Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski officially endorses Luz Escamilla ahead of next month’s election

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski embraces Luz Escamilla after endorsing her as the next mayor of the city during a press event at the Salt Lake City and County Building on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, while joined by notable members of the LGBTQ community.

After hedging for months, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski offered her public endorsement Monday for state Sen. Luz Escamilla, one of two candidates seeking to replace her.

Biskupski, the city’s first openly gay mayor, pointed to Escamilla’s legislative record of advocating for underserved communities and argued that the candidate, a Latina immigrant who lives on the west side, will “bring a fresh and different perspective to City Hall.”

“I want young people to see an amazing, intelligent and compassionate woman who looks like them running the city they call home,” Biskupski said during her remarks at a news conference on the steps of City Hall. “I want everyone to see a trailblazer for change in the mayor’s office, someone who knows that government at its best is focused on helping people and not preserving the status quo.”

The mayor has been a politically polarizing figure during her time in office, fighting with the state Legislature and City Council members — including Escamilla’s opponent, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall. It’s been clear for a while that Escamilla was the mayor’s favored candidate to win in next month’s election, but she had yet to officially endorse until Monday.

Biskupski made an appearance at the candidate’s primary election night party and her wife, Betty Iverson, has donated to Escamilla’s campaign. She also has praised the senator’s past votes on the inland port, a massive distribution hub development planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

“I wanted people to know where I was,” Biskupski explained when asked Monday about her decision to publicly endorse, noting that she’s fielded a near-constant barrage of questions on the topic.

Escamilla entered the mayoral race soon after Biskupski dropped out for what she said was a “serious and complex family situation.” The mayor will become the first one-term leader of Salt Lake City in 45 years, since Jake Garn stepped down two years into his first term to successfully run for the U.S. Senate.

While early polls showed Biskupski may be in trouble if she ran for re-election, Escamilla welcomed her official endorsement.

“She really has opened doors for many and to me it’s an honor,” she told reporters after the news conference. “I appreciate her support.”

Biskupski didn’t directly mention Mendenhall during her remarks Monday. But the long-contentious relationship between council members and the mayor bubbled into public view earlier this summer, when the mayor delivered a blistering criticism, particularly of Mendenhall, over their handling of the inland port.

“She has never stood with me,” Biskupski told a group of more than 60 anti-port activists during a June meeting at the Corinne & Jack Sweet Library. “In fact, she brokered the first deal in the summer of 2018. ... She led the charge on the legislation to prohibit me from suing. So there’s no wishy-washy there.”

Mendenhall, who served as council chairwoman during the consequential negotiations on the port with the Legislature last year, fired back by calling Biskupski a “failed mayor.” She has expressed support for continuing the mayor’s lawsuit against the state’s creation of the inland port if elected and said that stance is “in no way contingent” upon her role as a candidate.

Biskupski again praised Escamilla on Monday for her legislative record on the port, noting that the candidate voted against the original bill creating the Utah Inland Port Authority, was one of two senators to vote against a modified bill the council had negotiated with lawmakers and earlier this year sponsored legislation establishing baseline environmental conditions in the port area to monitor any changes as a result of the project.

“Her actions are speaking for themselves,” Biskupski said. “She did not vote for this inland port concept on Capitol Hill. Both of those bills she was not supporting, and I am very proud of that. I think her actions are speaking a lot louder than words, and we have to remember that.”

Mendenhall said Monday that she wasn’t surprised to hear about the mayor’s endorsement, which she noted she was not “counting on or hoping for.”

“It’s not necessarily news that the mayor supports Senator Escamilla,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “She’s made that clear since the day she announced she wasn’t running or the day after when she tweeted a picture of the two of them having lunch at City Hall.”

The news conference announcing Biskupski’s endorsement featured a number of other members of the LGBTQ community offering their support for Escamilla, including Salt Lake County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, who became the first openly gay councilman in the county in 2010, and Becky Moss, chairwoman of the Utah Stonewall Democrats, an LGBTQ group affiliated with the Utah Democratic Party.

Bradshaw, in his remarks, said Escamilla would be a “champion” for the LGBTQ community — if elected in November.

“We need leaders in our city who are not afraid to speak truth to power,” he said. “We need a mayor that understands the struggle of our minority communities and will work tirelessly to end the injustices that continue to affect us. It is for these reasons that I supported Senator Escamilla in the primary election and why I am here today to reiterate my endorsement for Luz to be the next mayor of Salt Lake City.”

During her more than a decade in office, Escamilla has supported an array of LGBTQ measures, including repeals of the criminal offenses of sodomy, a landmark anti-discrimination bill protecting the community from employment and housing decisions based on their gender identity or sexual orientation and a bill allowing for greater enforcement of hate-crime penalties.

The candidate said Monday that she doesn’t have any specific policy changes she’s advocating for in City Hall but would work to ensure diverse perspectives are included in decision-making and new programming under her administration.

“My background working in the executive branch as the director of the state Office of Ethnic Affairs has given me experience in what it means to have culturally competent services across government, and I will definitely be working and making sure those communities feel included,” she said. “I have a track record of working on outreach efforts that address inclusiveness for all.”