'Salt Lake City needs a champion’: Sen. Luz Escamilla launches campaign for mayor

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Sen. Luz Escamilla launches her official campaign for city mayor from the steps of the Salt Lake City and County building on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. As the city grows and becomes more diverse, Escamilla says she would represent a number of overlooked communities, including the Latino population and the city’s west side. If elected, she would likely be the first ethnic minority mayor of Salt Lake City and would be only the third woman to hold the position.

As Salt Lake City mayor, Sen. Luz Escamilla would be a “champion for all,” her supporters said Tuesday at the candidate’s official campaign launch.

From the steps of Salt Lake City Hall, they highlighted her track record during 11 years of service as a state senator, her ability to work across the aisle to achieve data-driven results and her work with overlooked and underserved communities. These, they said, are the primary characteristics that set her apart in the crowded 2019 race.

“Salt Lake City doesn’t just need a leader,” said Rep. Angela Romero. “Salt Lake City needs a champion. An advocate. A person that brings people hope because of shared experiences. That person is Luz.”

Escamilla first came to Utah from Mexico as an international student at the University of Utah more than 20 years ago. There, she discovered her passion for working to improve the community, she said, and got a work visa after graduation. In 2004, she became a “proud U.S. citizen.”

She served as an appointee to former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s State Office of Ethnic Affairs, before serving in the Utah Legislature and as a vice president of Zion’s Bank. During her time on Capitol Hill, she has been an advocate for anti-poverty efforts, health care and diverse communities.

“I have the experience from both executive and legislative branches of state government to lead us forward,” she said Tuesday. “I have experience to work with our business community to ensure that Salt Lake City remains the most attractive place to do business anywhere in the country. I have the passion to fight for the civil and human rights of every single person who calls Salt Lake City home. And I have the will to collaborate with the Salt Lake City Council to heal past wounds and to move forward as a unified city.”

Escamilla said the capital city has made several strides since she first arrived, and she gave a special shoutout to Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who announced last week that she was withdrawing from the race. But the city also “faces some major growing pains” that the next mayor will need to address, Escamilla said.

The city has an affordable housing crisis — with recent research estimating Utah has a housing gap of at least 43,500 dwellings and that as many as 100,000 households are putting 50 percent or more of their income toward housing costs. It has problems with homelessness and poor air quality, which Escamilla told The Salt Lake Tribune would be among her top priorities as mayor.

She expressed support for the city’s efforts to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2032 and said it must “continue to find innovative and sustainable development solutions to keep pace with our accelerating growth while supporting the businesses that support our local economy.”

Escamilla noted that she and her youngest daughter have asthma and that she has fought in the state Legislature and will continue to fight to improve the quality of water and air.

“No mother should have to watch their child struggle to breathe,” she said.

Escamilla, the Senate Democratic whip, said one of her efforts in that area this year was her sponsorship of a bill that will establish baseline environmental conditions in the inland port area planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost side to monitor any changes as a result of the project.

“This was classic Luz,” activist and Salt Lake City resident Judi Hilman said of SB144 during her remarks to the crowd. “Data driven. How can we protect our environment if we don’t track the changes? Luz knows that when it comes to environmental issues, science and data are our best allies.”

The inland port is arguably one of the most important policy considerations facing the next mayor. After Biskupski filed suit against the state’s creation of the inland port development earlier this month, Escamilla said she thinks that litigation over land-use and tax authority will help the city navigate the complex issue.

“Having the challenge in the courts and the courts making a decision just allows us to move forward,” she said, noting that while she sees opportunities for economic growth and development from the future distribution hub, it needs to be carefully planned and managed. “I’ve had legal counsel already reviewing that constitutionality question and I think there is a reason to be concerned with that [state] overreach.”

Escamilla has also said she would represent a number of overlooked communities, including the Latino population and the city’s west side. If elected, she would likely be the first ethnic minority mayor of Salt Lake City and would be only the third woman to hold the position.

“I’m asking for your support because it’s time to elect a mayor who can represent all of Salt Lake City — from Rose Park and Glendale, from Liberty Wells to the Avenues and from Brickyard to Federal Heights,” she told her supporters Tuesday.

A number of her legislative colleagues stood behind Escamilla during her announcement, including Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay; Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City; Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City; and Republican Sen. Jake Anderegg from Lehi.

“I think she’s a fantastic choice and I’m not saying that as the token Republican,” Anderegg joked after the campaign event. “I’ve worked a lot with her on affordable-housing issues as well as wage-gap issues and I’ve never met anyone who is more able to bring people along with her.”

The Legislature has had a rocky relationship with Biskupski, who is herself a former state lawmaker, over the past few years — particularly over the inland port. Anderegg said he has nothing bad to say about the current mayor but thinks “Luz is uniquely positioned to be able to bridge that gap in a way not only within Salt Lake City but throughout the entire state.”

“She is highly well respected and she knows how to get things done without being abrasive but also being persistent,” he said.

Escamilla is in the middle of her four-year Senate term, so she can retain her seat while running for mayor and would be able to remain in state office if she lost the city race. She previously challenged Republican Rep. Chris Stewart in a race for the 2nd Congressional District in 2014, winning the Democratic nomination but losing in the general election.

In the crowded mayoral race, she will face former state Sen. Jim Dabakis; Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall; David Garbett, the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition; former Downtown Community Council Chairman Christian Harrison; Latino businessman David Ibarra; and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold. Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, and Aaron Johnson, a military veteran and novice politician, have formed personal campaign committees to run.