Luz Escamilla was in shock.
It was 2007, and the young Latina had just listened to a state lawmaker deride the cost of education for “anchor babies” — a derogatory term used to describe the U.S.-born children of noncitizen mothers — in a legislative committee hearing.
She couldn’t believe her ears, but no one objected. Later, when she asked Democratic lawmakers why they hadn’t said anything, several replied: “Well, it’s not my constituency.”
“I’m like, U.S. children are not your constituency?” she recalled, during a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune in her campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City. “Yikes. We have a problem if you think U.S. children are not your constituency. It was very devastating.”
The incident prompted Escamilla, then director of the state Office of Ethnic Affairs, to run for the state Senate. Though she said people wondered if an immigrant from Mexico could get elected in Utah, she managed to unseat an incumbent and has served ever since as one of the few women of color in the body, where she has advocated for anti-poverty efforts, health care and family policies.
Now, the Rose Park resident is vying to take on a new role as Salt Lake City mayor, though she hopes to continue serving underrepresented groups from City Hall and to “unite” the capital city. If elected, she would become the capital’s first mayor of color and the first to live west of Interstate 15.
That’s no small thing, argues Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, a longtime friend and colleague of Escamilla.
“When we talk about the west side-east side divide, for many people they’re like, ‘That’s not real.’ But it is,” said Romero, who first met Escamilla when they were students at the University of Utah. “And she understands that. Because it might not be the amount of funding that’s going into one particular neighborhood, it’s about the perception.”
During the campaign, Escamilla has touted her relationships within the state Legislature, her background in public administration and the executive branch of government, and her knowledge of the west side. Her opponent, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, lives on the east side and has experience rooted in city government and environmental advocacy.
“I actually have experience governing,” the candidate said, “which is so important. And I hope people get the chance to realize that experience matters. You are jumping into a position of being an administrator — you better know what you’re doing beyond your legislative experience, which I almost double in terms of years [compared to Mendenhall].”
From immigrant to elected office
Escamilla took her first breath in Mexico, the oldest of two children born to parents who were the first in their families to go to college.
They saw education as “the way to get out of poverty,” she said, and when her family moved to the border town of Tijuana, her father saw an opportunity for his children to attend high school in San Diego. During her junior and senior years, Escamilla would cross into the United States every morning to go to a private Catholic school and would go back into Mexico every afternoon — a process that took about an hour and 15 minutes each way.
“Everything in our life was in Mexico except for the time we went to school,” she said of the experience. “It’s a very diverse situation. I really liked it. It’s funny because now I think, ‘Would I let my kids cross the border every day alone?’ My parents were brave. They’re awesome.”
They wanted their children to pursue higher education in the United States, too. And though Escamilla originally thought she might attend school in Southern California, continuing to cross the border each day, her dad had his sights set on Utah, the seat of the family’s faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I’m like, ‘Isn’t there snow there?’” Escamilla remembered with a laugh.
She got on a plane to Utah, knowing hardly anyone, and graduated four years later with a degree in business from the U. And while for a time she expected she might go back to Mexico, she decided to stay, obtaining a work visa and eventually becoming a U.S. citizen in 2004.
After college, she worked in marketing at Pioneer Valley Hospital before helping to create a small business that provided interpretation services for medical companies. Escamilla then worked for a time in the nonprofit sector, serving as the state diversity outreach director for the Utah Domestic Violence Council and as a health policy analyst for the Disability Law Center.
The candidate says her brother sometimes calls her the “Homer Simpson of the family” because “I’ve done it all,” she joked.
Escamilla, who has been reelected to the Senate twice since she first ran in 2008, served in the most recent legislative session as the Senate minority whip. She’s currently in the middle of her four-year Senate term, so she would be able to remain in state office if she lost the city race, in which she has the support of a number of her legislative colleagues.
Throughout the campaign, Escamilla has positioned herself as the candidate best able to work with the Republican-led Legislature, which has had an often-tense history with the liberal capital city. But, at the same time, she says she won’t sacrifice Salt Lake City’s values.
“I’ve never let the Republican majority or the governor push me on issues — whether it was medical cannabis, when we were the only ones speaking against the repeal and replace, or Medicaid” she said. “I’m used to speaking out, but in a respectful manner. I will not lose that relationship and respect that you build. I have that relationship with the Republicans. They know me.”
Her opponent, on the other hand, has challenged the idea that the city would be best served by someone with legislative experience after years of being led by people without much municipal experience.
“After 12 years of mayors with experience on Capitol Hill, our voters are ready for a mayor with experience in City Hall,” Mendenhall told reporters after her primary election win.
The councilwoman has the support of the majority of her colleagues on the City Council, which has had a testy relationship with the city administration in recent years, and argues her experience in the city will allow her to hit the ground running.
In addition to her legislative service, Escamilla also has touted her experience in the private sector. The candidate has, since 2007, served as vice president of community development for Zions Bank, where she has worked to develop and grow businesses — experiences she says would help her address problems facing businesses and nurture a tech ecosystem in the city.
Both her corporate experience and her religious membership have become issues in the mayoral race. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson on Facebook said recently that city residents were “threatened with the prospect of a Mormon mayor (Luz Escamilla), who seems willing to do the bidding of the church, the developers, and the bank where she has been employed (and which employs so many elected officials — and not because they’re bankers!).”
In a blog post, Escamilla called his assertions “insulting” and said they were without merit. She told The Tribune later that she recognizes the influence the church has on politics, not only as a religious institution but also as an educational organization and as one of the largest employers in the state.
It’s “valid” to ask questions about her faith, she said, though she noted that she sees her Sunday worship as “pretty personal.” Moreover, she said, it doesn’t influence her votes in the Senate and wouldn’t affect her leadership in the city.
If Escamilla wins, she’d be the first Latter-day Saint mayor since Ted Wilson, who left office in 1985 and has endorsed Mendenhall in the race.
‘I get frustrated’
Kerrie Toner hasn’t registered to vote in Salt Lake City, but when she answers the door for Escamilla near Liberty Park on a recent Monday afternoon, she says this race has made her question that decision.
“It has really meant a lot to me” to see two women running against each other for the first time in city history, Toner says, holding back tears.
She likes what she’s seen policy-wise from both candidates and that it’s been a relatively clean race so far.
“But let me interview you a little bit,” she says a few moments later, “because I have heard so many people speak in favor of you and they’re like, ‘No, we want her to stay in the Senate. We need her in the Senate.' What would you say to that?”
“We get that a lot,” Luz responds. “And what we say is the mayor is a very important decision and part of why I’m running is because I get frustrated with the way things are happening in the city. So I wouldn’t be doing this if I felt the city was moving in the right direction. I don’t. I have concerns.”
As a legislator, Escamilla says she’s seen policy get “stuck” in the city, which she characterized as slow moving and quick to fight with the state. And she doesn’t feel like the city is forward-thinking enough for the next 25 to 50 years.
Despite her criticism of the current administration, Escamilla recently picked up the endorsement of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who called her a fellow "trailblazer.”
“I am endorsing Luz Escamilla because I know she will inspire people and be a champion for us and the issues we care about the most as the capital city of Utah,” Biskupski said at the time. "I know she will do this because she already is.”
In the past few weeks of the campaign, the candidate has unveiled policy positions addressing the environment and affordable housing. If elected, she wants to offset the city’s power with 100% clean energy by 2023, reduce tailpipe emissions by 25% through improvements to public transit and continue fighting the inland port, a massive distribution hub development planned for the city’s northwest side.
She’s expressed support for free-fare transit across the city, “working within our budget,” and to improve affordable housing stock through the creation of a housing voucher, beefing up the city’s Community Land Trust to keep units affordable in perpetuity and requiring additional building standards to ensure new developments are sustainable.
Escamilla also has vowed to work toward building trust between west-siders and city officials by leveraging relationships with existing community organizations and through work with community councils. She also proposed the creation of a program in which “navigators” would be present in City Hall to help overlooked residents get the help they need.
Her leadership, Romero said, would be symbolic. But Escamilla would also give a growing number of Salt Lake City residents “hope,” she argued, by creating meaningful change for underrepresented people, just as she’s worked to do since she was first prompted to run for public office more than a decade ago.
“I don’t think Luz wants a seat at the table,” Romero said. “She’s created her own space within the margin and I think it’s important sometimes to change the narrative, and she’s done that as an elected official. She’s not trying to get a seat at the table; she’s trying to change the process so that it works for everyone.”