Luz Escamilla calls criticism of her LDS faith ‘insulting,’ vows to be independent if elected Salt Lake City mayor

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Luz Escamilla responded to social media criticism that she'd be unduly influenced by the LDS Church as a Latter-day Saint running to be Salt Lake City mayor. She called that insulting and based on bigotry.

Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Luz Escamilla is seeking to counter claims she would be unduly influenced by the LDS Church were she elected to head Utah’s capital city.

After keeping silent for weeks over what Escamilla called “attacks” on her faith, the state senator and Zions Bank executive posted a lengthy statement Saturday on her campaign website, calling assertions she would take orders from officials within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “insulting,” without merit and based on bigotry.

“Offering no evidence whatsoever, to claim I would do the bidding of the LDS Church is offensive to me not only as a member of that faith, but as a woman,” she wrote. “I have my own brain capable of making my own decisions, my own conscience capable of determining my own positions, and my own voice to speak my mind.”

In the blog post titled “The Low Road,” Escamilla said her education and professional background led her to make decisions “based on evidence and relevant data,” not her faith.

She noted that during her 10-year tenure on Capitol Hill she has broken with church stances on alcohol, abortion, gay rights and other issues, while also collaborating with Latter-day Saint officials and other faith leaders on issues such as immigration.

“I have always been and will always be an independent voice for the people I represent,” she wrote. “As mayor, I will place the interests of Salt Lake City and its residents first. Period.

“My moral compass does not begin and end with where I worship,” Escamilla continued. “It is far broader and more complex than that.”

Contacted Sunday, Escamilla declined further comment, saying her blog post amounted to “the final words I have to say on this matter.

“I hope we all can turn our attention back to the real issues of this campaign that impact the lives of Salt Lake City residents and the future of our great city,” Escamilla said in a short statement.

Her post on luzformayor.com makes no mention of her opponent on the November mayoral ballot, Salt Lake City Councilwoman and clean-air advocate Erin Mendenhall, in the race to replace outgoing Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is not seeking a second term.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall.

Mendenhall, who is not a Latter-day Saint, has not raised the issue of Escamilla’s faith. A spokesman for her campaign declined to comment on Sunday, saying “we don’t want to perpetuate discussion of this as a part of this election.”

The spokesman instead referred to a Sept. 7 Facebook post by Mendenhall on the topic:

“Attacks on a candidate’s faith are beneath the dignity of this community and have no place in our politics. None,” Mendenhall wrote in that post. “Our community is welcoming to people of all creeds, races, and identities, and intolerance cannot be allowed to erode those cherished values.”

Escamilla came in second in the August mayoral primary, narrowly edging out former state Sen. Jim Dabakis amid a field of eight candidates. The November ballot for mayor is the city’s first featuring two female candidates. If Escamilla wins, she’d be the first Latter-day Saint mayor since Ted Wilson, who left office in 1985.

Escamilla said in her post she had declined until now to comment on the claims about her faith because she said she did not want to “dignify these desperate tactics.” But she said that news coverage and discussion of the topic on social media “have kept this issue part of the conversation surrounding the mayoral election.”

In a Facebook post earlier this month, former Mayor Rocky Anderson said city residents were “threatened with the prospect of a Mormon mayor (Luz Escamilla), who seems willing to do the bidding of the church, the developers, and the bank where she has been employed (and which employs so many elected officials — and not because they’re bankers!).”

Anderson has since adamantly denied his comments were rooted in bigotry, writing in an op-ed and in several online posts that they instead reflected concerns about “control of our government by special interests, contrary to the public interest.”

But Escamilla, who does not mention Anderson in her post, wrote that she questioned the motives of “those perpetuating these attacks,” whether they were acting out of “professional self-interest” or “a personal grudge,” adding that the claims “have no place in our politics.”

Escamilla compared herself to John F. Kennedy, who faced concerns as a presidential candidate in 1960 that if elected, he would be beholden as a Catholic to leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. “I do not speak for any church on public matters,” Escamilla said, quoting JFK, “and the church does not speak for me.”

She also sought in her post to scuttle rumors that a senior Latter-day Saint official had emailed church members, instructing them to support Escamilla’s campaign. Instead, she said, it appears the email was sent during the primary by a former church official to his personal contacts, expressing his support for her bid.

“In no way could this be considered a statement from the LDS Church itself,” Escamilla said. “It’s a reach and a desperate attempt to justify an attack that is based not in fact, but in bigotry.”

The LDS Church does not endorse candidates and has a policy of political neutrality, though the vast majority of its members are Republican. Both Escamilla and Mendenhall are Democrats.

A spokesman in the church’s public affairs office reached on Sunday declined to comment.