Running the City: IV

May 31, 2007

Zach Abend

CATALYST reporter Zach Abend wraps up his series of interviews with Salt Lake City mayoral candidates this month as he focuses on the race's three top contenders: Keith Christensen, Jenny Wilson and Ralph Becker.
-by Zach Abend abend_ralph_becker.jpgRalph Becker

After representing District 24 in the Utah House of Representatives for the last 10 years, Ralph Becker wants to come in from the cold. He hopes to be elected mayor of Salt Lake City, where he will have a much greater say in governing Utah's capital city than he does now in directing the course of the legislature.

A 54-year-old Democrat and grandfather, Becker has the lean, athletic frame of a man half his age. Becker isn't just a pretty face though; he has a law degree as well as an M.S. in planning from the University of Utah. Besides being a legislator, he has worked as a planner and is an adjunct instructor at his alma mater.

Environmental issues are important to Becker and he is emphatic about global warming. "Climate change is the most significant issue of our era in looking toward the future," he said. "If we don't address it, our children's lives will be in jeopardy."

When asked about Salt Lake's abysmal air quality, Becker says the automobile is the primary source of air pollution that contributes to smog. However, since we live in the geographic equivalent of a giant bowl, Salt Lake can't solve this problem alone. "We should be working in concert with our neighboring communities and the state to reduce vehicle miles traveled in the valley and the region," he said. To accomplish this, Becker says we need to reduce emissions by creating a more accessible transit system, strengthening our walkable communities, designing safe bike paths and making green buildings the standard in Salt Lake.

Unlike our air quality, Salt Lake's water is some of the best in the country according to Becker. "We have protected our watershed and water supply very well," he said. To preserve this increasingly scarce commodity, conservation efforts will need to focus on water usage for landscaping. "More yards should be converted to native plants that do well in this environment," Becker said. "We live in a desert. We need to move toward a landscape that matches our climate."

On economic issues, Becker says the linchpin is the redevelopment of downtown Salt Lake City by the LDS Church, which will impact all of Salt Lake's economy. "To me, the key to [economic] success in Salt Lake City is for us to finish tying the pieces together downtown," he said.

For Becker, the most important piece in that puzzle is increasing residential development so that more people live downtown. Once there is greater population density, both a cultural district and a circulation system must be developed for downtown. Additionally, city government, the business community, the visitor's convention bureau and the tourism division all need to work together to showcase the city to outsiders with a common approach instead of competing with each other, according to Becker.

Utah has an advantage that few states have, which, if harnessed, can have far-reaching consequences: Almost all of its major political, educational, religious, economic and cultural institutions are located in one city. "We need partnerships with the University of Utah, Westminster College, LDS Business College and other institutions of higher learning and use that to help us build the city and region economically," Becker said. A good example of these kinds of partnerships is the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) economic development initiative.

Nourishing local businesses is another priority for Becker. "We need to look very carefully to helping our small and local businesses," he said. "They are what's unique about our city." In a survey of the Salt Lake City mayoral candidates by the Vest Pocket Business Coalition, Becker said he would investigate the possibility of allowing small businesses owners to buy into the city's health program, and, he would ease the permitting and regulatory burdens carried by local businesses.

Social and economic justice issues are dear to Becker's heart. He spoke about "trying to end discrimination in all segments of our population, including the LGBT community." If elected, Becker would push contractors that work with the city to pay their employees a fair wage and offer them benefits. He is also in favor of raising the minimum wage. "The minimum wage needs to be meaningful, something that people can live within," Becker said.

Becker clearly has progressive bona fides and his fundraising has been competitive to date. He has fairly high name recognition among voters, and he has endorsements from politicians such as State Senators Scott McCoy, Fred Fife and Ross Romero; Utah State Representatives Jackie Biskupski and David Litvack; former State Senators Patrice Arent and Paula Julander; and by Salt Lake City Council members Søren Simonsen and Eric Jergensen. He is also supported by Hatch challenger and XMission founder Pete Ashdown. (See indepth Q/A interviews with candidates on his blog, On the con side, he lacks experience in city government and some say he possesses a sometimes-prickly temperament.

Ralph Becker's website:

Jenny Wilsonabend_jenny_wilson.jpg

Jenny Wilson's candidacy for mayor of Salt Lake City has an air of inevitability. She is an unabashed lefty in a city that likes that in their mayors (she describes herself as a "progressive Democrat, and proud of it"), she enjoys very high name recognition because former mayor Ted Wilson is her father, and, it doesn't hurt that she is smart and photogenic, too.

Wilson, 41, is a Democrat and first-term Salt Lake County Councilwoman At-large. She attended the University of Utah, attaining a bachelor's degree in mass communication, and then Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where she received a master's in public administration. Interspersed with her schooling, Wilson worked in Washington D.C. for various national organizations and elected officials, returning to Utah to work on the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Wilson says she would be neighborhood-focused, providing essential services efficiently and with the greatest possible tax savings to citizens. On a more philosophical level, she would seek to ensure that Salt Lake maximizes its potential as a progressive city.

A good example of how Salt Lake has made a commitment to progressive values is by recycling. According to Wilson, "Recycling loses money. So we are making a long term value decision [to decide to do it anyway]." There is room for progress though. "The better we are at expanding recycling services to everyone, the more benefits we will see," Wilson said.

Similarly, by reducing water use we are making an investment in our future here in the desert. According to Wilson, we have made progress in conserving water but can improve on that. "I like changing our idea of what's beautiful," she said. "We should have landscapes that reflect our native vegetation." Wilson supports rate structuring that would charge more for water use that goes beyond what is reasonable.

Wilson is a proponent of paying a living wage to all city employees. "It's an absolute failure and weakness when we have people working who can't make it," she said. "We need to have better social safety nets for people who are willing to work," which would include providing adequate child care for working parents. Wilson acknowledges that Utah is not a standard bearer when it comes to helping the needy. "It's a hard battle because we are in a conservative state," she said.

Treating people graciously is something Wilson feels strongly about and was exposed to by her father. "What I respect about my father most is that he was so good at dealing with people," she said. "He was always respectful. I would adopt that approach." She would cultivate good relationships with members of the city council as well as city employees.

The redevelopment of downtown by the LDS Church will help the economy grow, but it's still missing an arts and culture district, according to Wilson. "We need a master plan to fit the arts into the development downtown," she said. Other things that will help the economy is increasing the amount of hotel space and housing downtown.

According to Wilson's responses to a survey of the Salt Lake City mayoral candidates by the Vest Pocket Business Coalition, the ever-increasing number of big-box stores in Salt Lake, which municipalities want for the revenue they generate, disturbs her. "When you have a single company with that much volume, you are really changing the equation," she said. "I think we need to be migrating back, for the sake of the heart and soul of our small businesses, to better support for local business."

That support would translate into easing the permitting process and increasing start-up support for small businesses, safeguarding the character of Sugar House and bringing mass transit to the area, encouraging walkable communities, and vastly boosting development for the west side. Wilson would also be careful to create redevelopment agencies only when they actually spur development and not in instances where they would enrich developers who would build anyway.

Wilson's membership in a political dynasty gives her very high name recognition, which is political gold. In addition, she is gracious, has progressive politics, has been competitive in her fundraising and has endorsements by Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and fellow council members Hatch and Horiuchi. Notwithstanding her limited experience in city government, the race is hers to lose.

Jenny Wilson's website: index.php

abend_keith_christensen.jpgKeith Christensen

Keith Christensen describes himself as a "socially progressive, moderate Republican," and touts his years of experience in the corporate world as the reason to elect him mayor of Salt Lake City. "I know how to read a legal document and do a business deal," he said. "I have been in business all my life."

A 56-year-old entrepreneur and former city councilman for District 7, Christensen has a B.S. in management and finance from Brigham Young University and a law degree from the University of Puget Sound Law School (now owned by Seattle University). He left the legal field in 1988, after practicing law for 10 years, and helped start Wind River Petroleum (gas stations and convenience stores), Christensen Industries (airplane parts), and also began dabbling in real estate development. He is active in all three areas today.

If elected, Christensen said he would invite mayors from along the Wasatch Front to his home to speak about issues their cities have in common: education, the environment, crime and economic development. "Education doesn't know city boundaries, nor does pollution, nor does crime," he said.

Notwithstanding his regional focus, generating economic development will require concentrating on local businesses here in Salt Lake. "Locally owned businesses are the lifeblood of the community," Christensen said. "When there is a recession, locally owned businesses survive. It's the big companies that lay off people indiscriminately."

In a survey of the Salt Lake City mayoral candidates by the Vest Pocket Business Coalition, Christensen said he would make sure small businesses are not overwhelmed by the taxes and fees they pay the city. He also said that more parking is needed to ensure access to downtown businesses, incentives used to lure big-box stores must be ended, and "local businesses should have the advantage in bidding on city contracts."

Christensen would continue lending money to small businesses, provided they are viable. "It's a delicate art," Christensen explained. "I will not favor lending money to small businesses if they have never done business before and don't have a sustainable business plan."

Another way to spur the economy is through tax cuts, says Christensen. If we can increase our business base, we can cut taxes on individuals and businesses. "Utah in general is one of the higher taxed states in the nation," he said. "If we can reduce taxes on businesses, they in turn hopefully pay their employees more."

On November 14, 2006, Mayor Rocky Anderson formally endorsed Christensen's candidacy. In his endorsement, Anderson said that Christensen "is the only candidate for mayor with the legal training and business experience so vital in performing the work of a mayor." Christensen is quick to say that by electing him voters would not be getting a Rocky clone. "Keith Christensen is his own individual," he said. "You would not be getting Rocky III. I think difference is good."

Indeed there are differences. While on the city council, Christensen voted to rescind an ordinance that would have outlawed discrimination against city employees based on sexual orientation and also voted to allow the Salt Lake Police Department to enforce immigration laws. Christensen, however, is on the record, repeatedly, as saying both votes were mistakes and that if given the chance he would vote differently. He currently espouses positions on social and environmental issues that are very similar to the Democrats in this race. He says he is for ending our infatuation with gas guzzlers ("We must reduce emissions and focus on cleaner fuel alternatives"), for enhancing public transportation ("Mass transit is so clearly good"), for water conservation ("After all, we live in a desert"), for raising the minimum wage ("The minimum wage is so far below reason") and for buying locally ("If I had a choice, every store that ends in 'mart' would go away").

Christensen has many people convinced. Besides the mayor's support, he raised well over a quarter million dollars by the middle of February. No other candidate has come even close to matching that.

Christensen's strongest support has come from the business community. Several individuals from companies that are decidedly national in scope have signed onto Christensen's steering committee (as detailed in the April 27, 2007, "Friday Buzz" by LaVarr Webb & Associates), including Brad Baldwin, formerly of Bank One (now part of Chase); Byron Barkley, of Wilson-Davis & Co.; and Ascencion Vera, of JP Morgan Chase. Also supporting Christensen is Stan Parrish, a former state GOP chair, and Stephen Goldsmith, a former Salt Lake City planning director.

As Christensen conceptualizes it, the mayor's job is not to advance a partisan agenda. "The job is administrative," he explained. "It's about making certain that the management of the city is effective. I will review every department in the city with an eye to best practices."

Christensen is sitting on the mountain of cash he has raised so far, which by itself makes him very formidable. Add to this his endorsement by Rocky Anderson, his business connections and his charm, and you have a potent candidacy. On the con side, he is perceived as changing his political beliefs whenever it suits him (a la Mitt Romney), and certain voters will hold his business connections and his party affiliation (Republican) against him.

Keith Christensen's website: