In conservative and predominantly-Mormon Utah, a state not known for its diversity and election of women to political office, Jackie Biskupski stands out.
On Tuesday, the 49-year-old single mom became the first openly-gay person to be elected as mayor of Salt Lake City – a sign, she says, that the city has evolved in embracing those who don’t fit the state’s straight-laced mold.
By a five percent margin (52 percent to 48 percent), Biskupski beat two-term mayor Ralph Becker and will take office in January, providing that her 1,450-vote lead holds after a Nov. 17 recount. Becker says he will not concede until after the official canvas, which Utah law requires take place two weeks after the election.
On Wednesday, a tired but happy Biskpuski told PEOPLE she’s confident that the outcome won’t change.
“We’ll know for certain when we see the final count, but I think that I’ll maintain this lead and become mayor of Salt Lake City,” she said. “It’s a huge margin (for Becker) to overcome. Anything is possible, but it would have to be a pretty big reversal for things to change.”
Biskupski’s historic win was lauded by gay rights leaders as proof that residents of Utah’s largest city are willing to look at more than a candidate’s sexual persuasion when voting.
“Her victory sends a powerful message to all LGBTQ Utahns that sexual orientation will never be a limitation to public service,” says Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. “We’re looking forward to working alongside Mayor Biskupski to advance policies that will benefit all Utahns.”
“What makes this victory extra special is that Jackie’s sexuality was never an issue,” Jim Dabakis, an openly gay Utah state senator, tells PEOPLE. “Utah may be a red state, but it is not redneck. With Jackie’s election, Utah is showing America how people with strong, differing opinions can live together in respect and civility.”
One of four siblings raised in Hastings, Minnesota, Biskupski says that her Catholic parents, Marvin and Arlene Biskupski, named her after former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. While learning about the civil rights movement in history class at St. Boniface School, she says she was immediately attracted to the idea of working one day to champion the rights of women and minorities.
“We need more women to run for political office,” says Biskupski, who has been openly gay since 1989, shortly after coming to Utah on a ski trip and deciding to stay. “The time is right for women to step up and lead.”
Her father says he isn’t surprised that his daughter is making history in Utah.
“I’m so very proud – Jackie has always been a leader,” says Marvin Biskupski, 89, who ran a fire damage repair business in Hastings for 40 years. (Jackie’s mother, Arlene, a hair stylist, died in 2011.) “She’s also a very likable person, loved by everyone in Hastings. We’re going to have a big victory party here for her.”
A former private investigator, Biskupski decided to get involved in politics after a 1995 controversy erupted at Salt Lake City’s East High school, when the Salt Lake City School Board and the Utah State Legislature tried to eliminate a gay/straight student alliance club. “What they were doing was just plain wrong,” she says.
Elected in 1998 as Utah’s first openly-gay state representative, she served for 13 years, then went to work as an administrator for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office. In January, she decided to go after the job she really wanted: to become Salt Lake City’s second female mayor. (The first, Deedee Corradini, was elected in 1992.)
“I’ve wanted to be mayor for a long time,” Biskupski tells PEOPLE, “and the timing and opportunity just presented itself. So I seized the day and jumped in the game and we ran a phenomenal campaign. We’re walking away with our heads held high. We did everything with integrity.”
Her victory, she says, is a “very big deal, because we’ve come to the point in my community where we value people on their merits, instead of some category that they’ve been placed in.”
A single mom with an adopted son, Archie, 5, Biskupski says she plans to celebrate her victory by fulfilling her son’s wish: to visit his grandpa back home in Hastings.
“I thought he might want to go to Disneyland,” she says, “but he wants to visit his grandpa. So we’ll do that and have a little fun, then begin the hard work.”