SALT LAKE CITY — Thirteen years ago, now former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson captured national attention for Utah in an unexpected way when he led an anti-war protest against then-President George W. Bush during his visit to the state.
It was an eyebrow-raising moment for national onlookers — to see a mayor from a state widely considered one of the nation’s most conservative strongholds leading a protest against the Republican president.
“Wow. And this guy is the mayor of the biggest city in … Utah?” Bob Geiger wrote in 2006 in the Huffington Post under the headline, “SLC Mayor Rocky Anderson: A Righteous Dude in a Wrong State.”
That historical moment is a snapshot of what Salt Lake City has represented in its unique political and social position as Utah’s capital city — long considered an island of blue in a sea of red at the heart of conservative Utah.
During the past four decades, Salt Lake voters have consistently elected Democratic mayors, though technically city elections are nonpartisan — and this year’s election, beginning with Tuesday’s primary, is likely to be no different.
All frontrunner candidates vying to finish in the top two in today’s primary, based off of recent polls, are Democrats — and all have campaigned in one form or another with a promise that they’ll be a voice for Salt Lake City’s progressive ideals despite a GOP-controlled Utah Legislature and mostly Republican congressional delegation (save for recently elected moderate Democrat Congressman Ben McAdams).
The question is what kind of Democrat will Salt Lake City voters likely elect?
Why S.L.’s mayor matters
Though political tension between Utah’s GOP and Salt Lake City’s mayor may continue, political and economic pundits say Salt Lake City’s working relationship with the state is critical — not just for the city, but for Utah as a whole.
“Salt Lake City is our urban center. It’s the front porch, central living area of our state,” Natalie Gochnour, associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News in a recent interview. “It’s certainly the symbol of our state to outsiders.”
As Utah’s capital, its center of commerce, its transportation hub, its center of culture and entertainment, Gochnour said Salt Lake City “really belongs to everyone in Utah.”
Salt Lake City’s mayor “plays an important role in representing diverse perspectives,” Gochnour said, but also represents a city that acts as a gateway to the rest of Utah.
“No matter where you live in Utah, this is your city,” she said. “So in a very real sense, the Salt Lake City mayor is a mayor to the entire state.”
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, shared a similar insight.
“Being the mayor of Salt Lake City is an important position, as our capital city, the policies and the brand Salt Lake City carries has an impact throughout the country and throughout the world,” Perry said. “Salt Lake City provides a lens that people use to view the state of Utah.”
Gochnour wrote in a Deseret News column last week that all Utahns should care about the mayor’s race because “Salt Lake City belongs to all Utahns.” And while she’s not a voter in the city, she said she cares who voters elect for the future of the city because she views the greater Salt Lake region as a “single commutershed, airshed, watershed and regional economy.”
“The region is well served by leaders who recognize this interconnection and embrace the needs of the larger region,” Gochnour wrote. “He or she must be a ‘mayor to the region’ because solutions to many problems will transcend political boundaries.
“The idea that Salt Lake City can carve itself out as an urban island is false,” she continued. “Both the city and the region share a common destiny.”
Relationships between governments can impact Utah’s economy in that it can also affect the state’s appeal to businesses, Perry said.
“Businesses like predictability,” he said. “And believe me, a city and the state can implement policies that can drive businesses away. Utah has not done that, and as we look to the next mayor … people are looking to that as well. What candidate will help improve the economic climate of Salt Lake City and therefore the state?”
Big issues facing Salt Lake City’s next mayor over the next five years likely include issues that have highlighted the mayor’s race so far: the clash with the state over the Utah Inland Port Authority, what role the city will play as the county and state ushers in Utah’s overhauled homeless system, housing affordability, air quality and environmental policies, and more, Perry said.
Gochnour said this year’s pool of eight mayoral candidates contains an “uber-talented group” with their own sets of expertise and passions, which is a “refreshing change from the bone-on-bone politics, contempt and self-interest found in Washington, D.C.”
Though the personalities of this year’s mayoral candidates run the gamut of “showy, folksy, scholarly, diplomatic, down-to-earth, approachable, expressive, fun, genuine, intense and more,” as Gochnour put it, all have promised they’ll work well with state leaders while also being Salt Lake City’s progressive voice.
Experience is what varies candidate to candidate in the mayor’s race — whether it’s on Capitol Hill, in City Hall, on environmental issues, or in the business realm.
Others have also taken stronger environmental stances against the inland port, even though all frontrunners have pledged to continue Biskupski’s lawsuit against the state to hash out the Utah Inland Port authority’s constitutionality.
“Some have a reputation for collaborating and building consensus; others seem more emboldened in their viewpoints,” Gochnour wrote. “Voters face a difficult decision filled with tradeoffs.”
Salt Lake City’s mayoral candidates, listed in alphabetical order by last name, are former state Sen. Jim Dabakis, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, former Pioneer Park executive director and environmental lawyer David Garbett, freelance journalist Richard Goldberger, retired electrical engineer Rainer Huck, businessman David Ibarra, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold.
All candidates are registered Democrats except Huck, who is registered as a Libertarian.
City’s next voice
Headed into the 2020 presidential election — a time when American politics continue to be hotly divisive along deepening party lines — Salt Lake City’s next mayor will likely continue to be among the only few powerful Democratic voices sounding out of Utah — a symbol that there’s still a beating blue heart in the otherwise red Beehive state.
That voice can give outsiders a different lens through which to view into Utah — like when Anderson led the protest against Bush, capturing the attention of national media and giving Utah’s minority party a rare spotlight.
“We can have a particularly powerful impact nationally and sometimes internationally when people organize in the capital of what is typically a majority Republican state,” Anderson said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “People can look at what we do in Salt Lake City, and they can say, ‘If they can do that in Salt Lake City, they ought to be able to do this anywhere.’”
For Anderson, it was the anti-war protests. When current Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski was first elected nearly four years ago, she made national headlines as the city’s first openly gay mayor.
Today, Biskupski continues to be a prominent voice and symbol for the LGBT community and steps into the national arena on issues ranging from climate change to immigration reform to gun laws. Last week, Biskupski joined more than 200 U.S. mayors calling for bipartisan gun reform following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
Biskupski also made headlines after she reiterated a longstanding policy that Salt Lake police officers will not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. Later this month, Salt Lake City will host the 2019 United Nations Civil Society Conference — the first time it will be held in the United States outside of New York — where Biskupski has encouraged the United Nations to make sustainability goals a focus.
Past Salt Lake mayors have contributed on the national level in various forms. Deedee Corradini served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1998. Ralph Becker was named president of the National League of Cities in 2014.
At the state level, the mayor plays an important and at times a tricky role, too.
Anderson, in his time, gained a reputation to some within the state as a loud liberal who occasionally angered Republicans and clashed with state leaders. Today, though Biskupski has a different personality style, that pattern continues — most apparent in the conflict with the Utah Inland Port Authority and her lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.
She’s since refused to engage with state leaders on the issue, standing firm on her position to not negotiate on legislation that she says has been “designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature’s will.” Last month, Biskupski refused to stand in the same room as Gov. Gary Herbert for a press conference regarding protests against the port authority.
To Becker, Salt Lake City’s mayor’s role leading what he calls a “bright blue dot in a deep sea of red” will always have “natural” tension with the state — and “whether people think of it as positive or negative it depends on who you talk to.”
But Becker also said he agrees with Gochnour — that Salt Lake City’s mayor represents the entire state in certain ways — and that can sometimes put the mayor in a tricky position while taking seriously that “responsibility” to be Salt Lake City’s Democratic voice.
“While there are differences politically with the state, how the mayor carries that responsibility makes an enormous difference in how this city is treated within the state,” Becker said.
“In my experience, if I was super respectful and worked with people in an amiable fashion, but stood up for what was important for Salt Lake City, it brought both respect, understanding, and actually I will say in my case enormous support for things that we pushed.”
Becker pointed to his administration’s success with passing an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance. Even though some warned him that the state may pre-empt the law, that fight never came.
“Not getting in unnecessary fights with the state, we were able to obtain enormous support,” Becker said.
Though Salt Lake City’s election is dominated by Democrats, Republican voters could have an influence over this year’s primary election.
That’s especially because recent polls show such tight margins between candidates, with about 28 percent of voters undecided, according to a recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinkley Institute of Politics poll. Of those undecided voters, the poll showed about 50 percent are Republican — and that could have fairly significant influence over who wins the primary, said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank.
“I certainly think they can,” Burbank said, but added that it’s a tough choice for Republicans because no candidate clearly stands out as their top pick. But if Republicans fall behind one or two candidates “that can have a big impact, particularly in the primary.”
Still, Salt Lake City’s historical track record of “tension” between its mayor and the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature is likely here to stay. “I don’t think that dynamic is necessarily going to change,” Perry said.
“Tension can be an (important) part of the political process where various viewpoints are expressed,” Perry added, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the next Salt Lake mayor can’t get along with state leaders.
“They will need to work with our Legislature,” Perry said. “They will be able to represent their constituents, and they should, but Salt Lake City is part of the state of Utah … so understanding the need to work together will be critical going forward.
“That doesn’t mean bending to anyone’s will, necessarily, but understanding there is a greater good,” Perry said. “We need to be wise and find the right balance.”