If Jackie Biskupski is successful in her bid to become the next mayor of Salt Lake City, an out lesbian will lead the city at the heart of the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Ahead of the non-partisan mayoral election of Nov. 3, Biskupski acknowledged in a phone interview with the Washington Blade the symbolic importance of her bid.
“We are in the capital city of the Mormon Church,” Biskupski said. “They were really behind Prop 8 in California. They were one of the bigger advocates for pushing Prop 8 and getting it passed in California. For our community, we’ve been really diligently working to overcome Prop 8 and our own ban on marriage [equality] here.”
A single mother, Biskupski has a child named Archie whom she’s been raising since she picked him up in the hospital when he was born in 2009. She formally adopted him in 2010.
Biskupski said she sought to challenge incumbent Mayor Ralph Becker because she felt key issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, drug trafficking and the high number of homeless people were “spiraling out of control” on his watch.
“The mayor was very focused on a federal appointment by the Obama administration that essentially turned the city over to his chief of staff,” she said. “That’s not who we voted for and certainly the mayor was not managing things well. That’s why I got in.”
As part of her vision for continuing to move Salt Lake City “in a very progressive direction,” Bikupski said she’ll focus on economic development. Additionally, she’s seeking improved administration of the city’s homeless shelter and streamlining processes for zoning and information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
The campaign isn’t Biskupski’s first foray into the political arena. From 1999 to 2011, she represented the 30th district in the Utah State House, which comprises parts of Sugar House, Central Salt Lake and South Salt Lake, as the first openly gay person in the Utah Legislature.
During her time in the state legislature, Biskupski said she took the lead in attempting to beat back anti-LGBT legislation. Among them were measures against same-sex marriage, although such efforts were ultimately successful.
At the time, Biskupski said she was able to incorporate language on the record to demonstrate the discriminatory intent of the laws, which she said enabled courts to overturn them.
“There were very strategic questions that I was asking, or gave to other people to get up and ask, to make sure we got specific things on record,” Biskupski said. “And then, those things were used later on in these court battles to help win marriage equality.”
Following the passage of LGBT non-discrimination legislation in the state for employment and housing, Biskupski said she’d like to see that measure expanded to include public accommodations and Salt Lake City should lead the way with an ordinance to that effect.
“For this community, now what it’s about is public accommodations and this kind of new uprising of religious freedom and being able to stand behind religious freedom to discriminate,” Biskupski said. “I want to make sure that our city doesn’t fall into a situation where we are kind of not being pro-active in making sure religious freedom is not used to discriminate in our city.”
Biskupski isn’t a Mormon, but said she has worked with the LDS Church and spoken with officials about “if they were going to try to run interference and my ability to be a candidate in this race.”
When she first ran for office as out lesbian in the 1990s, Biskupski said Mormons were speaking out in church about her candidacy, but said now the situation has changed.
“The relationship is evolving quite nicely, I think, and I’ve been very appreciative of their open door to me and they’ve been very appreciative of my very blatant question process,” she said.
An LDS spokesperson referred a question on Bikupski’s candidacy to the Mormon policy on political neutrality, which says the church is neutral on matters of politics in all nations where it is established.
Although she’s challenging an incumbent, Biskupski appears to be in a strong position. In the primary election on Aug. 11, she was the top vote-getter, snagging 46.2 percent of the vote compared to Mayor Ralph Becker, who won 30.7 percent.
Biskupski is challenging an incumbent with a pro-LGBT reputation. After the district court overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2013, Becker married couples in Salt Lake City and penned an op-ed for the Salt Lake Tribune embracing the ruling.
“Those four hours, before the office closed and marriages could be performed, were a highlight of my years of public service,” Becker wrote. “It was thrilling. And more than anything, I don’t think I stopped crying for four straight hours.”
But Biskupski dismissed Becker’s efforts in the marriage lawsuit as minimal, saying he took no direct role in the litigation. As for her role, Biskupski said she performed 15 marriages in an eight-hour window.
“The mayor didn’t play a role at all in our ability to obtain marriage equality, but it was a great gesture on his part to show up and marry people,” Biskupski said. “I was there, he was there, Jim Dabakis was there. There were a lot of us who showed up to make sure as many people as possible could get married.”
Aisha Moodie-Mills, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, touted Biskupski’s experience in explaining the organization’s endorsement of her bid to become the next Salt Lake City mayor.
“Jackie Biskupski is a qualified leader with a demonstrated track record for improving the lives of Salt Lake City’s citizens over the past 15 years,” Moodie-Mills said. “Victory is proud to endorse a candidate who has made waves as the first openly LGBT person elected to public office in Utah. Jackie will continue to dedicate herself as the mayor of Salt Lake City.”