Bob Bernick’s notebook: Biskupski’s tone deafness could be her political undoing

An interesting display this week of public pique.

House Speaker Greg Hughes on Monday called out Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski for not using her administrative authority to temporarily close about a third of Rio Grande Street in front of several homeless providers’ buildings so the area could become a “safe space” for those troubled souls.

Biskupski, much battered over how she handled her recommendations on locating three new city homeless centers, refused to budge until Thursday night, saying a public process would take place before the City Council votes on closing the street Sept. 19.

After days of bad press, Biskupski met with Hughes and agreed Thursday night to close the street now.

But there can’t be a lease signed with the state until later this month – so the “safe space” still must wait.

It remains to be seen whether a three- or four-week delay in setting up the space will have the deleterious effect on fighting the homeless crisis that Hughes and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox lament.

It might. It might not.

Hughes said, before the Thursday night breakthrough, that every day that Biskupski stalls, he would speak publicly about her inaction.

Since taking office January 2016, the first-term mayor has made a number of public relations missteps, this week’s just the latest.

From purely a political view, one has to wonder who she is listening to, whether she’s getting poor advice and taking it, or if some of those around her, like Deputy Chief of Staff Dave Litvack, are promoting sound actions, but being ignored, overruled.

Biskupski is a former Democratic Utah House member, and while there she did bump heads with GOP leaders on a number of subjects.

She got a reputation for being prickly, although always standing up to the conservatives over her liberal values.

She has half a dozen current and former Democratic House members on her staff – in various levels of her administration or employed by the city – including Litvack, who as House minority leader got along well with the Republican majority.

Those Democrats include Reps. Sandra Hollins, the minority caucus manager, and Angela Romero, the assistant minority whip, both D-Salt Lake.

The homeless issue hits both of their west side Salt Lake City districts hard.

One would think they would be pushing their city boss on getting along with Hughes and Cox et al.

Perhaps the mayor is getting tired of seeing Hughes – and now Cox – leading the “Operation Rio Grande” press conferences.

Maybe she’s being told she is appearing weak for letting state conservative Republicans dictate to her what her city is doing for the homeless.

Could state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, a close friend, be whispering in her ear that she has to stand up to the Republicans – something Dabakis loves to do himself.

But here are some facts:

— It is Biskupski and her administration’s responsibility to solve the homeless/crime issue. This is taking place on her watch. And she hasn’t dealt well with it on her own up to now.

— Hughes, R-Draper, has led out on the city’s homeless crisis for nearly two years – putting some big state taxpayer bucks behind his talk.

This is not a winning political issue for a conservative Republican from Draper.

Some may say he’s using this to set up a gubernatorial run in 2020. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense – homelessness historically is not a GOP-nomination-winning issue.

It is an urban Democratic problem, both in Salt Lake and across the nation.

Hughes has gotten his GOP House caucus behind him, and allocated tens of millions of dollars to the homeless battle.

He has brought along not only GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, but Salt Lake County Democratic Mayor Ben McAdams, as well.

McAdams, I’m told, this spring, as “Operation Rio Grande” was devised, was given the job of hand-holding Biskupski, talking her down as she saw GOP political boogeymen.

— The state is putting up most of the money to fight the homeless crisis, including most of the funding to build new shelters in the city and county with an eye toward shutting down The Road Home in June 2019.

— On “Operation Rio Grande” alone, the city is being asked to contribute $9.9 million in a $67 million budget – or $1 for every $5.70 match it gets toward the problem.

When you pay the piper, you get to name the tune.

Biskupski may not like parts of the GOP-driven homeless song.

But while she may have tried to deal with the Rio Grande homeless issue on her own previously, clearly she failed.

Now state Republicans, along with the moderate McAdams and the GOP-controlled County Council, are willing to step up to the plate.

It is just odd, and a real political blunder, for Biskupski to thwart, in any way, this effort.

Two years from now she will be in the midst of her anticipated re-election campaign (will Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke be challenging her?).

She could be running on a successful city homeless effort (even if state Republicans are driving that bus.)

Or she could be seeing more crime, murders, drug-dealing on the Rio Grande.

Her attitude this week shows once again that the mayor is often politically tone deaf.

And isn’t that what came back to bite former Mayor Ralph Becker, when she defeated him in 2015?