The primary elections are long over and the few remaining races that promise any excitement won’t get rolling until after Labor Day. So in this lull, politicos are filling the void with early ruminations about the next big election — the 2015 Salt Lake City mayoral race. We review the questions surrounding the inscrutable Mayor Ralph Becker.
How likely is Mayor Becker to run for re-election and succeed?
Pignanelli: "This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” — Plato When discussing local politics, I never fail to shock listeners by referring to Utah’s capital as “Berkeley East.” Salt Lake City residents want their elected officials to be more than just administrators or lawmakers; they are expected to represent certain issues and make statements that differ from the surrounding culture.
Becker’s policies and lifestyle reflect the core issues of his constituents. This committed environmentalist walks or bikes to work every day. He champions traditional Democratic causes of civil rights and healthcare. He is a non-Mormon but respectful of LDS members. Becker avoids personal attacks against Republicans and is well-liked at the Legislature. Although city bureaucracy can be cumbersome, his administration pushes economic development within sustainable parameters. He is deferential to the two most powerful organizations in the city — Equality Utah and the LDS Church (respectively). Becker embodies what the city wants in their executive.
If Becker wants a third term, he gets it with a big margin.
Yet, many politicians are considering a run. Councilmember Luke Garrett and former lawmaker Jackie Biskupski may challenge Becker. Should Becker step aside, other potential candidates include State Sen. Luz Robles, former State Sen. Ross Romero, councilmember Stan Penfold, former Councilwoman Jill Remington and State Sen. Jim Dabakis.
Webb: I’m one of the few Downtown Risers who is a Republican. I live in the heart of downtown, and I actually enjoy it. Since no Republican is going to win the mayorship in my lifetime (Salt Lake City is among the country’s most liberal cities), we need a “good Democrat” as mayor and Becker is that guy. Experience tells us we could do a lot worse.
Becker has been a good, workmanlike mayor — certainly not flashy, but very earnest. His liberal ideology is appropriately pragmatic, which allows him to get along reasonably well with the state’s Republican establishment. He focuses on the city but works well with his neighbors.
The city administration has been plagued with parking system problems, a cumbersome development process, funding of the Broadway-style theater and other issues. Do these hurt Becker and provide a launching pad for possible opponents?
Pignanelli: Last year Becker and I were seated together at a dinner function. After some wine, my brain and mouth were well lubricated and I dumped on the mayor all my complaints regarding bicyclists, parking, bureaucratic entanglements, etc. He was a good sport because he knew I will work for his re-election (as will other chronic complainers). I expressed upon our amicable departure, "If parking is the biggest issue to plague your administration, you've done a great job." Becker has accumulated some grumps after eight years but will be judged by his steady hand to ensure a revitalization of the city. Only Becker's refusal to run prevents a victory.
Webb: Salt Lake City is competently managed and enjoys a good national reputation. In fact, it’s on something of a roll with the new City Creek shopping center racking up big sales, a new streetcar line to Sugarhouse and lots of new housing development downtown. Downtown is feeling busier and more vibrant, and big projects like the large theater and a new convention hotel are underway.
The city has some great neighborhoods, good arts and culture and, I’m told, reasonably good nightlife (you’d have to ask Frank about that). Most of its liberal citizens (me excepted) don’t mind paying high taxes.
There are still scary places to walk at night. Homelessness, panhandling and mental illness remain big problems, despite good efforts by the city. But big cities will never entirely escape big city problems. Crowds, diversity, a little disarray, eyebrow-raising sights, and sirens at night are all part of the charm. It isn’t exactly the city that never sleeps, but when it wakes up, it gets the job done.
Becker opponents can grumble, but it will be hard for them to get traction.
Does Becker have a political future beyond city hall?
Pignanelli: Becker is unlikely to seek statewide office. However, in 2015 Becker will serve as president of the National League of Cities. In this high-profile position, his accomplishments will garner attention. Thus, Becker will be a contender for a presidential appointment.
Webb: He could reappear in the state Legislature in a Salt Lake City district, and he’d have a reasonable shot at county mayor. But he won’t be elected to Congress or a statewide office unless Republicans nominate a really bad candidate against him.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com