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Mayor-elect Ralph Becker would push for civil unions in Salt Lake City if he could.

Of course, he can't - because of the same Utah law that bans gay marriage - so he won't.

Instead, Becker plans to stretch the rainbow agenda as far across the blue-hued capital city as the red-ruled Legislature will allow.

On day one of his January job, he vows to dispatch an executive order requiring city contractors to provide domestic-partner benefits.

There's more. He also plans to send two progressive proposals to the sometimes-recalcitrant City Council, including the launch of a domestic-partnership registry, as well as language to widen the city's nondiscrimination ordinance. And the new mayor immediately will push to revamp the city's retirement policy to allow an employee to name a same-sex partner or another designee as a beneficiary.

"What I've attempted to do is arrive at the next steps we can under existing Utah law," Becker says. "I hope Salt Lake City will be known as a community where discrimination isn't condoned; where justice is both accepted and promoted."

So how far will Rocky Anderson's successor go? Could Becker be the next Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor who caused a political firestorm by allowing gay marriage licenses in that ultraliberal burg? Or will he fight for civil unions in court - a move sure to draw headlines and the ire of state lawmakers?

"I would favor a legal recognition of partnerships in the form of civil unions," Becker says. "But that is not something I'm advocating. I recognize that is impossible under Utah law."

Indeed, with the voter-approved adoption of Amendment 3 - the 2004 amendment to the Utah Constitution banning gay marriage - so-called marriage "substitutes" also are prohibited.

"They wrote it that way to prevent civil unions," openly gay state Sen. Scott McCoy says about Amendment 3. "It's sad, but true. The language is clear on that score in the minds of the Republican legislators."

The other problem is that a municipal mayor cannot control the issuance of marriage licenses, a service in Utah administered by county clerks.

"Ralph might think that gay marriage is OK and that civil unions are OK, but, quite frankly, those aren't things that, as mayor, he would have any influence over," says McCoy, a Becker backer.

Instead, the mayor-elect's plan is to take incremental steps to ensure domestic partnerships are recognized, according to Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah.

Thompson says a domestic-partner registry - open to all city residents - would provide "credibility" to such relationships.

Such a registry would serve as a catalog of city residents, either same-sex couples or otherwise, who can add their names so long as they provide proof that they cohabitate and rely on one another as dependents. The registry would serve as a resource for businesses when determining whether to issue insurance benefits.

"What this may do is allow Salt Lake City employers to say, 'Now that we know there's some verification process out there, perhaps [domestic-partner benefits] is something we should consider,' " he says.

Businesses might be persuaded, Thompson adds, since Utah's low jobless rate makes competition among employers much more cutthroat.

Thompson notes Becker "sees the gaps" created by Amendment 3 and wants to seize the opportunity. "He's doing everything he can within the parameters that he's given," he says.

To be sure, Becker has the bona fides throughout his public-service career to prove he is at least as supportive of gay-rights issues as Anderson. During his 11 years on Capitol Hill, many as Democratic House leader, Becker advocated gay-rights initiatives but always was outnumbered by GOP lawmakers.

And he may have an edge Anderson didn't have: a more progressive council.

Becker was endorsed in the mayor's race by McCoy, Jackie Biskupski and Christine Johnson, all Democratic gay members of the Legislature.

Still, the 50-year-old Avenues dweller insists his goal is to establish broad human-rights protections that extend beyond the gay community.

"This isn't just for same-sex couples," he says about the registry and benefits requirement for contractors. "It's for those who meet the standards," which may mean adult siblings or other family members who live together and count each other as dependents.

"I don't want to diminish how important this is to the LBGT community," Becker says. "But I think this is important for indicating what we consider to be standards of fairness for everybody."

The mayor-elect notes his plan to widen the city's nondiscrimination ordinance was inspired partly by complaints from gay residents who have been denied housing because of their sexual orientation. If adopted, that ordinance would cover the realm of realty, employment, public accommodation and city activities.

Becker insists each proposal is his own, not the product of any political pressure from the capital's powerful gay and lesbian community.

Thompson agrees, though he's not complaining. In fact, the Equality Utah head says Becker has an opportunity, particularly with a suddenly more liberal council, to implement meaningful progressive policy.

"Rocky was great, but he would just throw it out there and expect them to catch up," Thompson says. "Ralph will work with people to make sure they understand the issue and get it passed. The difference in style will make a big difference."

Rainbow warrior

Salt Lake City Mayor-elect Ralph Becker has pledged to enact a series of gay-rights initiatives - including some on the first day he takes office.

Following is Becker's list of reforms:

* Issue an executive order on his first day requiring companies that contract with the city to provide domestic-partner benefits.

* Push the City Council on his first day to establish a city registry for domestic partnerships.

* Present to the council on his first day a new nondiscrimination ordinance that would expand the current rule to cover housing, realty, employment, public accommodation and city activities.

* Work to change the city's retirement policy to allow an employee to name a domestic partner or another designee as a beneficiary.