Down to the Wire | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

October 21, 2015 News » Cover Story

Down to the Wire 

As Ralph Becker and Jackie Biskupski enter the home stretch, the Salt Lake City mayor's race may end in a photo finish

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In the multipurpose room at River's Bend Senior Center, the seats are all full. Wispy white-haired women and others with dark dye jobs are mixed among a smattering of bald men. All of them have been waiting for this day in late September, when Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Jackie Biskupski, the challenger vying for the city's top job, would come to this cinderblock building in the western shadows of downtown and court their votes.

At a modest podium in front of a vintage Bingo sign that lights up on evenings and weekends, the candidates spar over the issues of the day, including affordable housing. And this fixed-income crowd isn't easy to win over.

Becker touts his "5,000 Doors" campaign, which to date, he says, has created 1,000 affordable housing units. A numbers-savvy woman in the crowd calls Becker out, asking what "affordable" means to someone living on Social Security.

Biskupski sees an opportunity to set the mayor's numbers on fire. She tosses out some numbers of her own, saying that only 500 new "affordable" units have been created through Becker's program—and claims that many of the units Becker is counting cost $1,500 per month.

The crowd lets out a sigh, a murmur of disappointment.

After some brief closing statements, the debate ends. The seniors are left to make sense of the numbers, the bold claims, the promises and the bluster that is stitched into the fabric of American politics.

The mayor, busy no doubt, exits stage left with a campaign aid. Biskupski, though, hangs around. A small line forms near the stage to pick the challenger's brain. In the background, there is a raffle drawing. The winner gets a box of See's Candies.

Rose Park resident Joe Ross says he's as red as Republican gets, and it's not ideal that in his city he has to choose between a pair of Democrats. But, using a cliché quite popular in a watered-down two-party political system, Ross says he'll take Biskupski, whom he sees as "the lesser of two evils."

Shirlene Estacion jumps into the conversation, saying that Becker cares more about the "homeless and the wilderness" than he does about the city. She rips the mayor for installing bike lanes throughout the city. "Seniors don't ride bikes, and Becker will soon be a senior," Estacion says. "What do the bikers pay, other than giving us a pain in the butt?"

Comical as it may seem, this mayor's race—a virtual tie, according to an Oct. 13 survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, going into the final weeks before the general election—may well come down to how voters feel about bike lanes.

That this is possible in big-city politics is a testament to the nature of this race which, as Ross pointed out, is between a pair of Democrats who both served time in the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature, where Democrats hold about as much sway over public policy as a TV weatherman over the direction wind blows.

But even though Becker and Biskupski share certain ideological beliefs, a key difference between the two is personality. Becker is notoriously unflashy. His opponents and supporters alike have been known to critique the man for his lack of presence whether times are good or bad.

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When Becker does speak on an issue, though, it would be hard for even the staunchest of his critics to say that he doesn't know his stuff. In addition to his time in the Legislature, Becker served on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission. He owned an environmental planning firm, Bear West. There, among other projects, he devised a statewide affordable-housing plan.

Only one week ago, at an Oct. 14 mayoral debate, Biskupski declared that she brings the perspective of a single mother to the race. On many levels, she has made herself out to be the fighter who—as the gay, single mother of an adopted child—has had to fight for every scrap of privilege she's ever earned.

Biskupski has owned an insurance claims business, served for 12 years in the Legislature and, for the past eight years, worked as a senior policy advisor for Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder. In this role, Biskupski says, she played a large role in forming the Unified Police Department—which, under Winder's direction, provides policing services for parts of Salt Lake County.

Another thing any Utahn should know about both of these folks is that neither was born within 1,000 miles of Utah. Biskupski, a native Minnesotan, has retained her Midwestern accent, saying that you might be "allooowed" to build that building.

The son of the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras during President Gerald Ford's tenure, Becker was born in Washington, D.C. His posture is straight as a board. He has two sons and fancies shirts with the initials "REB" embroidered on the left breast pocket.

Both badly want to be mayor. And, with Becker—well, Salt Lake City has seen, and is seeing, what the man has to offer.

Biskupski will, no doubt, provide something different.


A Drubbing and the Odds
If the election had been decided at the August primary, Biskupski would have won handily by 15 percentage points, a genuine trouncing of an incumbent who, by name recognition alone, is widely popular.

Biskupski's success in the primary could have been due to a pair of factors. The first involves Becker's lack of actual campaigning. While Biskupski spent all but $70,000 of her money in the primary, Becker, who raised $212,000 more than Biskupski, managed to save around $379,000 for the general-election homestretch.

Another key factor, says Tim Chambless, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, was Becker's firing in June of former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. Burbank's dismissal came a month after three female police officers announced their intent to sue the city over how a substantiated sexual-harassment claim against a deputy chief was handled.

Burbank placed the offender, Rick Findlay, on paid leave for several months until Findlay could retire with full benefits.

Becker told City Weekly that Burbank's response to sexual harassment in the department failed to live up to the expectations he has for the city. In the end, Becker says it became clear that he and Burbank didn't see eye-to-eye on how to handle harassment situations, and the two had to part ways.

Both Becker and Biskupski have sparred over sexual harassment ever since, with both claiming to have zero-tolerance policies. In debates, though, Biskupski has badgered Becker over his choice of Brian Dale for Salt Lake City fire chief. Dale was sworn in, and his appointment approved in May, with a 5-1 vote from the Salt Lake City Council, even though an investigation is underway looking into a sexual-harassment claim filed by a female firefighter against Dale.

Becker's administration has said the claims are unfounded.

But the Burbank saga, says Chambless, undoubtedly hurt Becker. In an April poll, Becker was handily in the lead with roughly 33 percent approval, Chambless says. Biskupski had 12 percent, while state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who stepped into the race for 10 days, had 16 percent approval. Roughly 30 percent were undecided.

Three other challengers also appeared on the primary ballot: Councilman Luke Garrott, activist George Chapman and businessman Dave Robinson. And on Election Day, Chambless says he could "see where that 30 percent went"—which is to say, nowhere near Becker.

But now the primary is long past, and, according to one poll, Becker and Biskupski are in a dead heat. Since the primary, in addition to spending boatloads of cash on television advertisements and kicking his campaign machine into high gear, Becker has done what Chambless would expect of an incumbent fighting from behind: going toe-to-toe with Biskupski every chance he gets.

It is in the mayoral debates, says Chambless, where Becker can show off his familiarity with the workings of city government and, whether reality or not, sound more polished than Biskupski. While watching recent debates, Chambless says, "Ralph had more of the details than Jackie did."

According to Chambless, the fact that the general election is a two-candidate race has enabled Becker to shrink his deficit in the polls: "People are coming home to Ralph," he says. "They may have been offended by things in the past, but as they compare and contrast between two candidates, not five, they're coming back to the incumbent who's doing the job. That's my gut perception."


What's the Problem?
On the streets of Salt Lake City, people are not fuming mad about these past eight years of Ralph Becker. In fact, by the most common measure of success—cold, hard, cash—Salt Lake City is enjoying what Becker and his pals at the Chamber of Commerce are calling a "great renaissance."

Construction cranes are arching across the sky, the plywood skeletons of apartments and condominiums are rising, new residents are flocking to the city and shiny new bars that sell budget-busting cocktails amid reclaimed barn wood and subway tiles are now almost too numerous to count.

But clearly, Biskupski's ability to beat up on Becker in the primary election and take him down to the wire in the general election means all is not well in the Capital City.

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Garrott, the chairman of the City Council who received 13 percent of the votes in the mayoral primary, has had a front-row seat to Becker's first two terms. In that time, Garrott says that, although Becker has not been "unpopular," he has not been "popular," either. As a result, Garrott says, Becker's support appeared to be "a mile wide and an inch deep." In other words, Garrott, Biskupski, Chapman, Robinson—and, for a few fleeting hours, Dabakis—saw Becker as vulnerable.

"Jackie's success has borne that hunch out," Garrott says.

Few mayors of Salt Lake City have won more than two terms. Becker's uphill battle toward a third term has, at its crux, a wall of perception.

Biskupski, Garrott says, can be perceived as being more progressive than Becker. She is a lesbian and was the first openly gay legislator in Utah history. If courting progressive voters is the path to the winner's circle—as it certainly is in Salt Lake City—then Becker must overcome the perception that he is wearing out his welcome in an office that lacks term limits.

And so, Chambless says, Becker has embarked on a journey to tell voters why he's done a good job and why he should be allowed to keep doing it. He has courted the city's Republicans, receiving endorsements from former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and former Gov. Mike Leavitt.

As Becker walks a tightrope attempting to woo both Republicans and Democrats, and as he outlines his plans for preserving the Wasatch Range and the city's watershed, marshalling affordable housing and bolstering the city's transit system, the door has been left wide open for Biskupski to take jabs as she sees fit.

This is the luxury of the challenger: Rather than mapping out detailed plans of what she'll do as mayor, Biskupski has managed to make headway by criticizing Becker, and putting the incumbent on his heels. Because she's so effective at what Garrott calls "identity politics"—a brand of politics that, whether on purpose or by sheer coincidence, aligns a candidate with certain pockets of voters—he says she can "get by on less substance because of the strength of her personal profile."

This has not been lost on Becker, who at his home in Federal Heights on a drizzly Saturday morning, said, "I do not see from her an agenda—she's a great critic of things I've been involved with in the city. She's basically mimicked things that we've already done, or are doing."


From the installation of protected bike lanes on 300 South to the proposed closure of the popular Glendale Golf Course, many of Becker's projects have been criticized for their failure to fully engage the public.

When the "transparency" word is mentioned, Biskupski says, "Ugh."

"They act like they're listening," she says of Becker's administration. But "the decisions have already been made. The mayor's very heavy-handed. When he wants something done a specific way, the council has pretty much rubber-stamped it."

Biskupski says this as she munches on chips and salsa at Mestizo Coffeehouse on North Temple. Her statement isn't so much grounded in fact—she doesn't provide any specific examples—as it is a hunch. And this is exactly the sort of accusation that she has been so effective at bowling to Becker, forcing him to defend himself.

Becker takes offense to the notion that he or his administration are less than transparent. In fact, one of Becker's favorite quotes is: "Democracies die behind closed doors." The statement was included in a decision written by Judge Damon Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th District in regard to the conduct of the Bush-Cheney administration.

"I've always believed that part of our responsibility and part of our accountability to the public is to be open and transparent," Becker says.

During his time as mayor, Becker says the city has convened a committee made up of residents and members of the media to formulate proposals for increasing transparency. The amount of information posted to the city's website has increased, and planning documents for development projects are also now online.

The notion that the city's mind is made up before hearing from the public, Becker says, "is "factually and substantively wrong."

Becker's problem here may lie with the location at which ideas ferment, and the controversial bike lanes on 300 South are a prime example.

In Becker's travels—Biskupski has criticized him for trips that routinely find him addressing politicians in Washington, D.C., and New York City—he keeps a close eye on what other cities are up to.

And one of the things Becker noticed years ago was that European cities had created protected bike lanes for their cyclists.

Becker says that, in those bike lanes, he saw the next phase in his efforts to make Salt Lake City more bicycle-friendly—a request he says he routinely received when he first ran for office in 2008, and that he made good on by doubling the number of bike lanes within his first couple of years in office.

In explaining the lure of the protected bike lane, Becker touches upon a key fact: The protected bike lanes were his idea. The bike lanes were one piece of a "comprehensive complete streets approach," which states that the city's streets are for motorists, transit users, cyclists and pedestrians.

The public process that resulted in the construction of the 300 South bike lanes involved years of planning, a pilot program on 300 East between 600 South and 900 South, a campaign to notify residents and property owners through direct mail, and an ombudsman who knocked on doors.

"We talked to motorists, we talked to cyclists, so this was over a four-year period," Becker says. "This was not something that happened overnight."

Garrott says that the bike lanes are illustrative of Becker's belief that his job is not simply to implement policy in the city, but to create policy.

"Clearly, Ralph and other mayors in the past have taken their innovation duties at least as seriously as their implementation duties," Garrott says.

In the case of the bike lanes, Garrott says one can imagine a different sequence of events, where the policies germinate within a neighborhood itself—a process that is more time-consuming than top-down visions—and more expensive. But such a scenario reduces the likelihood of residents and business owners feeling as though city leaders are heedlessly marching forth on their enlightened plans.

"This is Ralph's typical process: 'We have a solution, you may not know that there was a problem, so give us feedback,'" Garrott says. "I think that the engagement needs to happen at the very beginning—at the point of generating ideas."

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But in Becker's eyes, what has transpired on 300 South is nothing short of phenomenal. He says studies have shown that pedestrian traffic is up, bicycle use has risen by 30 percent and sales taxes along Broadway have outpaced revenue increases in the rest of the city.

Sure, the bike lanes pissed a lot of people off—especially, Becker says, people over the age of 50—but, at the end of the day, he maintains that the bike lanes were the right thing to do for the city, regardless of how many political spears he's taken in the side as a result.

"Politically, the easiest thing to do is avoid risk," Becker says. "And avoiding risk means you don't make any decisions that are controversial, to the extent you can help it. That's not me. That's not the approach that I take and believe reflects what our public in Salt Lake City wants."


A Changing City
When Becker took the city's reins in 2008, the nation was in the throes of the Great Recession. But in terms of construction activity and job losses, Utah weathered the recession better than most other states.

In Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dropped an estimated $1.5 billion (the true cost wasn't publicly disclosed) on the 23-acre City Creek Center shopping mall.

Now, well out of the recession, with a growing state economy second only to oil-saturated boom state of North Dakota, it is easy for Becker to kick back and say he shepherded the city through the roughest economic downturn in a generation. And it's true: Becker was the mayor during the recession. But a pair of projects—the 222 Main office tower and the LDS Church's mall—that the mayor uses as examples of the city's resilience during the recession, were both well under construction by the time Becker took office.

The problems that plagued Becker's administration when he took office, he says, involved figuring out how to lure residents downtown. At the time, Becker says, conventional wisdom held that the largest segment of downtown residential growth would come from empty-nesters tired of mowing lawns in the suburbs.

But today, whether Becker or Biskupski wins the election, an entirely different crisis is emerging. The next mayor will have to deal with a city that is enticing new residents at a rapid pace and becoming increasingly gentrified. Becker sees this, and he says he'd like to avoid ever having to make a statement like he once heard from the mayor of Austin, Texas, who told him that Texas' capital has become so gentrified, "People can't live in our city anymore."

By "people," the Austin mayor meant middle-class people: mechanics, postal clerks, firefighters, police officers—and newspaper reporters.

"That's the last thing in my mind we want," Becker says.

To combat the lack of affordability as the city grows, Becker and Biskupski, along with developers and other city leaders, are united in the belief that Salt Lake City must somehow create affordable housing.

Whenever anybody poses the question to Biskupski, she bluntly finishes it: Ask "How did Salt Lake City become this place—" and she'll jump in: "—that nobody can afford?"

Biskupski is attuned to the affordable-housing issue, though her plan draws scoffs from Becker and some developers. She says the best way to combat skyrocketing housing costs is simply to "streamline" the planning process.

"Our planning and zoning department is so dysfunctional right now that, when you go in and you present your plans, and they go through a review process and they get approved, then all throughout the project the city keeps coming back and saying, 'Oh, by the way, you need to do this,' and, 'Oh by the way, you need to do that,' and, 'By the way, you need to do this,'" she says. "Projects become extremely costly, much more costly because of it."

Becker doesn't entirely disagree with Biskupski. He says the planning and permitting processes for the city need to be constantly evaluated and improved. In fact, in 2008, Becker says he inherited a dysfunctional planning process that had become so politicized, it was paralyzed.

"I'm not saying we don't need to improve our permitting process continually," Becker says, "but you can look at our permitting efforts since I've been in office, and we are nationally renowned for the way we have set up our permitting that has streamlined processes incredibly around development."

To see that this is true, Becker says, one needs only to look up.

Indeed, if appearances are any indicator of whether developers are achieving their dreams, then it seems like dreams are coming true in Salt Lake City.

One of these dreamers is Dan Lofgren, president of Cowboy Partners LLC. Lofgren's company has given $5,000 to Becker's campaign. Other developers are also stepping up to donate, including Big-D Construction ($5,000); Dell Loy Hansen ($2,500); Hansen's company, Wasatch Commercial Management ($2,000); Garbett Homes ($5,000); and Granite Construction ($1,000).

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Lofgren's Cowboy Partners is building 177 residential units at 150 S. 200 East, and will break ground soon at the old Hostess bakery site on 400 South near 700 East, where 268 units will be built. Lofgren admits that he would love fewer hurdles in planning and permitting. Still, Salt Lake City's process has not prevented him from breaking ground on new projects and seeking out future endeavors, he says.

"We continue to look at additional opportunities in the Salt Lake City limits," Lofgren says. "I offer that as evidence that, OK, we'd like it to be better. It is not keeping us from doing deals."

Lofgren has also found success in leveraging city incentives through the 5,000 Doors campaign, combined with low-interest loans and tax credits, to provide some affordable housing—an issue that he says is "real and meaningful."

Garrott says the City Council is at this moment grappling with how best to encourage development of affordable housing. The bottom line seems to be this: Developers need to make money on their developments, and selling units for less than market rate doesn't make money. This is where the city, county, state and federal governments can swoop in to make sure that developers get their share—while people who aren't millionaires can still have a roof over their heads.

There are various ways government can sweeten the pot for developers. One direction the City Council is looking involves offering height variances as a carrot for developers who build affordable housing. For example, building heights near 700 East and 2100 South might be capped at 75 feet—but a developer could go to 105 feet if 20 percent of the units were made affordable.

Without better incentives, Garrott says he sees Becker's 5,000 Doors effort falling woefully short. And if all Biskupski does is streamline, he says, she'll be streamlining the same sorts of projects being built today—which, according to some affordable-housing advocates, homeless advocates and the senior citizens at River's Bend, are hardly affordable.

Developer fees—known as "impact fees—are another area of contention that whoever becomes mayor will be forced to deal with. Developers pay these fees to the city for infrastructure improvements like streets, traffic lights, parks and public utilities.

Becker and Biskupski both say the current fees, having netted tens of millions of dollars that sit in city coffers waiting to be spent, are too high. At press time, the City Council was considering a moratorium on such fees while it retools its rate formula.

If developers don't cover the costs of the municipal infrastructure needed to accommodate growth, property owners will pay for it in the form of property-tax hikes. And if the city's impact fees are too high, as both candidates agree, then Salt Lake City will lose opportunities as developers flock to cities with lower fees.

"We have to be reasonable," Biskupski says. "We need impact fees to help pay for infrastructure that has to go in when a facility is built. But they have to be realistic, or we can't compete."

Transit, Environment & Mountain Accord
In this race, this trio of topics has meshed into one. And it is possible that the most glaring difference between Biskupski and Becker is how they plan to improve mass transit.

Biskupski says the key to improving public transportation in the city is to create a municipal bus service—separate from the Utah Transit Authority.

"It would be a complimentary service, and it's done all over the country," Biskupski says. "It's really a partnership that you develop, and it's needed." Her campaign estimates that it could cost around $14 million a year, based on other cities' transit models.

"Every month on this campaign trail, transit service has been at the top of people's lists," she says. "They want to get out of their cars. They want to do their part to help clean up our air, and we are not spending the resources to enable that."

Biskupski cites her own experience with mass transit, saying it takes her at least 45 minutes to travel downtown from her home near 1900 East and 1500 South.

Becker says such a plan would simply create a new bureaucracy. Instead, he says, the city must work with UTA on expanding services.

One potential billion-dollar UTA project of great interest to Salt Lake City is one of the transportation solutions embedded within the Mountain Accord. It could result in a train up Little Cottonwood Canyon and a tunnel through the mountain to Big Cottonwood Canyon.

The project is still on the drawing board. Among other hurdles, the Mountain Accord Transportation plan must undergo a federal environmental review followed by an extensive planning process. Yet the proposal's presence in the Mountain Accord—which Becker signed off on, along with environmental organizations and dozens of other cities, counties and stakeholders—means that the train and the tunnel exist within the realm of possibility.

Biskupski has said she supports Mountain Accord, but that a large dose of caution is needed before boring holes through the Wasatch and running trains up the guts of canyons.

A rapid-transit bus system is a more palatable and affordable canyon transportation option, Biskupski says. That was the recommendation of a transportation study she participated in as part of her duties with the sheriff's department, which provides law enforcement in the canyons.

If UTA were to embark upon a rail project in the canyons, Biskupski worries that it could siphon money away from the agency's already depleted bus system. "We don't have the UTA transit service that we need just to move people around within the cities that are here in our county," Biskupski says. "I'm not opposed to Mountain Accord, and people need to understand that. I am much more thoughtful, though, around the environmental potential impacts, the cost and the needs of people right here in our county."

While Becker believes a key piece of the puzzle in protecting the Wasatch and the city's watershed is transportation, he feels too much emphasis has been placed on the potential for trains.

"Through Mountain Accord, we have the path forward to protect the Wasatch in ways that everybody appreciates," Becker says. "All of this is going to kind of shake out as we go through this much more narrow process examining transit in the canyons."


A Mayor Who Listens
Every city government employee, except for City Council members and their staff, work for Becker.

And, according to Becker, when complaints flow his way about how various arms of the city are functioning, he takes them seriously. For example, Becker says a fire marshal wasn't exhibiting the "solution-oriented" mentality that he was trying to instill in city employees, so the person was replaced.

"The mayor is so important to the way the city looks, feels and functions," Garrott says, noting that decisions ranging from who is chief of police to how city lawns are watered come back to Becker. "The mayor's in charge of those decisions, and they effect quality of life in serious ways."

In everyday life, though, most residents of Salt Lake City interface with the city at the street level—driving, biking or walking to and from work. And, using 300 South as an example, some of the city's streets look and feel a lot different than they did the last time Becker's name was on the ballot.

Whether it's fair or not, every time a cyclist cuts in front of a motorist, a car skins its tire on a concrete bike wedge, or parking spots are scarce on Broadway, Becker's name comes to mind.

But bike lanes are not the only controversial project Becker has been given credit for. The Sugar House Streetcar, which has inspired high-density development in one of the city's most sought-after neighborhoods, as well as epic traffic congestion on 2100 South near Highland Drive, and the construction of the $119-million Eccles Theater on Main Street, which Becker says will attract performances the likes of which Salt Lake City has never seen, are accomplishments he likes to tout.

In an Oct. 18, 2015, opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune, Stephen Trimble, a U of U instructor, wrote that this election isn't about Becker—it's about "Becker, the planner who gets things done."

"You may be disappointed with the mayor's off-key skills as a communicator; you may be angry about one of his policy decisions," Trimble wrote. "But our city has undeniable new vitality, and Becker has brought us here."

But tough critics to Becker's story line have emerged. Among the fiercest is the man who sat in the mayor's seat from 2000-2008, Rocky Anderson. In a Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece, Anderson said the economic prosperity occuring under Becker would have happened if "Elmer Fudd were mayor.

"Credit should instead be given to the businesses, entrepeneuers, working people and developers (including the LDS Church) who created jobs, constructed amenities (many of which were underway before Becker was elected) and built businesses," wrote Anderson.

Economy aside, Biskupski says a key difference between herself and Becker is her accessibility and willingness to listen.

"Our expectations in Salt Lake City might be pretty high when it comes to accountability and responsiveness and transparency of local government," Garrott says, noting that in New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg got away with executing loads of innovative policies, because no New Yorker believes that their mayor is accountable to them.

"That might be a reason why people are willing to jump off the good ship Becker," Garrott says, adding, "Because they have higher expectations, and he has been top-down."

Whether Biskupski is given the chance to deliver on her promises of a city with better listening skills remains to be seen. But exactly 4,455 more voters filled in the Biskupski bubble during the primary than went with Becker—a wealth of support that the challenger says is due largely to the fact that she listed her home phone number is on her campaign fliers, and she isn't paying lip service to her desire to listen to the public.

"People want that," Biskupski says. "They want an elected official, one that they can relate to, one that is accessible, one that is listening."

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