Salt Lake City mayoral candidates vow to make Muslim issues a priority

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Candidates for Slat Lake City Mayor talk about issues at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City on Tuesday July 9, 2019. Emerald Project in partnership with the SLCC Thayne Center hosted the event with, from left, Erin Mendenhall, David Ibarra, David Garbett, Luz Escamilla, Stan Penfold, and Jim Dabakis.

Recognition of Muslim holidays and a Cabinet-level diversity officer and were among measures proposed by Salt Lake City’s six mayoral candidates in a forum Tuesday on issues affecting the city’s Muslim community.

The candidates focused on ways to ensure cultural competency and diverse representation in city government, some highlighting their own experience with discrimination.

“I have experienced hate based on my race, ethnicity, gender and national origin,” state Sen. Luz Escamilla said in the forum, hosted at Salt Lake Community College by the Emerald Project, a Utah-based nonprofit focused on combating Islamophobia. “Representation does matter.”

Escamilla and environmental lawyer David Garbett proposed elevating the city’s commissioner for diversity and human rights to a Cabinet-level position.

City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall proposed “a zero-tolerance policy” for police officers assigned to schools if they have “any kind of a history of … cultural bias.” She also called for accommodations such as transit fare and child care stipends to allow a more diverse pool of candidates to join the city’s boards and committees. Mendenhall and Escamilla both urged that meetings be held in low-income neighborhoods to allow more citizens to participate.

Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis and former City Councilman Stan Penfold called for a Salt Lake City street to be named for a prominent Muslim, as the city has renamed streets for Harvey Milk, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.

“These are important to us as a community because they show we acknowledge … broad diversity,” Penfold said. Several candidates drew analogies to Salt Lake City’s celebration of Pride Month in June as evidence that marginalized communities can be acknowledged and elevated in city government.

Asked whether they would continue to staff an office of diversity and human rights, all six candidates said that they would, but most agreed that the city must go further to ensure cultural competency was a priority in all departments.

“The challenge that the city faces now is we have to avoid the tokenism of just an office or a person,” Penfold said. “We need to make sure diversity is integrated into everything we do.”

Businessman David Ibarra said any progress would require the mayor to take a vocal stand against anti-Muslim bigotry.

“I’m not going to be polite like I was the first quarter of my life,” he said. “A mayor calls it out.”