Former Downtown Community Council leader Christian Harrison enters crowded race for Salt Lake City mayor

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christian Harrison, launches his campaign for Salt Lake City Mayor outside Salt Lake City Hall, Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

After wrapping up 13 years as chairman of the Downtown Community Council in early January, Christian Harrison announced Wednesday that he’s ready to take on a larger role in the community at his campaign launch Wednesday for Salt Lake City mayor.

Harrison, 46, made his announcement in front of City Hall on the first day of spring for a reason, he said — to reflect his “bold, constructive optimism” for a better city.

“We’re all going to talk about the inland port,” he said after his campaign announcement. “We’re all going to talk about clean air. But are we going to shift from the four-year plan to a 40-year plan? And that’s where I set myself apart.”

Harrison first came to Utah from the Pacific Northwest as a college student escaping a “dysfunctional” family. After graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in international relations, he “fell in love” with Salt Lake City and began working with the Downtown Community Council, which he helped broaden from a focus on homelessness to an array of neighborhood issues.

“Out of the violence of my childhood, I realized that our surroundings made a huge difference in how we lived our lives and the level of satisfaction that we could find in our lives,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview prior to his campaign announcement. “I realized our built environment and political environment affects us deeply — and mostly quietly — and so that’s why I’m involved [in this race].”

As a child, Harrison was a beneficiary of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Food and Nutrition Service program, as well as Head Start, which provides comprehensive early childhood education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and their families. Those were formative experiences, he said.

“I just remember getting up on my tippy-toes and reaching for the door handle to class and using all my weight to turn it, and that’s been burned into my psyche,” he said. "It’s also kind of the way I’ve approached my entire life. I get onto my tippy-toes and I put all my weight into it and I open doors for myself and for others.”

The issues facing the Downtown Community Council are at the heart of the challenges facing the city’s next mayor, Harrison said. During his more than decade of service there, he worked closely with the city on homelessness issues, transportation and development projects such as City Creek mall, and worked on the community board for Eccles Theater.

“It was year after year of working to get people to attend [meetings] and all the work that goes into being on community councils,” he said. “Just trying to be that conduit between the city and our residents. Talking about panhandling, talking about homelessness, talking about bicycles on the sidewalks downtown and being there for our citizens.”

If elected, Harrison said his top issues would be air quality, housing affordability, homelessness, transportation and the inland port.

He says the city needs to heal its divisions — “physically, linguistically and socioeconomically” — and wants to empower neighborhood councils with better funding and staff to give a greater voice to individual neighborhoods and to create a new generation of diverse politicians.

Harrison also argues that the city needs to take back control of its work from the Legislature on issues like the inland port, a massive development planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost side that the state has taken over.

“We must also take control of our own finances, establishing a public bank,” he said. “The Public Bank of Salt Lake City would leverage our city’s assets to fund projects that align with our values and priorities and then channel the interest those loans make back into our neighborhoods. This widespread practice of smart governments around the world is an idea whose time has come for Salt Lake City.”

Finally, he argued, the city needs to look farther down the road to the major challenges it will face in coming years.

“Right now, the plan is praying,” he said. “Praying the big [earthquake] doesn’t strike in our lifetime. Praying climate change isn’t as bad as predicted. Praying that somehow doubling our population doesn’t deliver twice the people, twice the cars, and four times the headaches.”

Christine Passey, who worked on Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s campaign and served as her coordinator for disability rights before leaving in 2017 over policy differences, said she has been impressed with Harrison’s attention to policy detail, particularly as it relates to disability and to increasing the reach of neighborhood councils.

“I was at the mayor’s office,” she said. “I saw what went well and I saw what went badly and I feel like I had a pretty good understanding of what could be done better to strengthen the office, and some of the things I really felt [Harrison] was good at is dealing with staff. There was a lot of cronyism if you will with the mayor’s office.”

Biskupski came under fire almost immediately after taking office for her purge of city staff, and Passey echoed the concern that the best people hadn’t been chosen to fill the offices.

“I think he’ll work hard to get the right people in the right positions and will really form leadership around that,” she said of Harrison.

Harrison steps into a crowded race for mayor, the landscape of which has changed dramatically since incumbent Mayor Jackie Biskupski made the unexpected announcement Tuesday that she was withdrawing from the 2019 race due to a “serious and complex” family matter.

He faces 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. Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, and Aaron Johnson, a veteran and novice politician, have formed personal campaign committees.