Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski leaves office with mixed reviews
City’s first lesbian mayor was ‘trailblazer’ who stood firm facing tough choices amid conflict with state, city leaders
SALT LAKE CITY — Her biggest critics have accused her of being confrontational and “aloof.” Her supporters say she’s a strong leader who stands firm and doesn’t shy away from making tough decisions.
It’s a mixed bag of reviews for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski as the curtain falls on her first and only term as mayor of Utah’s capital city — a term political pundits say was fraught with tough issues that set Biskupski up for a challenge from the start.
It’s likely because of those tough issues — including the evolution of Utah’s homeless system and the climax of the longstanding city vs. state power struggle that has now landed in an unprecedented court battle over the Utah Inland Port Authority — and perhaps her firm style that Biskupski leaves behind a shadow of conflict with both city and state leaders, pundits say.
But some also point to possible gender bias that shaped harsh perceptions of the mayor’s personality, perhaps leading to a level of criticism that other strong-willed (but male) politicians don’t endure.
Biskupski leaves behind a legacy of being Salt Lake City’s first lesbian mayor who at times made national headlines as being a “progressive” beacon in the heart of conservative Utah fighting climate change. Mid-term, she made an appearance in a Politico Magazine list of America’s 11 Most Interesting Mayors that cited her rise in politics, starting with her 1998 election as Utah’s first openly gay state legislator, but also her struggle to navigate local politics on tough issues including homelessness.
Yet as Biskupski exits office, local homelessness, affordable housing, sustainability and economic development officials laud the mayor for what they call major strides on those priorities.
Today, Salt Lake County’s brand new homeless resource centers are up and running, despite the rocky journey to get there. The Rio Grande neighborhood is back under control with the help of state leaders. Salt Lake City also boasts thousands more new affordable housing units, the city’s first affordable housing plan in 20 years, and a new funding source through a relatively uncontroversial sales tax increase for affordable housing, police, streets and transit.
Biskupski also helped put Salt Lake City on the national map on several fronts, including a big victory when the U.S. Olympic Committee selected Salt Lake City as America’s choice to bid for a future Winter Games. She also helped make Salt Lake City the first U.S. city to host the first United Nation’s conference outside of New York, where Salt Lake City joined Park City on the global stage for city practices to fight climate change.
Though Biskupski previously intended to run for a second term, those plans changed. Just weeks after she announced her bid for re-election, Biskupski bowed out of the race in March, citing a “private” and “serious and complex family situation.”
Biskupski, through her spokesman Matthew Rojas, declined to be interviewed by the Deseret News for this story, despite multiple requests beginning in October. Biskupski discussed her term as mayor in other interviews, but Rojas said as the year drew to a close she “just didn’t want to do them anymore.”
Political pundits highlighted in interviews with the Deseret News the highs and lows of the Biskupski administration, crediting the mayor with making tough, politically taxing decisions while also making progress on big issues, including homelessness and affordable housing within Utah’s capital. They also discussed how those tough issues, including the Utah Inland Port Authority, likely contributed to the mixed views of the outgoing mayor.
A fall UtahPolicy.com poll conducted by Y2 Analytics found 53% of likely Salt Lake City voters “strongly” or “somewhat” disapproved of Biskupski’s job performance. In contrast, 41% “somewhat” approved of her performance, while only 6% “strongly” approved.
Short term, those mixed views will linger, but with time, Biskupski may be remembered more for her accomplishments and their lasting effects, according to Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
“New policies can take years, sometimes decades to unfold and see their true impact,” Cotti said, pointing to the Biskupski administration’s work on affordable housing and economic development as work that might take time for Salt Lake residents to fully realize.
Above all, Cotti and Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor, say Biskupski will likely be remembered as a symbol for the LGBTQ community, beginning with her time in Utah’s Capitol and ending in the mayor’s office.
“Mayor Biskupski will always be remembered as someone who has broken the glass ceiling and fought really challenging and difficult fights at the state Legislature and within the city,” Cotti said.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, called Biskupski a “trailblazer” of two decades.
“Jackie’s term as mayor and her whole career sends a message to every aspiring LGBTQ youth that sexual orientation will no longer be a barrier to public services,” Williams said, pointing to a slew of openly gay public officials who have won election in Salt Lake City, including former Councilman and now state Sen. Derek Kitchen, Councilman Chris Wharton, Councilwoman Amy Fowler and others.
“We predict there will be many more to come, but Jackie was the first,” Williams said.
Claudia O’Grady, vice president of the multifamily finance department at Utah Housing Corp., said she may be “biased,” but in her mind, Biskupski’s “greatest accomplishment” was her work to expand Salt Lake City’s affordable housing stock, both during her term and into the future.
“She has just moved affordable housing light years forward for our community,” O’Grady said.
Throughout her term, Biskupski and the Salt Lake City Council brought on more than 2,500 new affordable housing units, passed the city’s first affordable housing plan in 20 years and solidified a new revenue source for future units. Biskupski also launched the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission to find creative solutions for affordable housing, and helped build a variety of new programs to build for a range of affordability, including permanent supportive housing and deeply affordable housing, O’Grady said.
Though the mayor and the City Council oftentimes clashed, it usually wasn’t over affordable housing. Rather, their collective commitment to the issue has set an example for cities across the state — and the conversation has evolved to the state level, O’Grady said.
“Everybody talks about affordable housing now,” she said, noting it will likely be a priority in the next legislative session. To O’Grady, “there’s no question” Biskupski helped spread the message about the Wasatch Front’s growing housing “crisis.”
On homelessness issues, Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America-Utah, credits Biskupski for that same work on affordable housing while also helping make the tough decisions that needed to be made to site the new homeless resource centers.
“She has stood in a strong leadership position for this big transition, and it was a transition that had some controversy with it, but I’ve been impressed with her ability to stand in the midst of difficulty and be a part of the solution,” Bray said.
Bray also credited Biskupski for pushing to ensure homelessness was acknowledged as a statewide issue. Though she and the City Council clashed over how many centers the city should have hosted, Bray credited Biskupski with pushing to ensure other cities helped do their part.
“She wanted it to be a broader solution,” Bray said. “She wanted to make sure people understood homelessness was not only a Salt Lake City problem.”
Sustainability also sticks out as a highlight for Biskupski’s administration.
To Sarah Wright, one of Biskupski’s first moves to create a city sustainability department showed the mayor took sustainability “very seriously.” As her term went on, Wright said Biskupski rose up as a local and national leader on climate change and sustainability.
Biskupski served as chairwoman of the Mayors/Business Alliance for a Sustainable Future and as co-chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100% Clean Energy. Biskupski also traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify on climate change. This fall, Biskupski asked Congress to support a nationwide goal for a 100% clean energy economy by 2050. In 2016, Salt Lake City set a goal with Rocky Mountain Power for 100% clean energy by 2032. Biskupski also helped lobby for the passage of HB411, a bill to move up that goal to 2030 and create a process for other cities to follow.
“When she committed to 100% renewable energy early on, we really weren’t even sure how she would get there. It was just making a bold commitment and empowering her team to solve big problems,” Wright said. But now, more than a dozen other communities have signed on to 100% clean energy goals, and it’s helped create a “domino effect,” Wright said.
Biskupski is also praised in the economic development arena. Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, credits Biskupski for fostering a “fantastic working relationship” and for lifting the city’s economic development division to its own department.
Foxley said Biskupski’s former Economic Development Director Lara Fritts helped “set a vision” for the city. Fritts’ work helped usher in more than 9,000 new jobs and nearly $1 billion in capital investment.
Big name companies that came to Salt Lake City during Biskupski’s tenure include online giant Amazon, which built a massive distribution center on the city’s west side. Stadler Rail also opened its first U.S. railcar manufacturing facility in the city’s northwest area.
“The city has a lot of momentum, and I would hope to see the (new department) structure carry forward in the future,” Foxley said. “It shows the business community and residents that the mayor is prioritizing job creation and business development in the city.”
On transportation, Carlton Christensen, chairman of Utah Transit Authority’s board of trustees, said Biskupski’s administration “worked very well” with UTA to enhance transit service, particularly bus routes thanks to new sales tax revenue.
As a former Salt Lake City councilman, Christensen said a sales tax hike had long been eyed to help pass some costs onto city visitors when so many commute to Utah’s capital. He credited Biskupski and the council for pulling the trigger on that tax hike, and using its revenue to help maintain the city’s streets. He also applauded the passage of the city’s first transit plan during Biskupski’s term.
“No mayor in Salt Lake City has ever been without controversy,” Christensen said, touching on Biskupski’s mixed public opinion. On a personal level, Christensen said he’s “always been able to have candid conversations” with Biskupski and he’s appreciative of her public service.
Throughout Biskupski’s administration, conflict between her, the Salt Lake City Council and state leaders often made headlines.
Biskupski came into office after most of the council in 2015 backed incumbent Mayor Ralph Becker — and that divide deepened quickly after Biskupski requested resignation letters of nearly all Salt Lake City department heads as part of her Cabinet selection process and later dismissed several longtime directors, for which some council members worried would lead to a loss of institutional knowledge.
While it was Biskupski’s prerogative to build her own team, it rattled some at City Hall, and those strained City Council relationships never seemed to heal.
Rather, the tension grew, particularly as the council and the mayor clashed over the number of homeless resource centers that would replace the Road Home’s downtown homeless shelter. While the council fought for the shelter to be split into four 150-bed resource centers, Biskupski wanted only two centers in Salt Lake City.
She’d later express regret for “caving” to pressure after former House Speaker Greg Hughes strong-armed a resolution between Biskupski and the City Council. That led to public outrage over the four sites picked behind closed doors and initially coined nonnegotiable before city, county and state leaders decided to scrap two of the sites in exchange for another resource center outside of the city (what is now the South Salt Lake men’s resource center).
The mayor in that 2017 interview with the Deseret News called the day she and the City Council unveiled the four sites “the hardest day of her political career” because she was “announcing something I didn’t support.”
“In all my years in politics, I know that at the end of the day I’m going to be held accountable,” Biskupski said. “And that was a decision I made, I knew I was going to be held accountable for, and I never wanted to make it.”
One of Biskupski’s loudest critics, former Mayor Rocky Anderson (who once endorsed Biskupski but later said he regretted it) has called Biskupski “arrogant and aloof” for the way the homeless sites were handled. The decision — made by both the mayor and the City Council — prompted the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to give city leaders its annual Black Hole Award for selecting the four sites behind closed doors.
Later, Biskupski wouldn’t cave in on another conflict — and she’d be criticized for it.
Utah’s inland port
After state leaders alarmed city officials with the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority, Biskupski walked away from negotiations with Gov. Gary Herbert and other state leaders on changes to the bill, standing firm on her position not to negotiate on legislation she said had been “designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature’s will.”
The council’s chairwoman at the time, now Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall, spearheaded negotiations with state leaders, arguing the city should always have a seat at the negotiating table. She’d later use that as a talking point in her own campaign for mayor, saying “anger is not a strategy” when it comes to working with state leaders — an apparent reference to Biskupski.
Biskupski later filed a lawsuit against the state, challenging the constitutionality of the port authority and claiming “gross state overreach” — a lawsuit that Mendenhall has pledged to continue. The case could set precedent on state reach into local powers.
Biskupski also refused to stand alongside Herbert at a press conference to condemn violent protests related to the inland port authority, calling it a “bait and switch.”
Throughout her term, Biskupski seemed to butt heads in very public ways — and to Burbank, that may be because of Biskupski’s “style” combined with the fact that she simply had many “big issues” to navigate as mayor.
Granted, conflict between the Salt Lake City mayor and council — and state leaders — is natural, but Burbank said Biskupski’s administration saw more than usual.
“Her style is a bit more confrontational,” Burbank said. “There was real conflict, but part of it is also how she chose to handle it as opposed to how another mayor may have handled it.”
For example, Burbank said, Becker tended to handle conflict in a “much more low-key fashion” and more “behind the scenes.”
As for the power struggle between state and city leaders, the issue over the Utah Inland Port Authority was the “classic example,” Burbank said, that seemed to showcase those conflicts on center stage.
But there’s at least one state leader who maintains a good relationship with Biskupski, not taking the conflict over the inland port personally.
Former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said he has “always” had a “very good relationship” with Biskupski, first from her days as a legislator and through her mayoral work on another Olympic bid. Niederhauser said he has a “lot of the respect” for the mayor and how she played a “big part” in Salt Lake City becoming America’s bidding city.
On conflicts with state leaders, Niederhauser said he “understands” Biskupski’s firm stance against the inland port, and he believes she was “very sincere” in her intentions to represent Salt Lake City interests. At the same time, Niederhauser said he believes the “state did what needed to be done, and sometimes that’s just not accepted just because we’re reaching out and stepping on somebody’s jurisdiction.”
“I just saw this as her protecting what her constituency elected her to do,” Niederhauser said. “There have been mayors that have done exactly what she did and taken the positions that she did. And it’s kind of too bad that we couldn’t work better together. But sometimes that’s just the way things shake out in the political realm.”
Niederhauser credited Biskupski for “leading out on some very hard issues,” and perhaps that’s why she’s walking away with mixed public opinions.
“She really deserves some accolades,” he said. “I think she’s done a great job.”
In a response to a request for comment, the governor issued a statement without addressing past conflicts with Biskupski.
“As Mayor Biskupski finishes her term in office, I join with others in thanking her for her service to Salt Lake City and wish her well on all her future endeavors,” Herbert said.
In media interviews, Biskupski has looked back on her administration as one that has tackled big issues and made tough decisions — but also one that faced harsh scrutiny because of her gender.
“For me, female executives in general are judged, but for me as an executive mayor in a capital city, I’m judged pretty harshly,” Biskupski told the Deseret News in a 2017 interview, half way through her term. “And yet, if you look at everything I set out to do, it’s all moving forward.”
Asked whether Biskupski faced harsher criticism because she’s a woman, Cotti said that’s a “tricky” question to answer — though she didn’t rule it out.
Biskupski had to navigate a minefield of many controversial issues, and that likely contributed to her rocky relationships with state and local leaders, as well as mixed public reactions, Cotti said.
“I think a lot of people assume that her harsh critics have focused on those issues, but we shouldn’t discount the fact that gender might be a part of this,” Cotti said. “The fact she’s such a well-known public figure not only as a glass ceiling-breaking female mayor, but also as an LGBTQ mayor might be a part of that.”
But Cotti said it’s difficult to pinpoint specific examples of whether the public was less accepting of Biskupski because of her policy actions or because of her gender, especially in a year that marked many successes for women being elected to public offices in Utah.
“It’s really hard to sift through what might be legitimate criticism and what might be additional bias,” Cotti said. “It’s hard to point to any gender bias that might exist within the city when (voters) elected another female mayor — but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
To Biskupski’s communication’s director, Rojas, the gender bias was obvious. He and his staff saw it on social media feeds when commenters would call Biskupski vulgarities related to her gender and sexuality.
“We’ve seen everything on social media, from very vile comments about the mayor’s sexuality to gendered attacks, things that rise to the level that almost everybody would find to be inappropriate,” Rojas said.
But it’s not just the “vile, vulgar” comments, he said. Commenters would also make “mean-spirited, petty” comments about the mayor’s appearance, such as her characteristic curly hair — comments Rojas said he doesn’t see on feeds for male politicians.
Female mayors are more than twice as likely as male mayors to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence, according to a new study reported by the New York Times. The study, as well as interviews with current and former mayors, show a harsh political climate for many female politicians and how social media helps fuel that fire.
Rojas said social media can obviously be “toxic,” but also said his boss experienced bias in the media and the general public arena because she faced criticism for behavior that may be seen as normal for male politicians.
“There are male politicians that this administration, this mayor, have dealt with who have been loud and pushy and, you know, firm in their convictions. That’s seen as part of their personality and it’s not labeled as difficult,” Rojas said. “They’re not called out as being inappropriate, difficult or combative. ... When that’s thrown at a female politician, it’s almost a way of saying, ‘That’s not acceptable; that’s not the way we expect a woman to behave.’”
Rojas didn’t name any male politicians, but Hughes was among those who clashed with Biskupski publicly, known for his at times brash and boisterous personality.
“It’s fair to critique an elected official on policy, absolutely,” Rojas said. “I think the difference is, if you take it from a place of if a man did this, are they being difficult or combative, or are those things you say about female politicians who stand up for something or a principle?”
Burbank said it’s “entirely possible” Biskupski faced gender bias, but that wasn’t his “take” from his general observations of the mayor’s four years in office. To him, the mixed public reviews of Biskupski’s administration were likely “in part substantive and in part stylistic.”
For example, Burbank pointed to Biskupski’s approach to ask for resignation letters of department heads at the beginning of her term. Though part of a process, it was seen as “very heavy-handed,” he said.
“That’s something perhaps a man could have done and not been criticized in the same way, but in reality I doubt it,” Burbank said.
Williams said “conflict is inevitable” for public officials, especially in an office like Salt Lake City mayor that serves “a public with competing interests.” He said it’s hard to say if Biskupski faced more criticism of her style because of her gender, noting other mayors like Ralph Becker and Deedee Corradini also faced criticism during controversial times.
But Williams said oftentimes personal attacks can be augmented for “trailblazers” like her, especially in “such a polarized age right now, when everybody is attacking everybody on social media and they’ll find any excuse to spew venom, and so that’s just a challenge public servants have in these polarized times.”
“For any minority that breaks through barriers, there is going to be immense criticism from all corners,” Williams said. “We live in an age where misogyny and homophobia are still prevalent in our culture, and it takes courageous people to be able to bear the brunt of that so the next generation of minorities can take their rightful place as full Americans next to us.”