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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Salt Lake Mayor-elect Ralph Becker works in a temporary office in the City-County Building.

The sheet of paper had been lost and all but forgotten on Ralph Becker's desk, buried under nearly a year's worth of campaign clutter.

Becker uncovered the document while cleaning off his desk last month and was reminded of its then-troubling contents: A poll conducted about a year ago listed him in fifth place among Salt Lake City mayoral candidates who had been identified at that time, with support from only 4 percent of registered voters.

Seeing the poll again was a rewarding moment for Becker, whose grass-roots campaigning and progressive plans for Salt Lake City ultimately won over 64 percent of voters and earned him a landslide victory on Election Day.

"That was the first poll (for the Salt Lake City mayor's race) that I had seen," Becker said. "It was fun to see that now and realize we really started at a point in this campaign with me not being well known."

Today, he's known as Mayor-elect Becker, an already popular leader who brings to the office the experience of an 11-year member of the Utah House of Representatives and professional planner.

The 55-year-old Washington, D.C., native said he's anxious to begin a new chapter of his career as mayor of Utah's capital city, a role he says "crystallized" as the right job for him about two years ago while he was trying to decide whether to seek a fifth term in the state House.

"I started thinking, 'Is there a place I could contribute more or better?"' he recalled.

More than a decade of service as a Democratic member in the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature made the Salt Lake City mayor's job attractive to Becker. Suddenly, instead of being a proponent of public education, the environment and social justice on the level stage, he has an opportunity to advance his ideas on the Salt Lake City stage.

"So many times in the Legislature ... I felt like all I was able to do was to be a voice for those who were underrepresented," he said. "As mayor of this city, which is a progressive city, there's a chance and the opportunity to show the benefits of some of those ideas."

Becker presented several of those ideas during his campaign as "blueprints," which he intends to begin implementing after he's sworn in as Salt Lake City's 34th mayor on Jan. 7.

"We have a very ambitious agenda," he said. "We're going to have a very busy first few years here."

Education

Improving public education was Becker's No. 1 priority during his legislative tenure, and that will continue, he said, in his city administration.

"Public education is probably the most important responsibility we have in providing our children the opportunity to succeed," he said. "It's the greatest source of equalizing our society."

Becker said he began early in his campaign looking for ways city government could improve or positively influence public education. He sought input from school board members, school administrators, educators and parents, and came up with his blueprint for education.

"There certainly are things this city has done for our kids, but there hasn't been a real partnership between the municipal side of government and the school side of government," Becker said.

Part of his blueprint for education calls for the creation of an education coordinator in the mayor's office whose job will be to build partnerships between public education and the city, the business community, universities, colleges and nonprofit groups.

Becker plans to announce later this week who will fill that role, as well as other staff positions.

"Public education has not traditionally been a role for city government," Becker said. "I do not see Salt Lake City trying to step in the shoes of public education, whether it's the school board or the school superintendent. I see us trying to help bolster public education."

Becker said he grew tired of seeing the state Legislature shortchange public education year after year, saying the state has hindered teachers' and students' ability to succeed by underfunding education.

"Even if the Legislature changes its orientation in terms of public education to provide a greater support and greater priority in its budgeting, we still need more help from the community," he said.

Becker also is proposing a monthly roundtable during which he and city staff can meet with school officials, teachers and parents to evaluate the partnerships and continue to share ideas for improving public education in Salt Lake City.

"I see all kinds of benefits if we in Salt Lake City focus a fair amount of attention on public education," Becker said.

For one, he said, families will want to live in Salt Lake.

"It also helps send a signal of how important public education is in our city and provides the foundation for a strong work force, which has other economic benefits to the city," Becker said.

Environment

Becker has long been a protector of the environment, advocating for the preservation of open space and sharing his ideas on environmental problem solving.

His love for the environment, he said, began with the first Earth Day in 1970, inspired him to get a job with the National Parks Service and led to the founding of Bear West, his environmental planning and policy development firm.

Becker's "Blueprint for a Green City" addresses protecting Salt Lake City's natural assets — "which are unparalleled," he said — and the issues of air quality and climate change.

The city needs to continue to protect its critical lands, natural areas and open spaces and make it possible for residents to access them and enjoy them, Becker said.

One area on which the mayor-elect wants to place particular emphasis is the Jordan River, which he says has been "neglected for much too long." The city needs to do its part to complete the Jordan River Parkway, he said, and work to address water-quality issues so the river can be enjoyed as a recreation source.

"It should be a gem in the middle of our city," Becker said. "To date, we've had at best sporadic efforts to really take advantage of that and protect that resource."

Becker heaps praise on outgoing Mayor Rocky Anderson for being a local and national leader on environmental issues by establishing green standards within city government — from the types of bulbs used in city streetlights and buildings to requiring Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-standard building for government facilities.

Becker wants to take that a step further by applying LEED standards to the private sector, suggesting an incentive-based approach in which the city provides a streamlined permitting process for developers who commit to "green" building. Similar programs have been very successful in other cities, he said.

"Time is money in the development business," Becker said. "That's something that doesn't cost the city any money and certainly provides a great incentive to developers who use LEED standards as their standard for building."

Improving air quality also will be a focus of Becker's administration, he said. Methods for achieving that goal include continuing to improve the city's transit and bikeway systems.

Social justice

Becker sees Salt Lake City as leading the way in Utah in areas of social justice, ensuring that people aren't discriminated against based on classifications such as race, religion or sexual orientation.

One example of that, he said, is the ordinance that extends benefits to city employees' domestic partners. The next step, Becker says, is to make it possible for domestic partners of city employees to receive retirement benefits as well.

"I think we need to look out for protecting that partnership arrangement just like we do for spouses," he said.

Becker also plans to put forward a nondiscrimination ordinance that he says will go beyond what the city already has in place. The ordinance will be expanded to cover housing and realty, employment, public accommodation and city activities, he said.

Becker said he also will call for the creation of a city registry for domestic partnerships in an effort to allow for a clear and efficient mechanism for the city to offer health, retirement and other employee benefits to domestic partners. He plans to issue an executive order requiring that benefits be extended to registered domestic partners by companies that contract with the city and already provide benefits to employees' spouses.

Collaborating

Becker now turns his attention to working with the seven-member Salt Lake City Council, which often during Anderson's two terms in office has been an adversarial relationship.

The mayor-elect and members of the City Council are optimistic that will change, that the branches of Salt Lake City government will be more united than they have been in recent years in advancing city business.

"Ralph is well-known for working toward consensus," Councilman Eric Jergensen said. "I anticipate that Ralph's work with the council will be very positive and collaborative."

Jergensen, a Republican and Becker supporter during the campaign, said he doesn't expect an "immediate Pollyanna-like relationship" between mayor and council, rather one of give-and-take and more willingness to work together on both sides.

"There has been so much disagreement between (Anderson) and the council, whether it was his style or context of issues," Jergensen said. "I don't think we're going to have that this time."

Carlton Christensen, another Republican councilman, supported Dave Buhler's campaign for mayor, serving as co-chairman of his fellow councilman's campaign along with Councilwoman Jill Remington Love.

Christensen said he's already seen Becker making efforts to repair rifts between the mayor's office and City Council. The mayor-elect even called him on Thanksgiving Day to wish him and his family a happy holiday.

"That was a pleasant surprise," he said.

Christensen said he expects to have disagreements with Becker from time to time, but he's optimistic those will come as part of civil discussions.

"My expectations are such that I don't anticipate any conflict up front," he said. "There are things (in his 180-day action plan) that I don't anticipate will be a total green light from my perspective, but I'm willing to hold judgment until I see his proposals in detail."


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