In a stunning twist of events, November’s election for Salt Lake City mayor will feature Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall against state Sen. Luz Escamilla.
New ballot results released Thursday in the city’s crowded and close race showed Escamilla pulling ahead of former Sen. Jim Dabakis, who was long presumed to be the front-runner in the race, for the crucial second-place spot — flipping his election night lead.
Dabakis quickly conceded.
While early primary election results left Mendenhall confident she would make it through to November’s general election, it was unclear whom she would be matched against. Escamilla loomed close behind Dabakis, with 109 votes separating the two as of election night.
On Thursday, Mendenhall held onto and expanded her surprise election night lead, earning 24.27% of 36,787 votes cast. Escamilla now has 21.43% of the vote, pulling ahead of Dabakis by 421 votes. The results represent the largest share of the ballots, though Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said the last few were expected to be released Friday at 3 p.m.
“I can finally breathe," Escamilla joked in a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday after seeing the results.
The candidate said she was in celebration mode but was looking forward to the general election, which will guarantee the city its third female mayor in history. She hopes to have a “clean race,” she added, focused on keeping “the issues a priority and Salt Lake City residents a priority.”
“I feel very excited and ready to start working," she said. "This is going to be a tough general and a very close general election, and so we’re excited for where we are and looking forward to the next steps.”
Utah’s capital has never had a mayoral election showdown featuring two female candidates.
Escamilla, 41, has spent more than a decade serving in the Utah Legislature and also works as the vice president of community development at Zions Bank.
The candidate first came to Utah from Mexico as an international student more than 20 years ago and became a U.S. citizen in 2004. If elected in November, she would become Salt Lake City’s first ethnic minority mayor.
Throughout the campaign, the Rose Park resident has touted her understanding of the west side and of the city’s growing minority populations, as well as her relationships with state leaders, as a boon to residents. She has received a large degree of support from her colleagues, and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is not running for re-election, has all but endorsed her.
Dabakis told The Tribune in a phone interview Thursday shortly after the results were posted that he was “disappointed” in the results but is also excited for “the next big journey."
“Of course it’s disappointing for all the incredible people who have been so great to me, far more than I ever deserved and I’m totally sincere: It was an unbelievable honor for a guy like me to have the last eight years to serve the people of Utah and the people of Salt Lake," he said. "It’s just been a thrill and honor of a lifetime and I’m totally, completely appreciative.”
Mendenhall, 39, said she pulled off the lead among a crowded field of eight candidates despite lagging behind them in fundraising and polls as a result of door-to-door politicking and pushing issues that are important to residents in targeted areas. She has the endorsement of several of her fellow City Council members, as well as from local community council leaders.
“I’m so happy to see that our momentum has continued and our lead has grown even stronger,” she said of the results in a statement Thursday. “We’re excited and ready to keep going to November. Voters have made clear that they want results, not more rhetoric.”
The candidate has a background in the nonprofit sector and got her entry into politics working on clean-air issues. She is serving her second term on the City Council and has touted her experience as a much-needed value add to City Hall, which has been run by former legislators in past years.
Mendenhall said Thursday she is committed to continuing conversations about air quality and to “disavowing whisper campaigns and anonymous, dark-money PACs.”
Campaigning for the race, which has become one of the most expensive in city history, began in October. Candidates raised a cumulative $1.5 million and spent $1.1 million on flyers, mailers and other campaign expenses — but Mendenhall and Escamilla weren’t the top earners or top spenders among the field.
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the two primary victors prevailed because they were successful in engaging undecided voters and keeping their campaigns focused on the issues that matter to residents.
Moving forward, he said, the race becomes “a battle of approach."
“Erin Mendenhall will go to voters saying she perfectly understands the issues facing the city and she has the support of other members of the council and she comes in with the largest percentage of the votes so far,” he said. "Luz Escamilla is going to come in saying the issues impacting the city are significant and her experience as a legislator will help her hit the ground running and work with the Legislature in a very quick way so they can be addressed.”
Unofficial ballot returns Thursday showed former Pioneer Park Coalition Executive Director David Garbett with 16.72% of the votes; businessman David Ibarra with 8.19%; former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold with 6.80%; Rainer Huck, a retired electrical engineer, with 1.51%; and Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, with 0.79%.