SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Vote tallies indicated Salt Lake City was poised to narrowly elect its first openly gay mayor in what would mark another milestone for the LGBT movement in the conservative state with a history of hostility toward gays and lesbians.
Former Utah lawmaker Jackie Biskupski was leading two-term incumbent Ralph Becker by 1,450 votes, according to election results released late Tuesday.
Nearly 24,000 county-wide ballots remained to be counted, but it was not yet known how many involved the mayor’s race, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said.
Biskupski spokeswoman Maryann Martindale said an analysis of the votes revealed no scenarios in which Becker could make up the deficit.
However, Martindale said her camp understood why Becker wasn’t conceding and respected the process.
Becker spokesman Matt Lyon said there’s a lot of ground to make up, but a comeback was possible. At his Tuesday night election watch party, Becker acknowledged Biskupski’s lead and congratulated her on a strong race.
By state law, no more results will be released until the final canvass on Nov. 17. Still, many LGBT people and supporters were already celebrating.
Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said Biskupski’s apparent win shows sexual orientation isn’t a barrier to serving in public office in Utah.
State Sen. Jim Dabakis, a gay Democrat, called it a historic event that would have been unimaginable to past generations in the state.
“If Utah can do it, anybody can do it,” Martindale said. “This is history in the making.”
The climate has changed drastically since 1998, when Biskupski was elected to Utah’s House of Representatives, becoming the first openly gay state lawmaker. Conservative activists urged the House speaker not to swear her in, arguing she likely was breaking state sodomy laws.
“There were several legislators who wouldn’t even look me in the eye — certainly wouldn’t shake my hand,” Biskupski said.
Biskupski served in the Legislature until 2011. Since then, she has worked in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office.
Salt Lake City voters also appear to have elected a second gay member of the City Council. Derek Kitchen and husband Moudi Sbeity were one of three couples who sued to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
Kitchen has declared victory in his race.
“It speaks highly of the community here and it makes me incredibly proud to be a Salt Lake resident,” said Kitchen, who grew up in a Mormon family in the suburb of South Jordan.
Nearly two years ago, a federal judge overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban. It was among the first in a string of similar rulings across the United States that eventually paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare gay marriages legal across the nation.
Earlier this year, a Mormon-backed Utah law was passed that provided protections against housing and employment discrimination for LGBT people while also creating shields for religious freedom.
Church leaders now preach a “fairness for all” approach in which the right to beliefs are balanced with compassion and understanding for gays and lesbians.
The increasingly welcome environment for LGBT people is most pronounced in Salt Lake City, a liberal island in the state where Democrats can compete and win races. The city has had a four-decade streak of Democratic mayors.
Becker was also well-liked by the LGBT community. He officiated one of the first gay marriages in 2013 in the jubilant hours after the ruling when gay and lesbian couples flooded the courthouse to make their unions official. Equality Utah endorsed both Biskupski and Becker.
Sophia Hawes-Tingey was hoping to become Utah’s first openly transgender elected official but lost her bid to become a City Council member in suburban Midvale.