Among the items on Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s desk at City Hall are family photos, a pride flag and a plaque that reads “Hard decisions are hard.”
The last item represents how she views the choices she’s made over the past four years as she’s simultaneously gained national praise as an outspoken climate-change fighter and historic lesbian mayor while contending with criticisms from defectors who have labeled her divisive and combative.
“I came in to do the hard stuff,” Biskupski said during a recent interview — and she believes she’s done just that, pointing to progress on issues ranging from public safety to transportation and beyond.
But in her final days in office, the outgoing mayor — who opted earlier this year not to run for reelection — says she hasn’t received enough credit for how much she’s accomplished and has instead faced “constant criticism” from the media because she’s a woman.
“We come from a very patriarchal society of ‘Women need to know their place,’” she said. “And when you lead and you lead on a lot of bold initiatives like I have, there was a lot of, you know, ‘Who does she think she is,’ right? And yet the work matters. And I will have a very long legacy of positive impacts on people’s lives that I’m very excited about.”
During the last Salt Lake City Council meeting of the year held Tuesday, outgoing Council Chairman Charlie Luke read a statement from the body recognizing the mayor’s accomplishments, including “advancing diversity and inclusion in our city and the United Nations Civil Society Conference you brought to our doorstep this past summer.”
But several council members also used the time to acknowledge “the obvious,” as Councilman Andrew Johnston put it — that the council and the mayor, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, have a highly dysfunctional relationship.
Biskupski was not backed by the majority of the seven council members who endorsed a candidate in the 2015 mayor’s race, setting up an early tension when she beat incumbent Mayor Ralph Becker that never quite dissipated.
She and the council went on to clash frequently, from their split on the homeless shelter site selection to their wildly different approaches to negotiations on the legislation creating the inland port in the westernmost part of the city.
Their often tenuous relationship reached a boiling point this summer, when the mayor delivered a blistering criticism of the City Council — and of Salt Lake City Councilwoman and now Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall in particular — over its handling of the port.
Biskupski said she was “ashamed” of the council’s role in the development project and called for “better council members.”
“Look at our broken roads,” she wrote in a news release the day after Biskupski made those comments. “Look at our unsustainable housing market. Look at our air quality. We deserve a mayor who has the expertise to make the city government work for the people, who has the energy to do the hard work, and the experience to work with the community, not against it.”
Biskupski acknowledged that the tension between the two bodies of government went beyond what’s normal. But she said the media interest was layered in gender bias and blamed the intentional workings of “an old establishment” among the City Council staff for perpetuating the issue.
“There is a mentality of who really runs the city at the other end of the hallway,” she said, referencing the City Council chambers. “And it will be interesting to see if that continues or if Erin is able to really lead as mayor and that conflict resolves itself.”
In an interview, Mendenhall praised Biskupski’s efforts to hire employees in City Hall who were “more reflective of the community” and for her work to establish a pay equity initiative and paid parental leave.
She said that tension is “natural and normal” between the executive and legislative branches "and there was a great deal of that at times.”
“But as she’s wrapping up her tenure in City Hall, I am focused on her love of the city and her commitment to it and the good things that she did," Mendenhall continued. "And I think, for the sake of the city, we need to leave behind the harder times and move ahead focused on the things we have in common and the collective good.”
Even so, Biskupski leaves office next month amid frayed relationships with leaders on the state level as well — including the governor, state legislative leaders and members of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board.
She faces a mixed review, too, from the public, according to a recent poll conducted by UtahPolicy and Y2 Analytics in October that found a majority disapproved of the job she’d done as city mayor. Of the 53% who rated her tenure that way, 21% said they “strongly” disapproved of her performance. The poll found that only 6% “strongly” approved of her performance.
The strain on her relationships is, in part, a reflection of the “very controversial issues” the mayor had to tackle with state and local leaders, says Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
But while Biskupski, the city’s first openly gay mayor, may not be remembered fondly the day she leaves office, Cotti said she will likely be remembered as a trailblazing figure five or 10 years from now.
"We have seen time be kind to even really controversial politicians,” Cotti said. "The fact that Mayor Biskupski did break glass ceilings both as a legislator and as a mayor, I think people will remember that — remember some of these really difficult battles she fought.”
Biskupski says she doesn’t plan to run for public office again. But whatever she does next is likely to be in the climate change arena, where she sees a need for “bold leadership” amid a ticking clock for action.
She’s promised a “smooth transition” to a Mendenhall administration, though she endorsed Sen. Luz Escamilla in that race, and the two have met multiple times to ensure there’s no lapse in city services. The mayor-elect will take the oath of office at a ceremony tentatively scheduled for Jan. 6.
And while Biskupski hasn’t given Mendenhall any advice, she said she’d tell the now-councilwoman to expect much more scrutiny over her choices than she might be used to.
“As the mayor, you will be the one who's accountable,” she said. “So you must lead and you must make those decisions. You have to understand why you're making the decisions you're making. And you've got to be able to hold your ground or people are just going to run you over.”
Hard decisions, as Biskupski likes to say, are often hard.