Mullen | Spare Change: A walk-and-talk press conference with new SLC mayor Ralph Becker | Miscellaneous | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Mullen | Spare Change: A walk-and-talk press conference with new SLC mayor Ralph Becker 

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What’s to love about Salt Lake City?

I mean besides the usual suspects—the Wasatch Mountains, wide streets, orange crosswalk flags, taco carts, and Sam Weller’s.

How about this: The comfort you get from constancy while simultaneously welcoming a change. This morning after exiting the TRAX train at the library stop, I heard someone call my name. It was Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. It was 8:30 a.m. and Becker had already been on the job in his first full day of office for God knows how long. Standing against a slate-gray sky, Becker was bracing the cold in a charcoal gray topcoat and maroon scarf around his neck. His posture was rod-straight.

The new mayor had been up late the night before, celebrating his inauguration with a thousand or so of his close personal friends at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Grinning wide, he said, “Yesterday was a lot of fun.”

We walked together for three blocks. It was like my own personal press conference, an exclusive interview with the new guy. We walked fast. But, no worries now, I got in plenty of questions and commentary on the way.

We started by discussing leadership styles. I raised the issue, having attended the inauguration ceremonies for Becker and three members of the City Council the day before. I told Becker his remarks were fine, nothing to sneeze at or anything. But the freshly minted politician Luke Garrott made the deepest impression. Garrott, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, launched a campaign against incumbent Nancy Saxton for Council District 4 last year. He was a clear underdog in the central Salt Lake City area.

Garrott’s academic interests flow toward grass-roots organization, especially in ethnic and poorer neighborhoods that fall off most political maps. His inaugural remarks reflected that expertise. In the course of about five minutes, he shifted from the big, panoramic picture to the tight close-up shot. Quoting a former professor from his studies at the University of Florida, Garrott said “Democracy is the process of persuading people to follow while preparing them to rule.” Then, he thanked his wife, Jennifer, for persuading him to follow her to a life in Salt Lake City.

A man beside me, well versed in Utah politics, leaned over and whispered, “That guy is an up-and-comer. Watch him.”

J.T. Martin, District 6 councilman, came next. Standing at the lectern after taking his oath of office, his breath steaming in puffs against the crisp air, Martin quipped, “A lot of people said it would be a cold day when I got elected. Well …”

Martin (who replaced Becker’s mayoral opponent Dave Buhler) is scrappy and tends to move with the same energy as a spinning top. I’ve watched him dash around the aisles at Emigration Market, which he owns, straightening stacks of bananas and avocados and grabbing a broom when necessary. He’s already landed square in the mire of constituency relations at its finest—the great “rubber penis” debate over the relocation of the Blue Boutique to an east Sugar House neighborhood. I think he may have learned the hard way—even before taking office—the value of listening first and acting later.

Walking along with Becker, I mentioned how fun it should be as a journalist to cover this freshly charged council. I’m predicting at this point that Martin will be the quotable one, the firebrand, the guy who speaks up and makes for a kick-ass headline. Garrott seems to be a bit more philosophical, methodical even.

“Who knows,” I told the mayor. “We [meaning the press] have a way of looking and listening at someone for five minutes, reading the tea leaves and thinking we know everything.”

Becker laughed.

It struck me as somewhat appropriate to be walking with the new mayor on the morning of the New Hampshire presidential primary, a place where every candidate is pitching him or herself as

the best agent for change. We’ve seen the idea take root here in Salt Lake, where Becker managed a decisive victory last November and replaced a mayor who had grown weary of the running this city in favor of addressing a national forum.

We’re tired of a war that has evolved into occupation of Iraq. We’re sick of a dysfunctional health-care system that millions of us can’t join, can’t afford and that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said can fix itself if we “let market forces do their work.”

Today, walking through town with Ralph Becker, or considering the possible outcomes of New Hampshire, I’m struck by the absolute aching for a change. It’s palpable. Becker represents that notion, as do Garrott and Martin. Out with the old, in with the new. Let’s see what these new guys can do.

As we approached Main Street and Third South, two panhandlers stopped us. “Sir, I just ran out of gas down the street,” said one of the men, pointing eastward. “Could you spare …” Becker smiled and shook his head.

“It’s tough [to say no],” he told me. “But I only give money to the homeless shelter.”

Then we split up, each of us off to make a living.

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