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She spent a year chronicling the Machiguenga in the Amazon while cutting her teeth in the jungle of journalism. She helped launch a newspaper in Botswana to document the rise and revolution under Nelson Mandela. And, for the past decade, she has doused diplomatic fires across the globe as a professional mediator.
Introducing Salt Lake City's first lady: Kate Kopischke. Whip-smart and sophisticated, she also is a down-to-earth Midwestern girl, most happy in the backcountry or bushwhacking for social justice. Her casual way belies her Type A résumé. She probably could run Utah's capital city, or more, but has no interest in public office. Instead, Kopischke, 47, is content building a life with 58-year-old boyfriend Ralph Becker biking, hiking and skiing Utah's mountains with the mayor.
Together 21/2 years, the couple also share a passion for news and progressive policy. The calm that Becker projects is "real," Kopischke marvels. But don't confuse it with ambivalence. Becker, she says, is prone to leap out of bed at 3 a.m. to work through an idea in their new upper-Avenues home. He is up at dawn to scour The New York Times, she says, worries incessantly about protecting the taxpayer and is not nearly as dull as some people think. Did you know he's jocular off camera and mixes killer homemade margaritas?
Just don't ask him to go to Burning Man.
"He said 'no way,' " Kopischke smiles, recalling a turned-down summer invitation to Nevada's radical self-expression festival.
Rearing a reporter • On every campus she has graced, Kopischke edited the school paper. As a youth, she bounced from small towns along the Wyoming-Nebraska border to Madison, Wis., before studying journalism in Nebraska and Kansas.
But her tenure at the University of New Mexico where she finished J-school and an anthropology minor changed her life. At 24, she accompanied her then-husband on an academic expedition to the Amazon.
"It changed everything," Kopischke recalls. "It was profound. To live with people who don't have any involvement in the money economy, development, Christianity. I turned 25 when I was in the jungle and thought, 'What am I doing?' "
Kopischke would go on to write for New Mexico dailies, a magazine and The Associated Press. But fretting that contrarian voices "hijacked" too many stories, she soured on journalism.
Then, after a trip to southern Africa, she and a friend decided to start a newspaper to record the region's hope. The Botswana town of Maun was filled with safari operators, expatriates and Africans energized about Mandela's 1994 election. "I ended up voting with my black African friends who had been part of the struggle," she says, noting she actually lived in South Africa while freelancing for the paper. "It was a magical time to be there."
Globe-trotting troubleshooter • Fascinated by Mandela's penchant for solving intractable problems, Kopischke embraced mediation training back home in Albuquerque.
She landed a job with the Policy Consensus Initiative, editing a book on conflict resolution. "I was looking for someone who could do everything," former PCI director Chris Carlson only half jests. "She's very intelligent and intuitive, and she has such a good way with people."
Carlson's other hire Becker first met Kopischke 10 years ago while making a speech as a board member in Big Sky, Mont. "I would interview him," she remembers, "because I also did the newsletter."
Soon after, her mediation skills would whisk her out of the Southwest and into oil, gas and mining agribusiness conflicts around the world. She spent the past five years in the ombudsman's office for the World Bank Group, but works again as an independent mediator since her move to Utah. Kopischke, whose parents met in Libya while teaching on an Air Force base, has headed environmental- and corporate-abuse investigations from Kazakhstan to Kenya to Ecuador.
"I work with public leaders all over the world who put money in their pockets," she says. "It's appalling that a government can fund a civil war, but not put people through school."
Despite being a Barack Obama fan and an unabashed liberal, she barely can understand why many Salt Lake City residents refer to the Legislature as a "four-letter word." Utah's one-party rule, she shrugs, doesn't even register on the world's corruption meter.
Kopischke also was taken by the "extremely effective reaction" by public agencies and Chevron after June's Red Butte oil spill. "The CEO was on the phone at 11 o'clock at night with Ralph saying, 'We're flying in.' I remember Ralph saying, 'Be straight with me.' It was pretty impressive. I only wish it could work that well in places with so little accountability."
'Ralph, Ralph, Ralph' • Working in D.C., Kopischke read about Becker's 2007 election in her old PCI newsletter. A congratulatory note and cup of coffee later, and the couple were launched.
"She hooked up with Ralph and suddenly she was disappearing out of D.C. every second weekend," says Henrik Linders, a skiing buddy and colleague in the ombudsman's office of the World Bank Group. "All we heard in this office for the longest time was this Ralph, Ralph, Ralph, Ralph, Ralph."
In January, Kopischke moved to Salt Lake City, a beautiful, friendly, surprisingly urban "secret in the world." The couple bike City Creek after work, picnic at summer concerts, and carve white water with Becker's loyal band of outdoor buddies.
"Kate is my companion, and I love not only her but my time with her," Becker says. "She leads a pretty busy life, but introducing her to Salt Lake has been such a treat. I'm especially glad she likes it as much as the rest of us who get to live here."
But she was torn about the move. Linders says, leaving her Georgian clients in central Asia "was tearing her apart."
"She lives and breathes for social justice," he says. "But there will be other persons in other communities that she will be committed to."
Kopischke, who divorced after 22 years of marriage, has no children. "I never got lucky," she says. "It's one of my sadnesses."
Marrying Becker remains an option. "We're incredibly committed," she says, "but we've never ruled it out."
The city's first couple are not religious, yet seem to find spirituality between Utah's peaks. But will the buzz of the Beltway lure them back to D.C.? After all, Becker has not yet announced his interest in seeking a second term next year.
"There are certainly a lot of people who tell him he ought to pursue something, but Ralph loves Utah," she says. "He's so connected to the landscape here."
Kopischke also feels connected to the mayor's sons, friends and extended family.
"I feel like I stepped into a great, warm, nurturing environment."
Profile Kate Kopischke
Age • 47
Education • Bachelor's in journalism and master's in intercultural communication, University of New Mexico.
History • Born in Torrington, Wyo. Lived in Nebraska, New Mexico, Washington, D.C., extensive travel abroad as mediator.
Ombudsman/Dispute Resolution Specialist, the World Bank Group, office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, 2005-2010.
Independent facilitator/mediator, 2000-2005.
Communication and program manager, Policy Consensus Initiative, 1999-2002.
Technical writer and editor, Honeywell Defense Avionics Systems, 1994-1999.
Freelance writer and editor, Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, 1993-1994.
Of note • Nebraska Cornhusker fan, loves biking, skiing, travel, music and margaritas. Is fluent in Spanish. Kate on Rocky Anderson:
"He certainly has a lot of champions around here. And some detractors." Kate on getting a drink in Utah:
"There are all these stereotypes in Washington that you can't get a drink here. But there are these lovely, independently owned restaurants and breweries and bars the things that make a really urban city. It's a lot more international than I realized." Kate on whether Ralph really falls asleep in meetings:
" 'I hope not,' he'll say. But I'll ask him, 'How was your day?' And he'll say, 'I don't remember, let me check my iCal.' He's so busy but he's just never disparaging. He can tune stress out. I get my blood pressure up more than he does."