This election year saw a huge increase in the number of women mayors, and that’s good for Utah, Robert Gehrke says

After the latest elections, women will represent seven of Utah’s 10 biggest cities and lead municipalities that are home to well over 1 million people.

Karen Lang, current West Valley City Council member, is leading the race for mayor.

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Nanette Billings was sitting in a Hurricane City Council meeting, watching the five elected members — in her mind, at least — ignoring the will of the dozens of residents who turned out to speak their minds.

That’s when it struck her that she could do a better job. “At least I can listen,” she told me Wednesday. “I can represent.”

So, in 2019 she ran and won a seat on the City Council. And earlier this year, after the city’s mayor opted not to seek reelection, she didn’t like the notion of the seat going uncontested, so she jumped into the race.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

And while there are votes that still need to be counted, it appears that Billings will become the next mayor of the southern Utah city — and the first woman to hold the title.

It wasn’t easy, she said. “I was working against all odds. I didn’t have the current mayor’s support, I didn’t have the council’s support, and there were several influential citizens” backing her opponent.

She isn’t alone.

On this past election night, across the state, more female candidates broke the proverbial glass ceiling than ever before.

From St. George to North Logan, women fared exceptionally well in their bids for mayor this year. In fact, if Monica Zoltanski’s narrow lead holds in the Sandy mayor’s race, seven of the state’s 10 largest cities will have female mayors.

That includes Mayor-elect Karen Lang, who will be the first woman to lead West Valley City; Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, who easily won reelection in Provo; Mayor Michele Randall, who was chosen earlier this year to replace a vacancy left by Jon Pike and won her race Tuesday; and Layton Mayor Joy Petro, who was unopposed in her reelection bid.

“I think there’s just a moment that [women] can see that it can be accomplished, and they’re just going for it,” said Lang, the new mayor of Utah’s second-largest city, “and there are some very, very talented women stepping up and running for office.”

When Susan Madsen, a Utah State University professor who studies women’s role in politics and business, looked at the number of female mayors in cities and towns across the state in 2014, women held around 7% of the positions in the state.

Earlier this year, she reran the numbers, and things had improved, but women still held fewer than a quarter of the posts among cities and towns with populations of 10,000 or more.

After Tuesday — again, assuming the Sandy race doesn’t change — women will be at the helm of 38% of Utah’s most populous towns and will represent more than 1.25 million people.

“This is just telling me that maybe that needle is starting to move even more to where women understand for themselves they can, and maybe they should, [run for office],” Madsen said. “I’m really encouraged.”

Kendalyn Keyes Harris is part of this new generation of leaders. She said she always had in the back of her mind that she wanted to be mayor and was impressed when she was 18 years old, voting in her first election, and then-Rep. Sheryl Allen was taking the time to go door-to-door and campaign.

Harris eventually ran for Bountiful City Council, spending eight years as a member, during which time she said she gained the confidence to take a shot at running for mayor. But in her campaign, she said she still encountered some of the same stereotypes commonly used against female candidates.

“My opponent never said, ‘She can’t do it; she’s a woman,’” Harris said. “But his team did make references, like her professional background is not up to snuff and her business expertise or leadership ability, she’s just not a strong leader.”

In the case of Harris and Billings and others, the mayoral victory is the culmination of civic engagement and work that started years earlier.

Tami Tran got involved in the Kaysville planning commission two decades ago, inspired by seeing her mother’s involvement in the community and the good that could come from her work. She spent two terms on the Kaysville City Council before deciding to take the plunge and now, after an apparent victory on election night, will become the city’s first mayor of Asian descent.

“I’ve been surrounded by great women my whole life, women who have done things that are scary or hard,” Tran told me.

For Natalie Hall, municipal government may be in her genes. Hall’s aunt was city manager of Cottonwood Heights and her uncle was mayor of South Salt Lake. Hall, who worked for seven years in Bluffdale’s emergency management and licensing departments, will now be the city’s next mayor.

“What it comes down to is we really need women to know that we’re capable, as well [as men], of being in politics,” Hall said, “and being able to work with men, women, businesses, residents, and have a little bit of a different perspective.”

That diversity of perspective — not because women are innately better or worse at leading — is really why these women winning their elections is important. The different experiences and styles can make for better, more inclusive policymaking, but for most of Utah’s history, those voices had been underrepresented or missing entirely.

We all want and need the best candidates and best leaders we can get in these positions. But when roughly half the state’s population doesn’t get fair consideration because of their gender or chooses not to run because of the obstacles — real or perceived in their way — we lose out on a crop of extremely talented Utahns.

That’s why this election is kind of a big deal and a trend that Madsen said she doesn’t expect to change.

“Women are leaning in. They’re understanding that they can serve. They’re seeing women in those roles,” she said. “There’s no stopping.”

Correction • Nov. 5, 11:19 p.m.: This story has been updated to identify that Natalie Hall’s aunt was a former city manager of Cottonwood Heights.