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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Ralph Becker celebrates his election as the new Salt Lake City mayor on Tuesday evening.

Welcome to Salt Lake City, one of the most liberal — or "progressive" — cities in very conservative Utah.

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Have any doubts about that? Just ask moderate Republican Dave Buhler, who was squashed Tuesday by Democrat Ralph Becker in the capital city's mayoral election.

Becker will start his first four-year term as mayor in January, replacing retiring Mayor Rocky Anderson, also a Democrat.

Complete but unofficial results show a Becker landslide — 64 percent to 36 percent — a 2-to-1 victory not predicted in any pre-general election surveys. Approximately 43 percent of city voters went to the polls.

"Salt Lake City really is a progressive city," Becker said Tuesday night. "Progressive" has become a new catch-phrase for "liberal."

Becker said he and his staff worked hard "to present me as who I am" to voters. He said he now wants to "bring people together." And in that effort, he wants to use Buhler in some capacity.

Becker, an 11-year veteran of the Utah House, much of the time as minority leader, won the September primary election and never looked back. Becker spent about a half million dollars in his race, Buhler about $400,000. But money wasn't the issue — personal politics, political parties and vouchers on the ballot may have been.

Becker said he looks forward to implementing his "blueprint" for the city — an aggressive agenda of education, livability issues, environmental concerns, economic development and neighborhood public safety.

Buhler, an eight-year member of the City Council from his Sugar House neighborhood, appeared a bit stunned by the size of his loss. In 1991, in his first-ever candidacy, Buhler lost the mayor's race to Deedee Corradini, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Buhler certainly expected to do better this year. Instead, he fell well short — perhaps a victim of a perfect political storm of city voters unhappy with national Republicans, especially President Bush; unhappy with the GOP Legislature's private school voucher law (which lost 4-to-1 in the city); and Becker's strong, grass-roots campaigning.

"I worry about partisanizing these races," like the officially non-partisan Salt Lake mayor's race, said Buhler, who will return to his full-time job as an associate commissioner of higher education. "The challenge is to get people to look beyond labels."

"I ran a strong campaign," Buhler said. "I felt I had adequate money. It's just hard to change some of the perceptions that people have. I always thought I had a chance to win. But it has been tough. I don't see any more campaigns in my future. Ralph will be a fine mayor."

Buhler, who is LDS and a former GOP state senator, knew it would be an uphill fight. City voters have not elected a GOP mayor since 1971 and haven't elected an LDS mayor since 1983. Becker, a non-Mormon, will become the fifth consecutive Democratic mayor.

Dan Jones, pollster for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV, said Becker's large win "is really a victory for the Democrat Party" — which backed Becker and helped organize pro-Becker and anti-private school voucher operations in the city.

Becker said he started walking city neighborhoods in March. He says that groundwork helped him surge from third in the polls to an impressive September primary victory. A trim, 55-year-old outdoorsman, Becker, a divorced father of two and grandfather of one, said some days he walked eight or 10 hours.

Becker believes he will bring a different governing style to the mayor's office — where Anderson has a longtime reputation of quarreling with City Council members, the Legislature and others.

Becker said he expects as mayor to continue the good relationships he'd had with both Republicans and Democrats. "I'm glad to say I've had very good relationships on both sides of the aisle with leadership and with the membership of the Legislature," he said.

He said he wants to use those ties to "be a hopefully more effective advocate at the state level for Salt Lake City." Even before Anderson became mayor, the capital city" has, at times, "suffered from Salt Lake City being a whipping kid up there. There will always be tensions. That's just the nature of the relationship ... Give me time."

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said Tuesday night he personally will welcome Becker's administration. As minority leader, Curtis said he knows Becker well and respects him and his style. Becker "is not confrontational, as Anderson is," said Curtis, who battled with Anderson over the Legacy Highway and locating the Real Salt Lake stadium (which abandoned the city and is being built in Sandy). "I've found Ralph easy and good to work with," said Curtis.

Anderson, at Becker's victory party, said Becker will "be a great mayor. He's got the experience, the background, the heart, the passion." Anderson said there will be times as mayor that Becker will "have to stand up" on issues, even if it upsets the Legislature or even members of the City Council.

Becker said he didn't have a date for his resignation from the Legislature. As for his replacement, Becker said it would be "the kiss of death" for any candidate if he becomes involved in the choice, which will be made by the 30-odd Democratic delegates to his District 24. But he said he thinks "exceptionally highly" of Rebecca Chavez-Houck, an Hispanic activist who worked on his campaign and briefly sought a state Senate seat from the area several years ago.

Becker said he'll review all the city department heads, including the police and fire chiefs, before deciding who'll serve in his administration. Over eight years, Anderson fired dozens of top aides. Becker said he's avoided turnover in his own public issues consulting business. "Over 20 years, I've never fired an employee," Becker said.

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