SALT LAKE CITY — After a long, bitter and at times ugly election — still waiting for razor-thin vote margins to solidify — now Congressman-elect Ben McAdams remembers when the race flipped and it appeared, at least for a weekend, that he might lose.
To mentally prepare their four kids, ages 7 to 13, McAdams and his wife, Julie, sat them down to write a list of positives if he didn't win the 4th District Congressional seat and he instead stayed to serve out his term as Salt Lake County mayor.
"I'll admit, the first thing on the list was a vacation," McAdams said, laughing. "It's been a long time."
But the second bullet point?
"I have a job that I love," he said. "And I'm in a position I'm able to do a lot of good service for our community."
As his family continued to add to the list, it turned out losing the seat wouldn't seem so bad after all, he said.
But then, the results flipped again the following Monday. It quickly became official: McAdams was going to Washington.
Ironically, "my initial sentiment was a disappointment," he said, chuckling. After writing that list, he and his family were suddenly "really excited about losing the election."
So then McAdams and his wife and kids had to make another list about exciting times ahead, even though he'll be spending a lot of time more than 2,000 miles away.
Still, as he reflected on his time as mayor in an interview with the Deseret News days away from his official resignation, McAdams had mixed feelings about leaving behind his county office.
"It's bittersweet," he said.
'I'll miss it'
In his final week as county mayor, McAdams' office was already barren, save a few lingering office supplies, shelves and picture frames hanging on the orange and white walls.
In one of those picture frames is a colorful painting of the "Ben Bus," the school bus McAdams drove at campaign events. The painting, gifted to McAdams after his 2012 mayoral election by a high schooler, featured the reflection of the state Capitol and the Salt Lake City-County Building in the bus' windshields, representing McAdams' past offices before becoming mayor.
As the former state senator and once-senior adviser to former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker took the painting off of the wall, he did so with "a little bit of reluctance," seeing it as a conclusion to "this chapter of my service."
"It's sad," he said. "It's the best job I've ever had. … I'll miss it."
His desk drawers also hadn't been emptied out yet. He rifled through one drawer, finding an almost full bottle of aspirin. He joked it was a "good sign" he'd only dipped into it a few times.
From the same drawer, McAdams pulled out an old letter his predecessor, former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, left for him after his swearing-in six years ago.
McAdams read the letter aloud: "Dear Ben. Best of luck. I know you will do well. Go forth and do good things."
Reflecting on his time at Salt Lake County, McAdams said he departs feeling proud. He said he's confident whomever the county Democratic Party chooses to serve out his term's remaining two years will start on a high note. He hasn't endorsed any particular candidate.
"There's still a lot of work to be done, and the new mayor coming in will have challenges, but (the county's) in a really good place," he said.
In the same drawer as the aspirin bottle and Corroon's letter, McAdams also pulled out a postcard with a quote from President John F. Kennedy: "This is a time for boldness and energy."
McAdams said he holds that quote dear, to remind himself of what kind of leader he aimed to be as a mayor and now as a congressman. To "be bold and put in the time and have the courage to do what our community needs," he said.
In the six years since he first took office, McAdams said his administration positioned the county as an important regional player, rather than just the entity overseeing unincorporated areas.
McAdams backed legislation to give the county's townships the power to decide their future governance structure, leading to the election that voters decided to incorporate Millcreek, while other areas formed metro townships.
McAdams pushed for data-driven initiatives. In 2013, Salt Lake County became the first government to launch "Pay for Success" programs — programs that used taxpayer dollars for initiatives targeting early childhood education, and later, homelessness and recidivism (first funded through private partners) if and only if the programs worked.
McAdams branded himself as a bipartisan collaborator — a reputation he used to help win his 4th Congressional District seat — and year after year lauded his administration and the Salt Lake County Council for passing fiscally sound budgets and maintaining the county's AAA bond rating.
But above all, McAdams said he's most proud of his work on criminal justice and homelessness reform — efforts that also drew the most public ire during McAdams' service.
A styrofoam plate with the words "Jesus is Lord" written on the back in black marker sat on McAdams' desk.
He picked it up, recalling how he's kept it as a reminder from when he ate a church-sponsored breakfast after two nights of sleeping among the homeless, one night on the streets, and one night in the Road Home's downtown shelter.
Months later, McAdams recounted the experience after news reporters caught wind of his secret shelter stay. He said he did it not as a political stunt, but rather to experience what the homeless deal with night and day, while efforts to reform Utah's homeless system reached a tipping point.
That same day he was given the styrofoam plate, McAdams said he got a call from Draper Mayor Troy Walker, asking for a meeting to discuss the prospect of offering up a Draper site for a homeless resource center.
McAdams went straight to his county office to meet with Walker, even though "I didn't smell very good," he said.
"Little did we know where that conversation would lead," McAdams said.
Soon after, more than 700 outraged Draper residents filled a school auditorium to tell McAdams and Walker off for even considering putting a homeless resource center in their city. That town hall — complete with boos, shouting and screaming — followed by more public meetings after McAdams chose to locate the shelter in South Salt Lake, were perhaps the most onerous times for the county mayor.
McAdams said he keeps the plate to remind him what matters most.
"It's just a reminder that there are people who are hungry and suffering in our community, and I'm in a position to help both in the short term and hopefully in the long term," he said.
McAdams' role in reforming the county's homeless system began years ago, with the formation of the Collective Impact on Homelessness committee. He pushed, again, for a data-driven approach to solving the complicated issue.
Ironically, McAdams will leave before the true test of the yearslong effort.
This coming summer, the Road Home's downtown shelter is slated to shutter by a state-mandated deadline as three new homeless resource centers now under construction are supposed to open their doors.
"There's still work to be done," McAdams acknowledged, though he said his departure shouldn't leave any loose ends.
"We can't have the success of our homeless (system) hinge on any single elected official. Elected officials come and go."
That's why the new homeless resource center's owner, Shelter the Homeless, has "stepped in in a big way" to maintain continuity, McAdams said, adding he's confident in the organization to cross the finish line.
But also, "I'm not going away," McAdams said. "These issues are still important to me."
He said in Congress, he'll still be "hyper-focused" on a lot of Salt Lake County issues, including homelessness. He noted the largest funder of homeless efforts is the federal government, and he'll "be in a position to" ensure funds continue to go to "people in crisis."
McAdams said he leaves hoping people remember him as a "someone who was accessible and collaborative," noting that he "worked hard to have good relationships with mayors and city council members and other stakeholders from across the valley."
Political pundits indeed credit McAdams as a bipartisan collaborator, though Matthew Burbank, University of Utah political science professor, noted that McAdams' record wasn't perfect.
"My general impression is he has been a good county mayor, but perhaps not a great county mayor," Burbank said.
"He was a good mayor in the sense that he was active, well-known … he was good about coordinating with state officials, with the city, just keeping everybody on the same page," Burbank said. "But I wouldn't call him a great mayor in the sense that there were a couple things that he probably could have handled differently."
One was "clearly" homelessness, Burbank said. Although McAdams wasn't the only player alongside the state and Salt Lake City, Burbank said the system reform hasn't gone as "smoothly" as perhaps it could have and remains somewhat "unresolved."
Burbank also pointed out the short-lived controversy with the Olympia Hills development near Herriman — a high-density development that drew fury from residents after the County Council approved a proposal from McAdams' administration, which McAdams later vetoed.
"I certainly haven't done things perfectly," McAdams said. "I know I haven't been perfect, but I was always willing to change my mind and listen."
McAdams said he isn't leaving office thinking certain controversial issues have been mistakes. He said when elected officials change their minds, it shouldn't be labeled as a "defeat" or a "screwup." Instead, McAdams said those were instances where he listened and acted accordingly.
Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said McAdams will likely be remembered most for his work in homelessness, and although it was rough, it appears McAdams tackled it with some success.19 comments on this story
"The fact he was able to navigate that and still win the congressional seat could very well show that others really did like the way he handled that and his take on policies," Cotti said.
Overall, bipartisanship will likely be the "hallmark" of McAdams' time a mayor, as well as his time in Congress, Cotti said.
McAdams parting words? He's not going far.
"I'm going to continue to serve," he said. "I'll be in a different role and a different title, but I'm still the same person and I'm here to try to solve the challenges to keep our community the great place we know it to be."