This year’s election brought historic wins for women across the country — including in Utah’s Wasatch Front, where at least four cities elected their first female mayors.
Overall, women across Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Utah counties will gain 6 percent more council or mayoral positions come January, holding a total 27 percent of all seats. And with at least a half-dozen vacant seats across the Wasatch Front, that number could increase slightly next year.
That still puts Utah behind the national average of about 30 percent of women represented in municipal government, according to Utah Valley University’s 2017 Utah women in politics brief. But Erin Jemison, the staff lead for the YWCA on Real Women Run programming, said increasing numbers of women in Utah’s city governments may be a sign of more change to come.
“There tends to be a snowball effect,” she said. “Especially at these local municipal levels of elected office, if women are seeing women that they know — which they’re much more likely to know those women in those municipal offices — if they see them winning elections and then, we hope, being successful in office and finding it to be a rewarding experience, then I think we could see it build on itself.”
Real Women Run is a Utah-based nonpartisan initiative that looks to increase the number of women involved in politics at all levels.
Jemison told The Salt Lake Tribune in August that its efforts seemed to be working. More than 400 women campaigned for positions in this year’s elections — double the number compared to 2016, although that was not a municipal election year. (She said the organization did not have data for 2015.)
Jenney Rees, Cedar Hills’ mayor-elect, also said the rising numbers of women campaigning and becoming elected could be a good sign for the future.
“What it will do is encourage other women to get involved to see so many women who are participating in the political process and they are having success and becoming elected,” she said. “It helps open that door to other people in the community who are also interested in sharing their perspective and pushing for change.”
Utah County will make the biggest leaps in gender equality across the Wasatch Front come January, with a 15 percent increase in female mayors. Prior to the election, the county had one: Woodland Hills Mayor Wendy Pray, who was appointed when Mayor Steve Lauritzen died of cancer in April. Now, women also will serve in the top city spots in Cedar Hills, Provo and Vineyard.
Salt Lake County has the most female mayors: four, or 25 percent of the total.
Jemison said it’s important to elect women because they tend to reach across the aisle, compromise more and come up with different solutions. But someday, she said she hopes voters don’t have to think about gender at the ballot box.
“I’ll often hear people say, ‘I’m not going to vote for someone just because she’s a woman’ or ‘You shouldn’t run for office just because you’re a woman,’” Jemison said. “Our stance is not that every woman candidate is better than every male candidate or that women should run just because they’re women. It’s more of a response to the fact that in order for our government to represent our communities, we need to truly represent our communities.”
Katie Witt, Kaysville’s newly-elected mayor, said the changes in representation may reflect evolving attitudes toward women in politics.
“We have a lot of good women running, and I don’t think women are running on their gender,” she said. “... They’re running because they have good ideas, they have experience, and the voting public sees that. And so that’s why they’re getting elected.”
Female mayors serve 12 of 65 cities in the Wasatch Front
South Salt Lake
Meet the four mayors who will make history as the first woman elected to that position in their cities’ history:
Dawn Ramsey, South Jordan
When Dawn Ramsey decided to run for mayor, she’d never worked in South Jordan government or held elected office. But she’d dedicated her career to volunteer work, so she felt prepared to make a bid for the city’s top elected position — a seat no woman has held in the 82 years since its incorporation.
“This race wasn’t about gender for me at all,” Ramsey said. “If I win, I wanted to win because I’m the best candidate, and that’s what happened.”
She added, however, that she is “honored” and “humbled” to be elected as the first in a historic race.
Ramsey has worked as the regional Parent Teacher Association director for the Jordan School District for four years and as a member of the executive committee of the board of directors for the Jordan Education Foundation. She also has had experience running nonprofits for almost 20 years.
“I recognized that my years of experience, my leadership experience and my ability to work well with others and to communicate well with others and the time that I have available was exactly what our city needs and thought that I’d offer my expertise and my experience to the residents of our city if that was what they wanted,” she said. “Evidently, they do.”
Ramsey said she wants to spend the next four years representing South Jordan at a “higher level,” preserving the city’s green space, working with the Jordan School District to ensure students continue to get an “excellent education,” and managing the city’s rapid growth and transportation issues.
“The future is bright in South Jordan,” she said. “We have great people who live here and I’m excited to organize some more resident committees to help our residents have more of a say in the decisions that are made and the plans that go forward as we work to accommodate our growth and preserve the things that we love most about our city.”
Julie Fullmer, Vineyard
When Julie Fullmer and her husband moved to Vineyard in 2011, they were two of nearly 150 residents. Six years later, the city has ballooned to nearly 11,000 people — and as 2016’s fastest-growing city or town of any size in the state, there’s no sign it’s slowing down.
Fullmer has long been involved with the community. She worked on the city’s planning commission for nearly two years and its city council for four.
“I’ve been able to get out and communicate with our communities, and even though we’ve grown to like 11,000 people, I feel like I know most of the people in the community and I could name most of the people,” she said. “I know what they need and what they want. And I knew people were looking for a change, because when you get that many new people into an area, they want somebody new who speaks for them.”
Fullmer is the first woman elected as mayor in the 28 years since the city was incorporated and said she hopes to continue managing the area’s rapid growth while working to streamline methods of communication with residents.
“Really, my vision and why I think I’m really excited about where we are is that we’re just the perfect location for unique commercial [development] that can come in,” she said, adding that she views Vineyard as a “hub” for Utah County.
Fullmer, 32, and her husband own a marketing firm called Outwit Media. She is currently a student at Utah Valley University.
Michelle Kaufusi, Provo
After more than 100 years of male mayors, it was time for a change of leadership in Utah’s third-largest city, said Michelle Kaufusi — and she felt she had the experience to fit the bill.
“Our city was ready for a woman mayor,” she said. “It needed a mayor that could come in and be a bridge builder with the city council and have those working relationships, and it also needed a fresh start, a fresh set of eyes.”
Kaufusi, who was born and raised in Provo, has a degree in geography from Brigham Young University with an emphasis in global studies and local government. She served for five years on the Provo School Board, part of that time as president. There, she helped pass the largest school bond in the organization’s history in 2014 to rebuild several schools.
She attributes her success there and in her mayoral bid to her time spent “down in the trenches” — “showing that you’ll show up and you’ll work and you won’t whine and you’ll get the job done and you’ll do it effectively,” she said. “That speaks a lot. The word gets around pretty quick when they see how hard you work.”
Former Provo Mayor John Curtis was recently elected as the new representative for the 3rd Congressional District, and Kaufusi will be sworn in early as interim mayor on Tuesday. After that, she said she’ll begin focusing on issues ranging from fixing sewers to planting trees and managing growth.
“I just feel so relieved that the glass ceiling has been shattered,” she said. “Not only for myself but for all the future generations because now they see that it’s something that is tangible and that they can accomplish if they put their hearts to it. It’s not the unknown never-been-done anymore.”
Michelle Tait, Harrisville
In January, 23-year Harrisville resident and nearly decadelong councilwoman Michelle Tait decided she was ready to take on a new challenge.
She’d felt pulled to city government for a few years but had decided to focus instead on her career with the U.S. Postal Service, where she has been a rural letter carrier for 33 years. She moved up the ladder as the state secretary treasurer of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association to vice president and president of its western states area.
Now, she will serve as Harrisville’s first female mayor.
Tait said one of her major goals is to build community — “to have people care about one another” and “know who their neighbors are.”
“I love my family; I think that’s why I get involved in this is that I see my kids and my grandkids almost on a daily basis,” she said. “... That’s my impetus to make the community what it is and make it better — because I want other people to have time for their kids and have activities for their families.”
She said she’ll work on managing growth in the area to maintain rural space while also considering the city’s tax-base needs. Overall, she said she’s looking forward most to working with the residents.
“I like people,” Tait said of her decision to run. “I like working with them; I like doing things for them. I like serving. I know that sounds a little cheesy, but that’s pretty much what it is.”