SALT LAKE CITY – Former Utah lawmaker Jackie Biskupski on Tuesday became the first openly gay mayor of Salt Lake City, the capital of the conservative state where the Mormon church and a small town judge delivered setbacks last week to the LGBT community.
Official election results show Biskupski won 52 per cent of the votes to defeat two-term incumbent Ralph Becker.
The victory by Biskupski marked a milestone for LGBT people in Utah who have made major strides in recent years.
“Today is not just about making history,” Biskupski said. “It is about people. It is about affecting change.”
Her supporters cheered when the results were read at an elections canvass meeting. Becker showed no reaction and later congratulated Biskupski, and vowing to work with her to ensure a smooth transition.
“Serving as mayor of Salt Lake City has been the richest working experience of my life,” Becker told reporters. “It has been an unparalleled privilege and honour to serve in this role for eight years.”
Biskupski takes over after progress on gay rights was temporarily marred in recent weeks when a judge ordered a foster child to be removed from a lesbian couple and placed with a heterosexual couple. The judge cited the child’s wellbeing as the reason for his order.
The ruling set off a firestorm around the state and nation. The judge quickly reversed his decision and took himself off the case.
Days earlier, the Salt Lake City-based Mormon church issued new rules targeting gay members and their children, prompting widespread backlash. The new policy bans baptisms for children of gay parents until the kids turn 18 and disavow same-sex relationships.
Biskupski is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and said she hopes the faith reconsiders the policy. She said one of her goals as mayor is to meet with church leaders and discuss the new rules.
Biskupski, who became Utah’s first openly gay lawmaker in 1998, declined to discuss the church’s policy further Tuesday, saying she wanted to meet with Mormon officials first.
Earlier this year, the church endorsed a statewide anti-discrimination law that protected gay and transgender people from discrimination in housing and the workplace. It’s a contrast from 1998, when some of Biskupski’s colleagues in the heavily Mormon and conservative Legislature wouldn’t shake her hand.
When asked about her win in light of last week’s controversies, Biskupski said, “It’s 2015, and we’ve come a long way from, gosh, when I first got elected.”
Regarding the foster child case, Biskupski said she was proud of Utah’s Republican governor for criticizing the judge’s actions, which she called “so old and rhetorical.”
LGBT issues didn’t define the tight race between Biskupski and Becker.
Salt Lake City is a liberal island in the state where no Republican has been elected mayor in four decades. Gay rights group Equality Utah endorsed both Becker and Biskupski.
Becker has been called an ally of the LGBT community, helping pass a 2009 city anti-discrimination ordinance. He also officiated dozens of the first gay marriages in 2013 in the hours after a surprising ruling overturned Utah’s same sex marriage ban.
Becker, 63, was hoping to win a third term as mayor but came out of election night 1,450 votes behind Biskupski. With just 5,000 votes left to be counted in recent days, Becker did not concede.
Salt Lake City voters also elected Derek Kitchen, who became the second gay member of the City Council, election results showed.
He and his husband, Moudi Sbeity, were one of three couples who sued to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban.