some 29 percent of those said it was “definitely time for a new face.”