Utah progressives don’t win many campaigns. The state Democratic party holds a combined 17 out of 104 seats in the Legislature. At the federal level, Jim Matheson had the distinction of being the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation until his retirement. When he left office at the start of 2015, Utah’s D.C. representation became exclusively Republican. His father shares a similar distinction. Scott Matheson, whose administration ended in 1985, was the last Democrat to occupy the governor’s office.
As a result of this historical trend, casual observers of the state’s politics could be forgiven if they were surprised last year by news that an openly gay, progressive woman won the Salt Lake City mayor’s race. But for those familiar with the city’s politics, there were predictable elements to this campaign. Jackie Biskupski, the first LGBT person to be elected mayor of Salt Lake, won by defeating incumbent Ralph Becker, a liberal Democrat.
Salt Lake City, the rugged capital of Utah and the headquarters of the Mormon Church, is a progressive bubble in one of the most conservative and religious states in the nation. It’s an urban environment surrounded by mountains, known for its outdoor recreational opportunities and hiking and biking trails. Democratic mayors have reigned in the city since Ted Wilson in the 1970s and the city’s nonpartisan elections are often races between two Democratic candidates, with the most progressive candidate winning.
Heading into 2015’s municipal election, Salt Lake City had strong economic indicators, a rebounding downtown, and record population growth. The incumbent was a popular two-term mayor looking to continue the city’s momentum into a rare third term. But the general consensus was that Becker was unbeatable.
Enter Biskupski, a hard-working, single mother, former state legislator, and senior advisor to Jim Winder, Salt Lake County’s popular sheriff. Inspired to enter politics after witnessing students battle Salt Lake City School District over a gay-straight alliance at a city high school, Biskupski was the first openly gay person ever elected to public office in the history of Utah when she won a state House seat in 1998.
During her first campaign, outside groups attacked her for being gay. In fact, the Utah Eagle Forum, an ultra-conservative organization, accused her of living an “illegal lifestyle.”
When she got to the state House, she didn’t lash out at those who sought to defeat her. She reached out to the very people who attacked her during the campaign. On Utah’s Capitol Hill, she worked with the always-Republican governor’s office and formed relationships with business and labor interests. After she left office, those relationships remained intact. They came in handy during the 2015 mayoral race when after the primary, Becker tried to save his campaign by reaching out to Republicans with key endorsements, including a TV ad featuring former Gov. Mike Leavitt (R).
In the beginning, Biskupski trailed Becker both at the bank and the polls. On day one, Becker had $300,000 to Biskupski’s zero and a 40-point name ID advantage. Knowing that in politics money equals credibility, we began the campaign by emphasizing fundraising and allocating the candidate’s time accordingly. On the phone and at meet-and-greets across the city, the candidate made her case to voters and donors. She needed to convince people to invest in her and her vision for Salt Lake City.
Biskupski and Becker are both Democrats. They occupy the same post on the political spectrum with barely a glint of daylight between them. Highlighting the character attributes that distinguished them and uniquely qualified Biskupski as the better choice for voters became a critical campaign theme. Biskupski portrayed herself as a candidate of the people; she cared, listened, and wanted to help and painted Becker as an aloof, out of touch policy wonk who spent too much time visiting the White House rather than leading the city.
At the local level party labels and traditional interest group affiliations don’t hold the same weight as they do in federal races. So Biskupski set out from the launch of her primary campaign in January 2015 to build a coalition of unique bedfellows: labor unions and business owners.
Labor, in particular the unions representing city employees, AFSCME and the Salt Lake Police Association, endorsed Biskupski before the Aug. 11, 2015 primary and the Teamsters, Carpenters, and the AFL-CIO and its member unions followed. She received more than a dozen union endorsements in total.
Complaints from the business community mirrored the concerns of labor, namely that the mayor ignored them. Biskupski pledged to be a mayor who listens and leaders in the business community also came aboard. Culminating in an unprecedented joint labor and business op-ed published in the Salt Lake Tribune, the city’s leading newspaper, in the final weeks of the campaign.
Biskupski was the clear winner in the August primary. She topped the five-candidate field with 46-percent, besting Becker by 4,455 votes. It was a resounding victory, but the campaign was far from over. Becker wasn’t about to leave office quietly.
Talking To People, Not At Them
The campaign prioritized building a robust person-to-person voter contact operation, hiring a field director early and starting volunteer outreach immediately. The voter-contact plan emphasized engaging with voters, drawing out their concerns, and responding specifically to the issues each voter raised.
Voter contact scripts often fail to ask voters this simple question: “What would you like to see improved in your neighborhood/city/state?” By starting with this question the Biskupski campaign uncovered pockets of discontent that polling didn’t detect.
There was a widely held sense that the mayor didn’t listen to regular people and that dealing with city government was painful. There were also explosive feelings around micro issues, like golf courses (the city proposed to close), bike lanes (poorly configured), and parking meters (expensive and hard to use).
Engaging in conversations about issues, rather than delivering a prefabricated lecture, is a more difficult conversation for volunteers to have. Training volunteers to have these conversations requires a greater investment of time but the outcome of these conversations is far more valuable. Initially, volunteers may be afraid because, of course, they don’t know the candidate’s position on every issue. But there’s no harm in a volunteer saying: “I don’t know the candidate’s position on that issue. I’ll get back to you.” The key is following up.
On the Biskupski campaign, unanswered voter questions from phone banks, canvasses, and inbound electronic communications were routed to senior campaign staff and eventually, if necessary, to the candidate for a response. The candidate personally called many voters in response to their questions. The campaign used NGP VAN’s Votebuilder and a spreadsheet to track responses.
It takes time, hard work, and a financial commitment to build momentum for a person-to-person campaign. The Biskupski campaign hired four full-time organizers during the primary and seven full and part-time organizers during the general election.
Early calculations of voter-contact rates and the resources required for comprehensive voter contact, prepared by the campaign’s field director, were overwhelming. It takes a lot of time and resources to contact voters one-on-one. But on the Biskupski campaign this strategy was effective at, first, uncovering inflection points among the electorate and, second, disseminating the candidate’s plans for addressing specific areas of concern.
The Right Message to the Right Voters
Biskupski’s retail skill and the power of her story were compelling to progressive voters. Her experience in economic development and law enforcement and her reputation as a “bridge builder” were reassuring to moderate and conservative voters, a key demographic during the general election.
As a mom, she also brought credibility to discussions on education and air quality, the two most important issues to voters but areas where the mayor has little control. With digital and direct mail targeting, the campaign tailored its message to distinct groups of voters. Never publicized but true throughout the election, the Biskupski campaign courted Republican voters with digital ads, direct mail, and a booth at the Salt Lake County Republican Convention. Biskupski was the only mayoral candidate in attendance. There were five candidates in the primary race at the time.
Informed by polling, volunteer and paid ID canvassing, and the state Democratic party’s voter database, the campaign internally developed target voter models based on age, party, gender, geography, and voting history. The Salt Lake City mayor’s race is non-partisan, so everyone gets to vote in the primary. As a Democrat, running against a Democrat, party could not be a definitive factor for defining the campaign’s target audience.
Utilizing these models in the primary and general election the campaign’s communications and policy director, Maryann Martindale, broke Biskupski’s policy platform into digestible mail pieces and mailed specific messages to targeted groups of voters. The campaign also sent traditional GOTV mailers to target voters. It did not use social pressure mailers.
The LGBT community was split during the mayoral race. While Biskupski is openly gay, the incumbent had a record of supporting LGBT issues. Both candidates made appearances at LGBT events, including walking in the Salt Lake City pride parade last June. Equality Utah endorsed both candidates in the general election and members of the LGBT community published dueling op-eds for Biskupski and Becker in the Salt Lake Tribune. On the Biskupski campaign outreach to this community wasn't prioritized over other groups.
A Modern Campaign
A modern campaign isn’t all digital and targeting, although those are important factors. The traditional political attributes of being nimble strategically, capable of taking advantage when opportunities present themselves (often mistakes by the other side), and not being naïve about the role of money in politics (even in a local election) still dominate.
The Biskupski campaign never matched Becker’s fundraising but it did narrow the gap, as of the final reporting deadline before the general election Biskupski raised $620,978 and Becker raised $876,952. The Biskupski campaign raised enough money to put ads on TV, a buy just shy of $150,000, and spent roughly $30,000 on digital and $15,000 on radio advertising. Meanwhile, the Becker campaign spent $250,000 on TV and much more on digital and radio.
We were sizably outspent and absorbed a barrage of negative ads in the final weeks. There were TV and radio ads from the Becker campaign with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (D) saying Biskupski lacked vision and experience, online sniping, and rumors “the church” didn’t want Biskupski elected. The later was of great concern to the campaign. If that kind of thing catches fire it can kill a candidacy quickly in Salt Lake City.
On Election Day, Biskupski’s inspiring personal narrative, the campaign’s message of openness and inclusion, and, predictably, the person painted as the most progressive candidate won with 51 percent. Still, it took two weeks to tally the close vote. Becker refused to concede until the results were read at the official elections canvass meeting. It wasn’t until Nov. 17 that residents learned Salt Lake City elected its first openly gay mayor.
Lindsay Barenz was the campaign manager on Jackie Biskupski for Mayor 2015. She’s a lawyer and a former union organizer with SEIU. Kelly Grace Gibson is a partner at HGCreative, a political media and communications shop in Washington, D.C.