Salt Lake City close to electing 1st openly gay mayor

Jackie Biskupski
Former state lawmaker Jackie Biskupski reacts as results come in at her election night party for Salt Lake City Mayor, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — It may not be official for two weeks, but election results so far indicate Salt Lake City, the capital of conservative Utah, is poised to narrowly elect its first openly gay mayor in what would mark another milestone for an LGBT movement that has made major strides in a state with a long history of hostility to gays and lesbians.

Former state lawmaker Jackie Biskupski is leading two-term incumbent Ralph Becker by 1,450 votes, according to election results released late Tuesday night.

But at least 10,000 ballots county-wide need to be counted in the coming days, including an unknown amount in the mayor’s race, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said. She said a fleet of about 20 members of her staff are sorting ballots this morning with that expectation that the total number of uncounted mayoral votes will be known Wednesday afternoon.

Biskupski spokeswoman Maryann Martindale said they have analyzed the results and don’t foresee any scenario where Becker can make up the deficit. But Martindale said they understand why Becker isn’t conceding and respect the process.

Becker spokesman Matt Lyon said Wednesday that they recognize there’s a lot of ground to make up, but that a comeback is still possible. At his Tuesday night election watch party, Becker acknowledged Biskupski’s lead and congratulated her on a strong race, but he noted the winner was still unclear.

By state law, no more results will be released until the final canvass on Nov. 17.

Despite the uncertainty, many LGBT advocates were already celebrating on Wednesday.

Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said Biskupski’s apparent win shows all LGBT residents in Utah that their sexual orientation isn’t a limitation on serving in public office. State Sen. Jim Dabakis, an openly gay Democrat, called it a historic event that would have been unimaginable to past generations of gays and lesbians in Utah.

If Biskupski wins, it would serve as a statement that Utah is a place where LGBT and non-LGBT people can work together, Martindale said.

“If Utah can do it, anybody can do it,” Martindale said. “This is history in the making.”

The climate has change drastically since 1998 when Biskupski was elected to Utah’s House of Representatives, becoming the state’s first openly gay state lawmaker. At the time, conservative activists urged the House speaker not to swear her in, arguing she likely was breaking the state’s sodomy laws.

“There were several legislators who wouldn’t even look me in the eye — certainly wouldn’t shake my hand,” Biskupski said.

Biskupski represented the area when she served in the Legislature for more than a decade, until 2011. Since then, she has worked in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office.

Salt Lake City voters also appear to have elected the second gay member of the city council. Derek Kitchen, who along with husband Moudi Sbeity were one of three couples who sued to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban, has declared victory in his Salt Lake City Council race. His opponent, community activist Nate Salazar, said Wednesday he isn’t conceding, but he acknowledged it’s unlikely the results will change when final numbers are released on Nov. 17.

The election results are the latest sign of progress made by the gay rights movement in Utah in the last several years.

In December 2013, a federal judge overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban, among the first of a string of similar rulings across the United States that eventually paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare gay marriages legal across the nation.

Earlier this year, a Mormon-backed Utah law passed that provided protections against housing and employment discrimination for LGBT people while also creating shields for religious freedom.

The involvement of leaders from the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marked the latest illustration of a softer tone the religion is striking on LGBT issues. Church leaders now preach a “fairness for all” approach where their right to observer their beliefs are balanced with compassion and understanding for gays and lesbians.

“It speaks highly of the community here and it makes me incredibly proud to be a Salt Lake resident,” said Kitchen, who grew up in a Mormon family in the suburb of South Jordan.

The increasingly welcome environment for LGBT is most pronounced in Salt Lake City, an urban, cultural and liberal island where Democrats not only compete but win races. While the mayoral election is nonpartisan, both Becker and Biskupski are Democrats and either win could maintain a four-decade streak of Democratic mayors.

Becker was also well-liked by the LGBT community. He officiated one of the first gay marriages in December 2013 in the jubilant hours after the ruling when gay and lesbian couples flooded the courthouse to make their unions official. Equality Utah endorsed both Biskupski and Becker.

Becker, 63, who has been in office since 2007, was hoping to become one of only a handful of the city’s mayors to serve a third term.

Tuesday’s election did come with one disappointment for the LGBT community. Sophia Hawes-Tingey, hoping to become Utah’s first openly transgender elected official, is losing in her bid to become a city council member in the Salt Lake City suburb of Midvale. Hawes-Tingey, losing by a 58-42 margin, has not yet conceded.


Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.

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