Bob Bernick’s Notebook: The Painful Campaign Ahead

Wow, much to my surprise Jackie Biskupski tuned up Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker in this week’s mayoral primary election.

I thought Biskupski might win, but my money was on Becker to rally these past few weeks and top her in the primary.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Salt Lake County Clerk’s tally (unofficial, and there are still mail-in ballots to be counted) has Biskupski at 12,933 votes, or 46.19 percent, and Becker at 8,606 votes, or 30.74 percent.

Three other candidates got fewer votes and were eliminated.

Jackie and Ralph now face each other in the Nov. 4 final election – which also will be mail-in ballots for most voters.

Becker seeks a third, four-year term.

Only a few mayors in city history have gone for three terms and won – the last was Ted Wilson who won his first term under the old city commission form of government in 1975, and then won two re-elections under today’s strong mayor/city council form of government.

As UtahPolicy readers know, city elections are officially nonpartisan.

But everyone knows the major candidates political party affiliations – and city voters haven’t picked a GOP mayor since Jake Garn way back in the early 1970s.

Both Becker and Biskupski are Democrats, both serving in the Utah House in the minority party.

Nine months ago, when Becker let it be known he would run again, most so-called experts (am I in that category?) thought he might get a race, but would likely coast to victory.

Becker has governed, mostly, as a nonpartisan guy. And he has always been a bit tone-deaf to politics, or playing to the crowd.

So some considered him a bit vulnerable.

Then late last year he got in a real jam over a sexual harassment suit in the city police department.

Then-Chief Chris Burbank, much liked in the city, mishandled the incident.

Burbank let a deputy chief who had clearly misbehaved toward at least three female police officers go on paid leave for five months and then, reaching his 20-years, retire with full benefits.

Now, Becker had instructed the chief to demote the deputy chief first. And Burbank didn’t do it.

So Becker, now being criticized by women from various quarters (and some men, too), tried to clean up the mess.

But, boy, did he blunder (as a UtahPolicy poll later demonstrated).

Becker called Burbank in and told him to sign a letter taking all blame for the incident, clearing Becker of any blame, and said sign it or, resign, or I’ll fire you.

Burbank resigned and made the letter public.

Ouch!

Then just this week a GOP-controlled special legislative committee recommended that Salt Lake City get the new state prison. It was looking like the city might get screwed on this one, and Biskupski was saying (with no firm evidence for it) that Becker encouraged the 2015 Legislature to pass a bill (which it did) giving the ultimate new prison home government the ability to raise the local option sales tax by 0.5 percent to offset costs associated with having the new prison in their jurisdiction.

Becker denied the accusation and has spoken against the prison, even threatening a lawsuit.

And then – BAM! – Biskupski hands Becker his lunch in the primary.

This is not the end for Becker, however.

He has 12 weeks and more than $400,000 in his campaign account to close on Biskupski – who was the first openly gay member of the Legislature and would be the first openly gay Salt Lake City mayor.

Perhaps one reason Becker sent out a mailer (that I got at my home) showing him standing with his (female) wife.

Anyway, let’s take a look back at a previous Becker mayoral race and see what could be.

I take Becker’s first election in 2007, because he didn’t have much of a challenge in 2011 and won easily then.

Eight years ago Democrat Becker found himself in the final election with Republican Dave Buhler, who had run for mayor before and been a GOP state senator from Salt Lake City – so was kind of known to voters.

Becker won with 63 percent of the vote or 27,556 votes.

Buhler had 36 percent of the vote, with 15,524 votes.

One can assume that Becker got the Democratic votes, much of the independent vote, while Buhler got most of the Republican vote.

So, since Biskupski is likely to get the liberal vote in November’s final, Becker has to scratch out enough votes from moderate Democrats, many independents and the city’s moderate-to-conservative Republicans.

Becker can’t afford to ignore the Republicans, who are a minority in the city – best reflected by the fact that ALL state House and Senate districts in the city are held by Democrats.

The final this year could get a bit nasty.

But it will be interesting.

How will Becker craft his message – good, reliable, responsible leadership, not a flashy guy, but one who goes with the times (gender equality is a significant issue among many city residents).

I’d run some ads showing Becker marrying gay couples in December 2013 right after a federal judge struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban.

I’d be touting all Becker has done for the environment – not just his mayoral career, but his legislative one as well.

I’d talk about Becker’s previous business as a land-use, environmental consultant, and all the plans he put together helping save lands, etc., etc.

Biskupski certainly has her strong points, as well.

But she probably needs to move a bit more to the middle politically.

She has to convince folks who didn’t cast a primary ballot that she would be a moderate-to-liberal mayor, stand up for good management of city resources, someone who can bring people together and not alienate all those Republicans officeholders at the state who could damage the city if they wished.

We’ve had a liberal wild-eyed mayor before – Rocky Anderson – and while he was popular (for the most part) within the city, boy, did outside Republicans dislike him (which Rocky liked.)

If I were Ralph, I’d try to find some way (he has to be careful here) to say: Wow, would it be good to have a lesbian mayor in the home city of the LDS Church?

That might bring many Mormon/Republican residents out to vote – considering the Church’s stand on same-sex marriage.

But it could backfire if moderates and non-Mormons see that as heavy-handed and playing the religion card.

And what if Church leaders, before the November election, say they are dumping their large Boy Scout program because the national scouting organization recently said gay men can be scout leaders?

How is that going to play in the city elections?

Neither Becker nor Biskupski are LDS. But we’ve had non-LDS mayors before and they’ve gotten along with Church leaders.

Becker has, too.

And Biskupski may want to campaign on how she gets along with different folks, as well.

Finally, how much campaigning (negative, I’d guess) will pro-Biskupski/anti-Becker independent groups undertake?

Reagan Outdoor Advertising has already put up billboards favoring Biskupski (and Becker’s other primary opponents, who are gone now).

Will they now step out into direct mail, or even radio and TV ads?

In the-late Deedee Corradini’s re-election campaign she, too, finished second in the primary. But she rallied and beat her opponent in the final election.

If Becker can get 27,000 or 28,000 votes again, like in 2007, he has a shot. He’ll likely spend half a million dollars trying

Can he do it?

Or will Biskupski keep her momentum and knock him out?

The next 12 weeks will be interesting, and perhaps a bit painful, to watch.