Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Becker is in Trouble, But There’s Still Time

Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker is not going to coast to a third-term re-election this year.

And he could place second in the Aug. 11 primary.

All this is no doubt troublesome to Becker – who has won two four-year terms rather easily and generally been a popular mayor.

But a new UtahPolicy poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates shows Becker neck and neck with his closest challenger, former state Rep. Jackie Biskupski.

Among all registered voters, Becker leads Biskupski 27-24 percent with 36 percent saying they don’t know who they will vote for.

That’s a high undecided for being so close to an election.

The other candidates are in single digits and really have no hope of finishing in the top two in the primary.

The poll of just over 400 voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.88 percent.

So the Becker/Biskupski race is within the margin of error.

But there’s more.

Among those who told Jones they are most likely to vote, Biskupski leads Becker 28-27 percent, with 31 percent undecided.

Voting has actually already begun, with mail-in ballots hitting homes last week.

The primary election is Aug. 11. And there will be four locations where people can actually go to vote or drop off their mail-in ballots that day.

But clearly more than 90 percent of voters will likely fill out a ballot in their office or home and mail it in. Ballots must be postmarked by Aug. 10.

This is the first all-mail-in election in the city’s history.

And that alone may well determine who wins the primary.

But even if Becker comes in second to Biskupski, it seems clear from Jones’ new poll that those two will advance to November’s final election.

It will then be a battle of two rather well-known Democratic candidates.

The new poll shows a number of interesting trends.

Primarily, Becker’s attempt to shield himself from criticism over a city police department sexual harassment case backfired.

Big time.

UPD is told by several sources that Becker and his political advisors (looking at their own poll numbers) believed the mayor was vulnerable over the sexual harassment blunder.

Then-Police Chief Chris Burbank, who had come up through the ranks and was well-liked in the city, allowed a top deputy to take five months off in paid leave and retire after two separate investigations showed the man had sexually harassed three female officers.

After the three women publically notified the city they were going to sue – and the issue blew up this spring in the mayor’s race – Becker called Burbank in, told him he had to sign an apology letter that would be made public, take the blame, or resign. (Becker had ordered Burbank to demote the accused top cop, but the chief didn’t do it.)

Burbank resigned; and then sued the city over disputed sick leave pay.

The new poll shows that among all voters the Burbank blow up makes 41 percent less likely to vote for Becker.

Forty-eight percent said the Burbank stuff makes no difference in whom they will vote for.

And 11 percent said Becker’s handling of the affair makes them more likely to vote for him.

That means Biskupski can target those 41 percent who don’t like how Becker handled Burbank and try to get their votes.

Watch for some late-minute advertising or press conferences on Burbank/Becker before Election Day.

Will Burbank stand next to Biskupski and call for Becker’s defeat?

We’ll see.

But there is also good news for Becker in deep inside the new poll’s demographic numbers.

Jones finds that among city Republicans, 53 percent are undecided in the mayor’s race.

Wow, that’s a big number.

Of course, Salt Lake City Republicans usually feel a bit disenfranchised in city elections – which even though they are nonpartisan, voters always know the political leanings of the major candidates.

Salt Lake City is a Democratic stronghold in very Republican Utah.

In years gone by, a good, moderate Republican has run for mayor and historically there are enough GOP votes to get that person through the primary into the general.

But ever since the early 1970s any Republican in the general election has been squashed by the Democrat.

There is no well-known, well-funded Republican in the primary this year.

And Jones’ survey shows Becker and Biskupski are clearly favored to move on after Aug.11.

Where are the Republican voters to go?

Right now Becker is only getting 19 percent of the GOP vote, Jones finds.

But Biskupski gets only 9 percent.

And 53 percent are undecided.

In past elections, where most people voted at the polls on Election Day, Becker (or the more moderate Democrat) couldn’t really count on undecided GOP voters getting off their couches or out of their offices to cast a ballot.

But the all-mail-in primary this year changes the dynamic.

Ballots went out to every registered voter, and Republicans traditionally own houses or condos, don’t change addresses often and are good little citizens, who would update their voter information with the Salt Lake County Clerk if they did move – so ballots should be getting to most city Republicans.

Sitting around their kitchen table, Republicans (who usually vote in general elections and are almost always registered), may decide Becker is the lesser of evils – mark their ballot for him and drop it in the mailbox.

Remember, Biskupski was the first openly-gay member of the Legislature. While she seeks votes from all city dwellers, she has made a play for support in the LGBT community, which only makes political sense.

And while Becker is clearly hurting from the Burbank affair, just in the last few days UtahPolicy Managing Editor Bryan Schott has broken several stories that could harm Biskupski – a large billboard firm putting up signs on her behalf and perhaps skirting city financial reporting intentions, and a support-Jackie PAC also finding ways around city campaign donation limits.

Biskupski did nothing illegal in these two instances.

But she also doesn’t look good to voters in both cases. (Jones was already in the field when these two stories broke and he couldn’t include questions about them in the new poll.)

Finally, while Biskupski has outraised Becker over the last reporting period, he still has four times as much cash as she has.

Incumbency is a powerful political tool.

Back in the 1990s, the late Mayor DeeDee Corradini was seeking a second term. She had some political issues of her own, and she actually finished second in the primary.

But she rallied and won re-election rather easily.

Becker – while certainly a competent manager – has shown himself politically tone deaf in some of his decisions.

The Burbank affair the latest example – where he believed he had to act, did, and came off even worse by it.

My money is still on Ralph Becker winning a third term, even with his stumbles as he approaches the primary election.

It’s an embarrassment to Becker if he finishes second to Biskupski Aug. 11.

But with his campaign cash Becker could rebound for the general.

Although the final election could still be a barn-burner, and very close in November.

UtahPolicy will be watching it with you – and Jones conducting more polling down the road.