Salt Lake City voters say air quality is their most pressing issue, but mayoral candidates making it a top priority lag in new poll

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this June 26, file photo, Stan Penfold, left, and David Garbett speak prior to a debate for Salt Lake City mayor as they gather with the other candidates at the Salt Lake City Library.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story relied on poll results that included at least 57 respondents who don’t live in Salt Lake City. A full explanation for this error can be found here. This story has been updated to include more accurate polling data. This does not materially change the results of the poll.

A new poll of Salt Lake City voters conducted ahead of this month’s primary election shows residents see air quality as the most pressing problem facing the state’s capital — and it’s an issue on which several say they have based their pick for mayor.

Take Elizabeth Ballantyne, a 53-year-old Sugar House resident who believes the state’s dirty air negatively affects both the community’s health and economic vitality. She’s voting for David Garbett, a former Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney, because she feels he has the best plan to make meaningful progress on the issue.

Ballantyne “especially” likes “his hope to remove the refinery and the power plant from our city,” she said. “I think those things are important contributors to our air quality problem and I’d love to see them go.”

About a third of 387 Salt Lake City residents surveyed this week by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah agreed that air quality is the top issue in the city. (It stood at 31 percent in both the earlier version of the poll and the updated version.)

But several mayoral candidates who have vowed to make that issue their top priority, including Garbett, aren’t polling as well in the race.

[Special coverage: Read more about the mayoral candidates and where they stand on five issues.]

In a local nonpartisan election, voters “tend to react and respond to personality, in part, because they don’t have partisanship as an easy way to sort people out,” according to Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the U.

Local issues like air quality “are clearly important” to voters, he said. “The trick, however, is often that connecting a particular candidate to a particular issue in a way that says, ‘Aha, this candidate has a plan for addressing this issue that I think is important but nobody else does,’ that usually is not a feature of these kinds of elections.”

Salt Lake City is ranked 23rd among U.S. cities for the highest number of health impacts from outdoor air pollution, according to a recent report published in the American Thoracic Society’s medical journal. Some research also has shown there are more school absences across the Wasatch Front on poor air quality days, meaning the issue is affecting some students’ education.

Nearly all of the eight candidates in the race have expressed a desire and a commitment to address these issues. The exception is Rainer Huck, a retired electrical engineer whose campaign has said he sees the issue as a “misdirection” from other serious issues, like crime and police brutality.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 4, 2017 photo shows a hazy scene of downtown Salt Lake City. Air quality was in the yellow range.

Some candidates have made cleaning the air a bigger focus of their campaign than others, with Garbett and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold the only ones to list it as their No. 1 priority if elected. Businessman David Ibarra has listed “the environment” more broadly as his focus.

A recent poll of the race showed Garbett with 9% support, Penfold with 5% and Ibarra with 6%.

Garbett has argued the city needs to put together a comprehensive plan for how to get to clean air. He also has promised to create a litigation wing at the city’s attorney’s office to go after polluters and to move the refinery and power plant, telegraphing to “any interested developer that the city is very interested in helping them to remove that.”

He and Penfold, who has advocated for free-fare transit across the city to reduce emissions and improve air quality, signed on together earlier this year to a call for action to expedite Salt Lake City’s net-100% renewable energy goal seven years sooner, from 2030 to 2023.

Ibarra has advocated for more aggressive green building standards, ending parking lot requirements for new construction and getting more people into affordable housing so they have shorter commutes and pollute less.

While Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall listed her top priority as basic infrastructure and streets, she also has called air quality “the single biggest threat to livability in Salt Lake City.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall launches her campaign for mayor, April 14, 2019. She entered the race with six years of council experience and with a background in the nonprofit sector, working previously as policy director and interim executive director of Breathe Utah.

The candidate got her entrance into politics through the air quality world, helping co-found the clean-air advocacy group Breathe Utah and currently serving as chairwoman of the state Air Quality Board.

As a mayoral hopeful, Mendenhall has advocated for more aggressive carbon reduction goals, incentives to clean up the dirtiest buildings in the city and creation of a program for residents to swap out polluting snowblowers and lawn mowers for climate-friendly ones.

That background, combined with her other city-rooted experience, is why Brad Slaugh, a poll respondent who lives in the East Liberty Park neighborhood, said he is supporting Mendenhall for mayor.

“She has been an outstanding representative for a really long time on that particular issue,” he said. “I think that issue is just really difficult, and she’s handled it in a thoughtful way.”

Slaugh, 53, also expressed some frustration with what he perceives as a lack of support for addressing air quality issues in the Republican-led Legislature — the very group some candidates are counting on to help clean the air.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, who polls show is currently leading among the candidates, has said he would work with the state to get funding for free-fare transit across the city as well as to create more funding for wood-burning stove exchanges in an effort to improve air quality.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Jim Dabakis gets animated as he talks about air pollution alongside fellow candidate David Ibarra during a debate for Salt Lake City mayor at the Salt Lake City Library, June 26, 2019.

“We need a village here,” he told The Tribune in a recent interview, arguing that he is best positioned to act as a “liaison with the state” to cultivate big, rather than incremental, changes on emissions.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, who polls show in second place close behind Dabakis and closing, has expressed a similar position but points to her legislative record on air quality, including her work to increase the statute of limitations for polluters. If elected mayor, she has said she would partner with the state on other initiatives, as well as work to decrease vehicle emissions.

Following air quality, 19% of voters surveyed in the poll pointed to homelessness and 18% to affordable housing as the biggest issues in the city. Opinions on the relative importance of the inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for the city’s northwest side, and on taxes and roads fared at 9% and below.

Several poll respondents reached by The Tribune on Friday said they plan to support the two front-runners in the race based on their stances on those issues that they see as the most important facing the capital.

Bill Finney, 78, said he sees addressing homelessness as a top priority and is voting for Dabakis because he believes he has the temperament, personality and relationships necessary to address it and other big issues.

“He did a good job at the Legislature in trying to create some balance, and I think he’ll do a good job at the city,” Finney said. “He’ll be a good voice. I don’t think he’ll do anything to embarrass us in any way and will represent the people fairly.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Sen. Luz Escamilla launches her official campaign for city mayor from the steps of City Hall, March 26, 2019. As the city grows and becomes more diverse, Escamilla said she would represent a number of overlooked communities, including the Latino population and the city’s west side.

Paula Espinoza, a 52-year-old Glendale resident, is particularly concerned about affordable housing and said she is drawn to fellow west-sider Escamilla, who lives in Rose Park.

“Luz is really on the ground with issues; she’s in touch with people” Espinoza said. “She’s been very vocal about working to keep services more toward the west side, so I think she’s going to really fight for some of the things that people on the west side really need.”

Some 26% of voters remain undecided in the Aug. 13 race and say they’re still eyeing candidates’ positions in an effort to decide whom they’ll support in the final days of the primary campaign.

The Tribune-Hinckley poll, conducted Monday through Wednesday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.96 percentage points and employed a mix of phone calls to landlines and cellphones, as well as an online portion.