Victoria Petro-Eschler had always been interested in politics, but when the smoky smell of a burning chemical-coated railroad bridge invaded her west Salt Lake City home in 2021 and she couldn’t find any official answers, she decided it was time to do more.
It was time to act.
“I could see stuff falling from the sky. We could smell it in the air. People were getting headaches,” she said. “I just realized that getting the city to communicate with our neighborhood in a way that is significant to us is a skill, it’s an art, and the city needed help with it.”
So she ran for the Salt Lake City Council’s District 1 seat, which includes Rose Park and Jordan Meadows, and won.
Like Petro-Eschler, many others also eyed the two west-side City Council seats last fall. In the end, eight candidates — three in District 1 and five in District 2 — were on November’s ballot.
That interest extended beyond political hopefuls to political donors.
In District 1, candidates raised $74,000 — a far cry from the millions piled up in some congressional races but 13 times more than the $5,700 scraped together in 2017.
In District 2, which covers Fairpark, Glendale and Poplar Grove, the candidates amassed almost $105,000, a huge 850% leap from the $11,000 mustered in 2019.
Diverse candidates emerge
Interest spiked with no popularly elected incumbents seeking another term on the west side.
District 1 representative James Rodgers stepped down in early October after already ruling out a third term. District 2 council member Andrew Johnston left in the spring to become the city’s director of homelessness policy and outreach. The council picked advocate Dennis Faris to fill that vacancy. (Faris ran in the fall but fell short of eventual victor Alejandro Puy.)
That left the field open to an array of newcomers. New faces emerged from untraditional backgrounds, often encouraged by specific organizations or individuals to run.
“There’s a sense among many people that we need to have a broader range of people who run for and get elected to offices,” said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah and longtime observer of Salt Lake City Hall. “And so I think there was kind of more interest in having a diverse pool of candidates.”
The ranked choice voting system also eliminated the need for primaries and allowed candidates to continue running and raising money until Election Day.
“As a result of that,” Burbank said, “I think that what you’re likely to see is that we’ll see more spending, given the nature of those types of elections.”
Voter turnout for District 1 rose from 25% in 2017 to almost 33%. Engagement swelled as well, Petro-Eschler said, especially on issues such as unaddressed homelessness and skyrocketing housing prices.
“There is west-side optimism. And having choices makes people optimistic,” she said. “So now, our job is to harness that optimism to remind those people that they are heard.”
In District 2, however, voter turnout slipped from 37% in 2019 to 29% last year.
“Municipal elections are hard. It’s hard sometimes to get some people engaged, especially in districts like mine where it’s a working-class district minority-majority,” Puy said. “It’s not because people don’t care. It’s because of the challenges and the barriers that my community has.”
This was the political consultant’s first run for public office. Puy prevailed after an exhaustive campaign that focused on knocking on doors and including Spanish speakers in the conversation.
One of his opponents, Nigel Swaby, who heads the Fairpark Community Council, doesn’t believe there’s necessarily an increasing interest in politics on the west side. He attributes the growth in campaign fundraising to the opportunity to select new leaders without the challenge of incumbents. He also points to a change of demographics in west-side neighborhoods.
“The people that live here are wealthier than they have been in the past because house values have gone up so much,” Swaby said. “You’ve got a lot of new blood, which will also increase participation, and that includes financially.”
That real estate explosion is leading to a new worry: gentrification.
“We have tremendous gentrification forces happening,” said Petro Eschler, who also is the executive director of Salty Cricket Composers Collective, a cultural nonprofit. This can bring new people to enhance the fabric of west-side neighborhoods, she said. “But, if unchecked, gentrification has left communities like mine in ruins and other cities.”
Puy, born in Argentina and a recently naturalized U.S. citizen who made his understanding of the Latino community one of his campaign’s guiding principles, said he is witnessing these neighborhood evolutions — and not always for the better.
“Many Latino families and minority families are leaving the west side because of gentrification and the cost of living,” he said. In a district where Hispanics often look for multigenerational homes, he added, the increasing volume of small studio apartments just won’t do.
“We have to work very hard to look where the city needs to look, because this is where our families with kids are on the west side of Salt Lake City,” Puy said. “This is where we have a disproportionate impact from the homeless shelter crisis we have in our city. We have some of the issues with crime still happening.”
In the end, Salt Lake City achieved a milestone: electing its most diverse City Council in history. For the first time, most of the members (four of the seven) are racial and ethnic minorities. And, for the first time, a majority (again four) are openly LGBTQ.
What that landmark diversity leads to at City Hall remains to be seen. The trend toward rising political interest on the west side, though, is expected to continue along with competition among candidates and prospective challengers, according to the U.’s Burbank, even more so now that these new council members have shown the way for future generations.
“Things that motivated people in terms of thinking about more diversity, in terms of thinking about representing a broader range of people and in the City Council,” the political scientist said, “I don’t think any of that’s going away.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.