Steve Griffin
Betty Iverson holds hands with her wife, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, as Biskupski announces her withdrawal from the mayoral race during a press conference at the City-County Building on Monday, March 18, 2019. Biskupski said the decision was due to a “complex family situation.”

SALT LAKE CITY — As news of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's surprise announcement that she was bowing out of the 2019 mayoral race spread rapidly Monday, a political analyst said her exit dramatically changes the still highly crowded race.

“Taking the incumbent out really opens this up,” said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank.

Even with Biskupski's exit, the upcoming mayoral race will be jam-packed, with seven other candidates having filed personal campaign committees.

Her exit, Burbank said, leaves a likely frontrunner spot to former state Sen. Jim Dabakis because of his strong name recognition and being the voice of Democrats in the Utah Legislature for years. He's also a prominent name in the Utah LGBTQ community.

Burbank said he was "quite surprised" to see Biskupski drop out. Her stated family reasons are "absolutely understandable," Burbank said, but at the same time he noted she was not in an enviable position as an incumbent with so many challengers lining up against her.

“It’s a bit surprising to me that she got that many. I think that a number of people were saying that she wasn’t as strong a candidate as they thought they had elected," Burbank said. "It’s unusual for somebody who is an incumbent who was signaling all along that she was going to run for re-election to have attracted that much opposition."

In addition to Dabakis, the candidates who have announced campaigns include David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition; David Ibarra, a prominent Latino businessman; and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold. Christian Harrison, chairman of the Salt Lake City Downtown Community Council, said he is planning to launch his campaign Wednesday. Freelance journalist Richard Goldberger and Aaron Johnson, a veteran, have also filed personal campaign committees.

Now a frontrunner to replace the mayor, Dabakis had nothing but praise for Biskupski, calling her "our Jackie Robinson."

“It’s really important for the people of Salt Lake and the people of Utah to understand what a historic figure Jackie Biskupski is,” Dabakis said, citing her election as the first LGBTQ state legislator. At the time, some lawmakers treated her poorly, refusing to shake her hand or acknowledge her, he said.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, left, returns to her office with her wife, Betty Iverson, after announcing her withdrawal from the mayoral race during a press conference at the City-County Building on Monday, March 18, 2019. Biskupski said the decision was based on a “complex family situation.”

“She is still a hero to little girls everywhere,” said Dabakis, who served as the only openly gay lawmaker during tenure in the Utah Senate. “She is our Jackie Robinson.”

Biskupksi’s exit surprised him, though he pointed out campaign finance documents indicated she wasn't raising a lot of money might have been a hint.

Dabakis said her absence from the race won’t change things much for him.

“I was never really running against Jackie. I was running for my vision of the city,” he said.

The campaign for Garbett, following the mayor's announcement, sent an email to supporters, calling the race "wide open," and claiming Garbett has "already shown that he's one of the front-runners to win the primary," citing the diversity of funds raised so far. The email also requested more donations.

Garbett in a prepared statement sent to the Deseret News thanked Biskupski for her service.

"I recognize the incredibly difficult job she has had and the selflessness it takes to take on a role in public office," he said.

Ibarra lent his support to Biskupski, saying his "heart goes out to her" and that he's praying "the family issues get resolved quickly and everything ends well."

"Nobody wants to hear that somebody had to choose to drop out and not compete for something I know the mayor loved, and that was serving our city," Ibarra said, congratulating her on her service. "Public service isn't easy and I know that the last year or two has been very stressful. She's a fighter."

At the same time, Ibarra said her exit doesn't impact his race "one iota."

"I'm not running against anybody. I'm running for the residents of Salt Lake City," he said.

Penfold said he was not expecting Biskupski to drop out — but he said "I totally appreciate how challenging and demanding being mayor is" and "I have a lot of respect" for Biskupski's decision to put family first.

Not having an incumbent in the race "changes things a little bit," Penfold said, but he added, "we're still ready to run."

Harrison, who plans to launch his campaign Wednesday, said he and Biskupski "disagree on a lot — but we both love this city."

"I look forward to continuing to make this race about the challenges Salt Lake City faces," Harrison said. "I wish Mayor Biskupski and her family all the best."

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Goldberger, when he learned of Biskupski's exit from a reporter, said he was surprised. At the same time, he said the "word on the street was that she wasn't going to make it," and that her "brand has become somewhat sullied."

"I wasn't happy with her as a state legislator and I wasn't thrilled with her as mayor," Goldberger said, adding that he's a "very different candidate" and he works "for the people."

Johnson could not be reached for comment Monday.

Contributing: Dennis Romboy, Emily Ashcraft