The field of candidates for the open at-large Salt Lake County Council seat vacated at the end of January by newly-inaugurated Mayor Jenny Wilson had doubled by Tuesday as three new hopefuls entered the race.
Terry Marasco, an air-quality activist; Jeff Merchant, a local businessman; and Darlene McDonald, who ran last year for U.S. Congressional District 4, each want to fill the seat for the remainder of Wilson’s term, which is up for election in 2020. The Salt Lake County Democratic Party’s Central Committee will appoint someone to the seat in a special election toward the end of this month.
Marasco, a Salt Lake City resident, is a board member of Utah Moms for Clean Air and a member of the Central City neighborhood council. He’s never run for public office before but said he hopes to make the “evolution” from activism to policy.
“I’ve become so familiar with the key categories of issues not only in the city but the county and the state,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday. “I’ve worked on these issues all over the state and lobbied in the Legislature.”
He said he’s most interested in working on issues around the county’s booming growth, which he sees as impacting almost everything else, including the economy, education, air quality and jobs. He has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in teaching and said his past experience working in the classroom would lead him to focus on advocating for more resources in the county’s schools.
“What I’m looking at really is growth has to be balanced by care for the citizens,” Marasco said. “So we can’t have, for example, huge projects like the inland port and then have all this air pollution. There has to be a balance, kind of like a justice scale.”
Marasco, 74, has been a dissenting voice on the development of the inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost area that is expected to bring increased emissions and truck traffic. If elected, he said he would continue to look at what the county can do to mitigate impacts from that development.
Merchant, a Millcreek resident with experience in the health care and environmental law arenas, has also never run for public office but said he sees his past and current work experience as an asset to the major challenges facing the county in the coming years.
“The same issues keep coming up: growth, air quality, water quality, Medicaid expansion,” he said. “These issues are really important to our country, right? And so as I thought about I thought, well, you know, we need somebody who knows these issues and knows them well and can jump right into it.”
He currently owns and operates several assisted living facilities throughout the state and previously practiced environmental and natural resources law at a firm in Salt Lake City and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
Merchant, 40, has also been involved in education and currently serves as the board president for the Wasatch Family Foundation, an educational nonprofit supporting programs for children and families. His wife, Emily, runs the Wasatch Charter School in Holladay.
Though he worked for Congressman Jim Matheson in the late 90s, Merchant said he never pictured he would enter the political arena but thinks the time is right for his expertise.
“I’m dedicated to the county,” he said. “I want to see it do better. But I’m not one of these people that is going to use this as a springboard for something else. I’m interested in serving my community. I’m interested in keeping Salt Lake County a place that my kids can grow up and live and make it affordable, make it a clean place.”
McDonald, a Millcreek resident who works in the technology industry, said she believes she is well positioned to work as an “ally” for the county’s underrepresented groups, who she said may not understand where to go for resources within the county.
“My life experience especially resembles a lot of people that live in this county that do not feel represented,” she said. “[Being] a single mom, having a child with disabilities, having a blended family, living paycheck to paycheck, having young adult children that are desperately looking for affordable housing and trying to afford college — all of these things that we are faced with on an everyday basis that lots of people all around us are faced with.”
She currently works as a technical analyst at Oracle, a computer technology company, and said her work experience would serve as a “tremendous asset” as the county works to better engage its constituents.
“I’ve noticed that when I’ve gone to meetings and I’ve looked for things online [that there’s a need] to connect technology better with the County Council so it’s more accessible to the community,” she said, noting that she’d also like to create more avenues for residents to engage in the political process, possibly through video conferencing.
Other issues McDonald said she’s interested in include providing increased access to mental-health resources and affordable health care to people within the county and managing growth.
“I want to just work really, really hard for everyone to make sure that they’re heard,” she said. “That they’re listened to.”
The other candidates in the race are Pamela Berry, who previously ran for County Council District 5, former 2nd Congressional District candidate Shireen Ghorbani and Josie Valdez, a longtime activist and former vice chair of the Utah Democratic Party.