Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski drops out of 2019 mayoral race, cites a ‘serious and complex family situation’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski reflects on the past year and looks ahead during a sit down interview in her office at the Salt Lake City and County Building on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.

Citing a “serious and complex family situation,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski announced Monday that she won’t run for re-election in 2019, leaving a wide-open race to fill the city’s top slot.

Her surprise decision “dramatically” changes the tenor of the race, said one political scientist, and leaves a crowded field of candidates to battle it out — one of whom praised her as a “historic figure” after the announcement and all of whom wished her well.

Biskupski, the city’s first openly gay mayor, had announced her decision to run again at a campaign launch just last month, vowing to fight for more affordable housing, expanded transit and improved air quality. She declined to give details on the family matter that led her to withdraw from the race but noted that it involves her children.

“My commitment to my family and my role as Mayor must be my top priorities over being a candidate,” she wrote in a tweet announcing her decision Monday afternoon. “For this reason I have just told my staff that I will be withdrawing from the 2019 race. It has been an honor serving and I look forward to the next 9 month [sic].”

By opting out of a re-election bid, Biskupski will become the first one-term Salt Lake City mayor in 47 years, since Jake Garn stepped down two years into his first term to successfully run for the U.S. Senate.

“In making this decision, I weighed three things," Biskupski told reporters, reading a prepared statement at a news conference Monday afternoon. "My responsibility to my family — something I have fought to legally have for most of my personal and professional life, my duty to the people of Salt Lake City and to the office I hold and my desire to be a candidate for mayor.”

As city staff looked on, Biskupski and her wife, Betty Iverson, held hands as they walked out to make the announcement together in front of the mayor’s office in City Hall. The couple have been married since 2016 and have two adopted sons together: a 9-year-old and a 14-year-old.

Even with Biskupski’s departure, the candidate field for Salt Lake City mayor remains crowded. It includes former state Sen. Jim Dabakis; Latino businessman David Ibarra; David Garbett, the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition; and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold. Salt Lake City Downtown Community Council Chairman Christian Harrison is planning his official campaign launch Wednesday, while Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, and Aaron Johnson, a veteran and novice politician, have formed personal campaign committees.

Salt Lake City Sen. Luz Escamilla said in a statement on Facebook Monday that she is taking “a serious look at participating in the 2019 Mayors race" and would make an announcement in “due time.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Incumbents typically have an advantage when they seek re-election, but a recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll indicated Biskupski may have been in trouble. That survey, conducted in mid-January, showed Dabakis with the support of 26 percent of respondents, leading Biskupski by 12 percentage points.

Separately, a September poll conducted for UtahPolicy.com found 56 percent of Salt Lake City residents didn’t think she deserved a second term in office. About 29 percent of those said it was “definitely time for a new face.”

When asked Monday whether factors such as recent polling had gone into her decision to exit the race, Biskupski appeared to cut off the reporter and quickly ended the news conference.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said Biskupski’s departure “dramatically" changes the upcoming race.

“With an incumbent mayor in the race, then, in all honesty, it really is largely a referendum on the incumbent mayor," he said. "People are always looking at how does this person stack up against the person who’s in there and running for re-election? With her deciding not to run for re-election, of course, that changes the dynamic in the sense that people may still say, ‘Here are some things we could do differently or better,’ but it also means that that doesn’t have the same strength of argument to it.”

The mayor has faced a number of controversies since her election in 2015. She came under fire almost immediately for purging city staff when she took office, clashed with Salt Lake County and the City Council over the homeless shelter site selection and faced backlash over her decision not to take part in negotiations on the legislation creating the inland port in the westernmost part of the city. She and the City Council have often butted heads; in one of the more recent examples of the split, the council hired its own lobbyists to work on Capitol Hill during this year’s state legislative session — something that’s only happened twice in more than 20 years.

In the short term, Burbank speculated the mayor’s choice to step down will probably benefit the front-runners in the race, such as Dabakis, but said it could also open up space for a lesser-known candidate to get through the primary and onto the ballot.

Dabakis, who endorsed Biskupski in her 2015 campaign and then flirted himself with entering that race for a brief period of time, told The Salt Lake Tribune he was “shocked” she was stepping out of the race and called the mayor a “historic figure."

“What I want to say is about the Jackie Biskupski that I remember, who was the first lesbian, the first LGBTQ person to serve in the Legislature, where sometimes the pompous [lawmakers] refused to shake hands with her and walked away," he told The Tribune. "And Mayor Biskupski handled that time and that moment with grace.”

Dabakis said her departure won’t change the way he campaigns or thinks about his own race.

“I was never running against Jackie or against anybody else," he said. "I’m just running because of the Jim Dabakis vision of where our city should be.”

Ibarra told The Tribune that he was “looking forward to a race" with Biskupski in it, where they could engage in a robust debate on policies.

“It doesn’t give me any satisfaction to see her drop out,” he said and added that his “heart and prayers go out to her for whatever the reason. Definitely family is first in all of our lives.”

‘Not the time for goodbye’

While Biskupski is stepping out of the race, she said “this is not the time for goodbye." She has a number of initiatives she wants to see through during her nine months left in office and also plans to stay engaged in the debates in the mayoral race.

“From housing, air quality, water, infrastructure, climate change, transportation, jobs, and how all people should be welcome here, I want to know where they stand on these issues and the inland port,” she said. “I want my mayor to be someone we can believe in and who will continue to fight for us.”

Biskupski filed suit against the Inland Port Authority last week, challenging what she sees as its unconstitutional usurping of city tax and land-use powers in the effort to build a massive distribution hub planned for 22,000 acres in the city’s westernmost area. She said Monday she will ensure that challenge moves through the courts with her “full attention.”

Deeda Seed, an activist with the anti-inland port Coalition for Port Reform and a former Salt Lake City councilwoman, said Biskupski has been a “courageous leader” on this issue and hopes her successor will carry on the fight.

“It’s always hard to lose a champion, and of late she’s been a champion for our cause,” Seed said. “She very courageously took the step to file litigation against the port authority. It sounds like she has every intention of seeing that through during the rest of her term. We will be asking all of the candidates to continue that effort and looking for the candidate that’s going to be the strongest on this issue.”

Biskupski’s move to sue wasn’t met with enthusiasm by some members of the City Council, including Council Vice Chairman and inland port board member James Rogers, who derided it as “a campaign tactic” at the time.

The mayor was resolute during her announcement but became emotional toward the end as she talked about her staff and the work they had accomplished together. She thanked those who have helped her drive policy changes, including her Cabinet members, and said some of the most rewarding parts of her career have been the opportunity to mentor and serve with women.

She noted that she will continue to work on a number of initiatives that will move forward in the coming months, including new city-sponsored bus services, new homeless resource centers and efforts to replace the city’s failing roads. She also committed to launching new initiatives around education and justice courts.

“Together, we have created fundamental shifts that will make our city more accessible and equitable for decades to come,” she said. “We have ensured that whomever takes this office next will stand in a better position to further move our city toward greater resilience and equal opportunity.”

Biskupski said her family matters are “long term.” But even once they’re sorted out, the mayor said, she has no plans to run for office again.

“This is where I wanted to end my political career,” Biskupski said, "and I have had that opportunity and I’m very grateful to the community for this. But I think for me it’s really … after this, it’s about being a mother to my kids. And that will be the work I’ll be doing for a while.”

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke noted that he and the rest of the council members were surprised by the mayor’s announcement but said he respects her decision to put family first and wishes them “nothing but the best.”

“I fully anticipate in the next nine months that the city will be successful, work will continue,” he said. "... I really don’t see that this decision will have any impact on how the city is running or operating. It certainly makes the coming mayor’s race even more interesting.”