When Michelle Kaufusi went to Provo City Hall to file to run for mayor in June, a city official told her she was one of the first women to run for the job in the city’s history.
“I really didn’t believe them,” she said. “I knew that in the city office there was a wall with all the mayors’ pictures from the very beginning of time. So I went and found the wall and sure enough, it’s all men. So I’m like, ‘Now I’m in even more. This makes me want to win even more.’”
A recent Salt Lake Tribune data analysis found that women’s representation across Utah County is the lowest in the Wasatch Front — about 5 percent of mayors there are women compared to a high of 19 percent in Salt Lake County. (The latter has three women mayors out of 16 cities; the former has just one out of 21 cities.)
Provo’s Nov. 7 election is on the verge of changing that. With a victory by Kaufusi or her opponent, former city Councilwoman Sherrie Hall Everett, the county’s biggest city will have the first female mayor in its 157-year history.
Another city guaranteed a female leader is Woodland Hills, where Mayor Wendy Pray is running unopposed, and Eagle Mountain, Highland City and Vineyard City also have viable female candidates for the position.
Kaufusi said she hopes this election’s increased interest in city politics among Utah County women is a sign of change.
”I think if one of us can break the glass ceiling, it will open the door for a lot more involvement from women,” she said.
Bridge builders, peacemakers and momma bears
Stephanie Gricius, a candidate for mayor in Eagle Mountain, thinks part of the reason few women in Utah County have been interested in engaging in politics in the past is because of its “family-oriented” culture.
That’s why she sees women’s increased interest in this election as a response to deepening societal problems.
“You know when things get bad because the women do start getting involved,” she said. “Like, you poke the momma bear and she’ll come out and fight you. If things are going all right, it’s no big deal — let’s focus on what really matters. But when that dynamic starts to shift, we’ll come out of the woodwork and do what needs to be done.”
Jessie Shoenfeld, a former Highland City Council member and current mayoral candidate in the city, agreed.
“I think that’s a fair assessment about the women, that they are family-oriented — putting their emphasis there, getting so busy,” she said. “But when they have to come out, they’ve got the claws out.”
Pray, who currently serves Woodland Hills as Utah County’s only female mayor, said the increased engagement could also be motivated by an awareness that women’s voices are missing in city halls.
“Probably a lot of women did look at the gender breakdown right now in the county and said, ‘Wait a minute; we’ve got to do something,’” she said.
Kaufusi speculated the interest could also be a byproduct of the divisive state of national politics.
“With the way the government and politics are currently right now with President [Donald] Trump and all the uncivil people and the way they’re behaving, I think that it’s time for women,” she said. “They tend to be bridge builders and peacemakers, and I think that’s what all the political systems need right now.”
Everett has another adjective: problem solvers.
“Women bring a unique perspective in the way that we think and the way we make contributions,” she said. “I think we’re recognizing value. I think we’re recognizing qualification. I think we’re recognizing the importance of that voice in helping us solve some of our toughest problems.”
Different path to politics
Most of Utah County’s female mayoral candidates have over a decade of experience in their cities, serving previously on their city councils, planning commissions or Parent Teacher Associations before taking a shot at the top local office.
Specific community issues drew some into the political arena.
That was the case for Gricius, who helped lead the opposition to a proposed prison relocation to her city and then became a city councilwoman.
Pray was active in the PTA before joining her city’s planning commission in response to a development project next door. She served there for eight years before successfully running for city council.
Others, like Everett, began their political paths through immersion in community activities.
“I had lived in Provo and loved the community for a long time but I got involved in the neighborhood program and went from the neighborhood program serving as an area rep over several neighborhoods,” Everett said. “And then someone suggested I run for city council.”
Erin Jemison, the staff lead for the YWCA on Real Women Run programming — an organization that looks to increase women’s participation in politics — said it’s common for women to decide to run after receiving a little encouragement.
“One of the things the research shows is when the party and people who are really engaged in politics are tapping women and encouraging them, saying, ‘Come on, step up, you should run for office,’ they do — and they win at the same rates as men,” Jemison told The Tribune in August.
Four of the five female mayoral candidates in Utah County interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune have finished raising all their children, which Kaufusi said is one of the major barriers to women’s involvement in politics.
“It’s almost like in Utah County, you kind of have to have your ducks in a row as a mom because we’re judged so much harsher than males,” she said. “We have to make sure all our kids are raised, we have to make sure we have the time [and] we have to make sure we have handled all our to-dos, I think, before anyone would consider us credible [candidates] for mayor.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that there are more than five female candidates for mayor in Utah County and added Vineyard City to the list of those with viable female candidates.