Democrats across the country celebrated the November 2015 election of Mayor Jackie Biskupski, hailing it as an unlikely breakthrough for “equality” in the capital of conservative Utah. But her controversial approach to addressing the city’s homeless problem has taken the shine off her historic win and caused some to question whether activists like Biskupski can actually govern on the basis of the progressive policy proposals and campaign promises that win votes in liberal enclaves like Salt Lake.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski keeps a photo in her office of Martin Luther King Jr., standing deep in thought under a portrait of Gandhi. “I’ve been working on behalf of oppressed groups my whole political career,” Biskupski says.
To many who elected her, Biskupski symbolizes equality: She’s the first lesbian mayor of Salt Lake City, the capital of deep-red Utah, and her November 2015 election made headlines in both The Guardian and People. She’s fought for gay rights in her Mormon-dominated state since 1998, when she was the first openly gay politician elected to the state legislature. She was sworn in as mayor with her fiancée, now wife, by her side.
“We have a city that was becoming more and more segregated,” Biskupski says. Her platform included promises to tackle homelessness and affordable housing and be the mayor “for all people.” In progressive Salt Lake City, Hillary Clinton outpolled Donald Trump 66 percent to 16 percent and residents chafe at the state’s Mormon-influenced conservative politics. Biskupski’s identity and activist reputation helped her beat incumbent Ralph Becker, a two-term fellow Democrat, 52 percent to 48 percent. “I think there was this mood of, ‘We’ll show the state, we’ll show the Mormon church, we’ll elect an out lesbian!’” says Stan Penfold, the city council chairman. Penfold, who is also gay, endorsed Becker.
But the goodwill from her historic victory evaporated quickly. Biskupski has struggled to make good on a campaign promise to deal with the city’s burgeoning homeless population. She has run afoul of voters who accuse her of stabbing them in the back, the top county official has second-guessed her decisions, and the council, including Penfold, has feuded with her and pressured her to act on affordable housing.
In Salt Lake City, like other American cities, winning election as a liberal is relatively easy. It’s governing as a one that’s hard. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio swept into office in 2013 with a landslide 73 percent of the vote. But the towering de Blasio has been brought low by political stumbles, in particular over homelessness, an issue he calls his “No. 1 frustration.” He increased spending on homeless services by 60 percent, then stopped new shelter construction for eight months in 2015 due to neighborhood opposition. Now, New York’s homeless population is growing, and DeBlasio’s potential challengers in this year’s mayoral election are seizing on the issue.
If Biskupski doesn’t already feel the same pressures, she probably will soon. She’s learning that her identity helped her deliver a message about the need for hard change, but it isn’t much help when it comes to persuading voters to put those policies into action.