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‘Political overtime’: Crowded candidate field complicates race to fill Salt Lake County Council seat

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Votes are cast as members of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party's central committee gather to choose a new county mayor from a field of four candidates at Corner Canyon High School in Draper on Saturday Jan. 26, 2019. With former Council member Jenny Wilson winning the mayor's race, her at-large seat is now up for a party election.

As the Salt Lake County Democratic Party works to fill the at-large Salt Lake County Council seat vacated last month by recently inaugurated Mayor Jenny Wilson, its large candidate field is considered both a boon and a complication.

There are 10 candidates vying for the votes of the roughly 1,100 central committee members who will appoint someone to the seat — enough that the party says it isn’t feasible to host a debate that could help members solidify their picks.

But the large candidate pool is also a positive sign that the tremendous interest from Democrats in running for public office in 2018 hasn’t yet waned, said Q. Dang, the party’s executive committee chairman.

“I often joke that I see this as kind of political overtime for us,” he said. “The midterms are over, but then we have these special elections. So people are still engaged and now we’re going into municipals, and obviously Salt Lake City is having a huge [mayor’s] race. So when we have people paying attention to what’s going on in local politics, they’re going to feel inspired to run themselves or become involved.”

In lieu of a debate, the party will host a meet and greet with the candidates on Feb. 21 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. The central committee will then appoint one of the candidates to complete the remainder of Wilson’s term through 2020 at a special election at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville on Saturday.

This race has more than double the number of candidates who ran in the recent county mayor’s race, which Dang said could be because the at-large seat is seen as more accessible.

“A lot of people felt like [the mayoral] position was probably too prestigious for someone who doesn’t have some experience in terms of public service,” he said. “But people see the council seat as more manageable in terms of it’s part time. It’s a way to represent their district — or in this case, the county — without necessarily having to have gone through all the political processes that you might have to to be the mayor.”

Several of the candidates for the at-large seat have never run for public office: Paul Olsen, an economist; Terry Marasco, an air-quality activist; Jeff Merchant, a businessman; and Nigel Swaby, a real estate agent.

Swaby, who lives on Salt Lake City’s west side and currently serves on the Fairpark Community Council, said he decided to run for the open seat because he feels the council lacks representation from his area.

“I saw it as an opportunity because of where I am and where I live,” he said. “We’ve got great representatives on the House seat and City Council, but the west side doesn’t have as much representation, and I saw that as an opportunity for the county level — particularly when we’re looking at issues like the inland port and further development.”

Along with many of the other candidates, Swaby said his major priorities, if elected, would be to address affordable housing, homelessness and air quality.

(Photo courtesy of Pamela Berry) Pamela Berry, who ran previously for Salt Lake County Council District 5, is now running for the open at-large Salt Lake County Council seat vacated by inaugurated county Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Olsen, a South Salt Lake resident, graduated last year with a master’s degree in economics from the University of Utah. He said that background sets him apart from other candidates and noted his major policy positions on growth and the environment.

“We definitely need heavy investment in greener energy sources,” he said, referencing the inversions during the winter months. “With all the housing developments that have been going up the last few years, it’s a wonderful opportunity to invest in better technology energy sources.”

Two of the candidates in the at-large race ran unsuccessfully for the county mayor seat: Shireen Ghorbani, a communication professional at the University of Utah who ran last year in the 2nd Congressional District, and Stone Fonua, a former police officer who has run and lost multiple elections under different party affiliations. Ghorbani lost to Wilson by less than 80 votes; Fonua earned zero votes.

Other candidates in the council race include Pamela Berry, who previously ran for County Council District 5; Steven Burge, a former Carbon County commissioner; Darlene McDonald, who ran last year in the 4th Congressional District; and Josie Valdez, a longtime activist and former vice chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party.

Burge said his past work in county government lends him the experience needed to “hit the ground running” during the short stint. That, combined with his recent volunteer experience at homeless shelters in Salt Lake City and work as an educator, has put him “face to face” with the county’s challenges.

“I’m seeing the real challenges out there,” he said. “I just support the regular working person trying to do the best they can in life and I’m one of them. And we can all join together to keep a high quality of life in this area.”

Dang said he’s happy to see such a high degree of interest in the open seat and hopes the candidates will continue their engagement with the party beyond the election.

“There’s no experience like actually running a campaign, even though it’s a short campaign,” Dang said. “You learn so much as a candidate, and I hope even if they lose, they know what to do better next time, that it prepares them for the next race.”

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