Erin Mendenhall, longtime air quality advocate, says it’s time for Salt Lake City’s mayor to have ‘grassroots’ City Hall experience

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor candidate goes door-to-door talking to constituents in a Sugarhouse neighborhood, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

Erin Mendenhall doesn’t usually enter the homes of the potential voters whose doors she knocks on each week, campaign materials in hand and a fanny pack full of door-to-door essentials clasped around her waist.

But the Salt Lake City mayoral candidate betrays no trepidation as Sugar House resident Karen Platis invites her inside on a recent Saturday morning, in an effort to escape the crisp fall air that feels chillier since Platis began undergoing chemotherapy.

“Even inside, I’m cold all the time because I’ve lost so much weight,” she says.

Platis, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years, explains that she was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this summer and has been in treatment since July.

“I want to give you a hug,” Mendenhall responds. “Can I?”

Mendenhall and Platis embrace. During the course of their 13-minute visit, the two talk about pugs and cancer and the issues central to the race: transportation, homelessness, the inland port. The Salt Lake City councilwoman talks about her experience in City Hall and her background in the nonprofit world on air quality — the issue that got her into politics, she says, and the lens through which she sees everything else.

The candidate doesn’t mention it, but a cancer diagnosis was one of the reasons she first became interested in environmental policy.

As a child in Illinois, her father would often run through a nearby crop field as DDT (an insecticide that has been linked to some forms of cancer) rained down. He died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma when she was a teenager. Later, she began to understand how environmental policies and what a government deems “safe” can affect people’s lives, which she said was “really the first step” in her path toward air quality work and environmental stewardship.

“It’s definitely a tender thing for me to see somebody going through that,” the candidate said of Platis later as she ate lunch at the Soup Kitchen near her campaign headquarters in Sugar House.

Campaign staff say it’s not uncommon for Mendenhall — who was the surprise first-place finisher in a crowded primary race in which many polls showed a majority of voters were undecided — to spend large chunks of time with the voters she meets at doors, explaining the challenges facing Salt Lake City and her policy ideas for how to address those problems.

Ahead of the primary, the candidate raised and spent only the fifth most among the eight candidates and just a quarter of what the spending leader, businessman David Ibarra, had raised. She credits her victory to grassroots campaigning, a focus on the issues and endorsements and aid from labor unions and community leaders.

In next month’s election, she’ll face state Sen. Luz Escamilla, who has positioned herself as an administrator and an “incrementalist” while Mendenhall says she sees a need to push faster change.

The city has been led in recent years by former state legislators, but Mendenhall argues her background in community organizing and the advocacy realm, along with her experience in City Hall, would help her bring something different to the role of mayor.

“My natural approach is at a grassroots level, communicating and turning to the community to help us address issues and needs with their ideas,” she said. “Communities lead most of the discussions about what we need, when we need it. It’s my privilege really to be their advocate.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor candidate Erin Mendenhall shares a laugh with Chris Wharton, as they they judge the jam competition along with Michael Aaron, at the Marmalade Jam Fest, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

From advocate to policymaker

“This one is very complex,” Mendenhall tells fellow City Councilman Chris Wharton on a recent Saturday afternoon as she considers a tiny spoonful of jam.

The two take their role as tasters for the Marmalade Jam Fest competition very seriously, thinking hard about how to score for presentation, color, spreadability, texture and flavor profile. But that doesn’t stop them from cracking jokes, even considering for a moment the creation of their own morning show.

“I think we should quit our jobs,” Mendenhall quips.

“It’ll be very Salt Lake news heavy,” Wharton adds.

The councilman tells The Salt Lake Tribune later that “one of the main reasons” he’s supporting Mendenhall is because of the positive experience he’s had working with her. He believes she would bring that same tenor into the mayor’s office, which has had a tense relationship with the City Council in recent years.

“She’s been really honest and forthright about things, and when we disagree, we do so respectfully,” he says between mouthfuls of jams. “But she is so fun, too. And I think she just has a really engaging personality and has a way of drawing people in.”

Mendenhall was born in Arizona and moved with her family to Utah when she was 7. She grew up roaming around just under an acre of land with a barn on it in Sandy as a child and later attended Alta High School, where she was — as she describes it — a “ska girl.”

A few days after her 18th birthday, Mendenhall moved to Salt Lake City with two friends and began attending the University of Utah. She graduated with a gender studies degree, though she’d grown up thinking she would become either a park ranger or a dentist.

“I still think I would have had fun fixing people’s teeth,” she said as she drove from the jam tasting to the day’s next campaign event. “I know that dentists are not necessarily the favorite place for anyone to have to go and I love people, so I thought that I might enjoy helping make that experience as good as it could be.”

Mendenhall worked after college for a few years at Sterigenics, a sterilization company, before helping to co-found the air quality group Breathe Utah. Her work in air quality, she has said, was prompted by the realization 13 years ago that Salt Lake City’s poor air quality could potentially take years off the life of her newborn son.

She considered a move, but “instead of running from the problem, I took it on,” she explained during the announcement of her mayoral bid this spring.

The candidate, who lives in Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood, entered the political realm with a run for City Council District 5 in 2013 and was re-elected to the seat serving the Ballpark, Central City, Central 9th, East Liberty Park, Liberty Wells and Wasatch Hollow communities in 2017. She still has two years left in her second term and would retain her seat if she lost her bid for mayor.

Mendenhall came into the limelight shortly after she was elected to her seat, following publication of a City Weekly story based on anonymous sources that linked her and fellow City Councilman Kyle LaMalfa romantically and raised allegations of misconduct around their relationship. The couple told The Tribune at the time they had disclosed the relationship to the city attorney for possible ethical or legal problems and were advised of none.

“The beautiful side of the accusations they made were that when they were saying that it would influence votes or something, all of our votes were public,” she said. “Kyle voted against my stuff most of the time. And there is love and hate on any public body to some degree, and I think negative feelings end up being more detrimental to democracy than people feeling fondly for one another.”

LaMalfa decided not to run for re-election so the couple could be together; they married shortly afterward.

During her time on the council, Mendenhall helped cobble together $21 million for affordable housing, worked to establish better bus service for Salt Lake City residents and supported fixing Salt Lake City’s streets with an $87 million bond that was approved by voters last fall.

She served as council chairwoman in 2018, during the consequential negotiations with the Utah Legislature over the inland port, a massive distribution hub development. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski declined to participate in conversations with the state over the bill — which she viewed as an unconstitutional land grab and usurpation of the city’s taxing authority — and left it to the council to negotiate several changes to reduce its impact on the city without her.

Those discussions were hard, Mendenhall said. But her worst day in public office was during the siting of the new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City in 2016. She was the only council member to vote against the proposal, opposing the placement of the population in a controversial single-family neighborhood on 653 E. Simpson Ave. that had “zero partners” around to provide services.

That was the hardest, she said, because “I was standing by myself."

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor candidate goes door-to-door talking to constituents in a Sugarhouse neighborhood, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

‘Anger is not a strategy’

Debi Murdzak and Diane Clayton are smoking cigarettes on the front porch of Murdzak’s Sugar House home when Mendenhall walks up, campaign materials in hand.

After they find out she’s running for mayor, they launch quickly into their frustration with the state Legislature, which they say has stonewalled the will of the people in recent years when it comes to legalizing marijuana and expanding Medicaid.

When Clayton moved from Salt Lake City to Denver for a few years, “I was like, Oh my gosh, my vote counted,” she said. “And they didn’t keep blocking, you know, once the public said, ‘This is what we want.’”

“It can be incredibly frustrating what the state does,” Mendenhall acknowledged. “But I know from being an activist to an advocate to now working on the policy level that anger is not a strategy. It does not work for us — especially being politically in contrast to the Legislature. So I think we need a mayor that knows how to work even when we’re frustrated and that it isn’t personal.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, Mendenhall has announced a number of proposals related to her vision for the city moving forward and has picked up the endorsement of a majority of City Council members, as well as from community council leaders.

She’s promised to plant 1,000 new trees on the west side every year, if she’s elected, to reduce air pollution and improve equity with the east side. As mayor, she wants to advocate for more aggressive carbon reduction goals and has expressed support for a free-fare transit system across the city and the creation of a city-based snowblower and lawn mower exchange program.

If elected, she also has a plan to cultivate a tech ecosystem — first by convening a task force to better understand the challenges and opportunities for growing tech and to launch a targeted educational campaign to promote Salt Lake City to innovators and business leaders.

When it comes to affordable housing, she has called for low-interest loans for landlords to help them keep rental properties maintained without rent hikes and a “top-to-bottom” review of city zoning to encourage more homes and apartments.

Salt Lake City needs a mayor, she argues, with City Hall experience who’s ready to get more and better outcomes for the capital from day one.

“We’ve got to get some stuff done here!” Mendenhall exclaims as she leaves Murdzak’s porch and walks to the next door.