Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Senator Jim Dabakis speaks on behalf of SB296 Friday, March 6, 2015, as the Utah State Senate debates the nondiscrimination/religious liberty bill. The bill passed.
Voters will be the big winners. A strong, open discussion on the issues over the next months is great for our city. We live in America, elections should not be coronation —State Sen. Jim Dabakis

SALT LAKE CITY — State Sen. Jim Dabakis jumped into the Salt Lake City mayor's race Monday, bringing the total to three challengers so far to two-term incumbent Ralph Becker.

Dabakis, a Democrat in his first full term in the Senate, said he has a vision for the capital city and looks forward to a "brawny" discussion among even more candidates.

Salt Lake City isn't all it could be, he said. He wants to make it one of the nation's and the world's premier destinations for arts, entertainment and restaurants as well as a jumping off point for the scenic beauty of southern Utah.

"We have one of the world's great religions here. We are the Vatican of America. What a tremendous advantage," Dabakis said.

Dabakis stepped down as state Democratic Party chairman last March, citing undisclosed health reasons. He said Monday his family doctor and specialist told him he's healthy, but that he still has to go in for periodic tests.

He is the third candidate to announce a challenge to Becker, also a Democrat. Former Democratic state representative Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake City Council Chairman Luke Garrott, a Democrat, are also running.

Those candidates also have some personal relationships that add intrigue to the race.

Though Salt Lake municipal elections are not partisan, the mayor's office has been a Democratic stronghold for 40 years. A Republican last held the job in 1974.

"Salt Lake is a very, very Democratic town, and I don't think anyone really thinks a Republican has a shot of winning," said Matt Lyon, a former state Democratic Party executive director who worked for Dabakis and now serves as a Becker campaign consultant.

"It makes my life interesting," said Lyon, describing Dabakis as a "dear friend."

Becker, he said, welcomes Dabakis to the race. The mayor said he is set up to run a great campaign and has about $340,000 in his war chest.

Also interesting is that Becker performed the ceremony at Dabakis' marriage to Stephen Justesen on Dec. 20, 2013, just hours after a federal judge ruled Utah's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional.

Dabakis is the only openly gay member of the Utah Legislature. He was appointed to an open seat in January 2013 and won election in 2014. Biskupski is a lesbian and the first openly gay member of the Legislature, where she served from 1999 to 2011.

Dabakis said the candidates' sexual orientation isn't an issue.

"I don't think of it in those terms at all," he said. "I think we're way, way beyond that."

Garrott, who intends to formally launch his bid April 18, said it's a real statement on Becker that so many candidates are entering the race.

"When a mayor neglects the issues of everyday residents, it opens the door for loud characters like Jim Dabakis who are always seeking the spotlight," he said in a prepared statement.

While he said he hopes Dabakis' health has improved, he took another shot at him, saying, "With the mayor’s office a four-year term, I hope Jim can stay interested in Salt Lake City — or anything — for that long."

Biskupski in a statement posted on her website said she welcomes Dabakis to an "important and historical" mayor's race. She said the LGBT community has come a long way since she was elected to the Utah House 17 years ago.

"Today we have two strong LGBT candidates running for mayor of Salt Lake City, both with experience as elected officials. We should be genuinely proud of that fact," she said.

Biskupski, who has raised about $100,000, said she might make some strategic adjustments with Dabakis in the race, but still believes she's the most qualfied candidate and expects to win.

Dabakis said he has nothing against Becker or Garrott and that he loves Biskupski, whom he stood next to when she kicked off her campaign in January.

But Dabakis said a vigorous race keeps candidates sharp and voters engaged.

"In America, we don't have coronations. We have campaigns," he said. "I say let's put some fire in there for all of us, make us think things through."

Biskupski, Garrott and now Dabakis criticized Becker's support for a city sales tax increase through a prison relocation bill the Legislature passed last month. The legislation allows the city to which the prison is moved to raise sales tax to pay for things such as roads and water and sewer lines.

Becker opposes moving the prison from Draper to Salt Lake City, but has long sought a sales tax hike to spread the costs to run the city to commuters and tourists.

The candidates accused Becker of backroom dealing with lawmakers to get the sales tax option included in the prison relocation bill.

"Ralph didn't approach the prison relocation commission and make a deal for it," Lyon said, adding it was the commission's decision to include it in the bill.

Dabakis said the Becker of eight years ago wouldn't have been involved in that kinds of "shady thing," showing what happens when an administration gets too comfortable in office.

The candidate filing period for Salt Lake City elections is June 1-8. The city will hold a primary election Aug. 11, with the top two advancing to the Nov. 3 general election.

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