As David Garbett, an environmental lawyer and activist, considered in December whether to officially launch a bid for Salt Lake City mayor, his 6-year-old daughter, Emi, became sick.
There was a bad inversion in the air, and she was taken to urgent care, where she was hooked up to a face mask and breathing tube as doctors worried her lungs had been damaged. It was a pivotal moment that pushed Garbett, who has spent much of his professional life working on clean air and environmental issues, into the 2019 Salt Lake City mayor’s race.
“We live in a city where our loved ones are sickened by this," he said at his campaign launch on the south steps of the state Capitol on Tuesday. "Unfortunately, many people are resigned. They say that this problem is too big ... but I don’t accept this. We shouldn’t accept this.”
Garbett, 40, said he has worked throughout his career to address the three key issues he believes the city faces: air quality and climate change, homelessness and housing affordability.
He worked for 10 years as a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a nonprofit that works to defend Utah’s red rocks, and is the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group that advocates for the Rio Grande neighborhood and Pioneer Park to address issues related to drugs, crime and homelessness.
He left that role to consider a bid for mayor and filed a personal campaign committee in December. His father, Bryson, owns Garbett Homes, which is one of the largest homebuilding companies in the state, and Garbett has been working there since leaving the coalition.
“David has been an effective and a relentless advocate for clean air throughout his career,” said Jeff Robinson, a pediatrician who introduced Garbett on Tuesday as the candidate’s family and friends looked on. “And I know he does this because he not only loves the natural world that makes living here so wonderful but he also understands that it’s important to the people of Salt Lake City who he cares deeply about.”
During his announcement, Garbett positioned himself as an optimist ready to tackle tough challenges that he believes many local and state leaders have resigned themselves to.
If elected, he said he would release a plan that would serve as a road map for how to get clean air, would work to develop benchmarks to define whether the city is helping people experiencing homelessness and would review city policies to determine if they had any role in contributing to the state’s affordability crunch. He also wants the city to become more aggressive in addressing climate change and would want the city run on 100 percent clean energy by the end of his first term.
“As mayor, we’ll dream big,” he said. “But we will remember to fulfill our basic obligations. And one place we can start is ensuring we empower city employees and agencies to do their jobs — not micromanage them.”
Garbett criticized current Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who officially launched her re-election campaign on Saturday, for what he sees as her lack of collaboration with other governmental entities.
“All the issues I talked about will require the city to cooperate with others, and that’s our No. 1 failure at city hall right now,” he said. “The mayor can’t cooperate with City Council, she can’t cooperate with other cities, she can’t cooperate with the Legislature. We cannot address those [issues the city faces] without doing that.”
Biskupski came under fire almost immediately for purging city staff when she took office. She has also 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.
Garbett said he would bring a “different style” to the mayor’s office.
“I’ll stand up for what I believe in,” he said. “But there’s a way to do that that doesn’t push people away, and I think we can be inclusive while still standing up for what the city believes.”
Garbett is the sixth candidate who has lined up to challenge Biskupski in the 2019 race. Other contenders include former Sen. Jim Dabakis, Latino businessman David Ibarra and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold. Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, and Aaron Johnson, a veteran and novice politician, have also opened personal campaign committees to run in the race.
A recent poll found Garbett was at the bottom of a list of some presumed and actual candidates for city mayor. He garnered 3 percent of support in that survey, which was conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in mid-January.