Twice-Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Jim Dabakis said Thursday that he can’t support City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall in her bid to lead the capital city, though he doesn’t go so far as to endorse her rival, state Sen. Luz Escamilla.
In a Facebook post, the former state senator said that decision is based largely on what he sees as the councilwoman’s role in setting the groundwork for the inland port, a massive and largely unpopular international distribution hub planned for a huge chunk of land on Salt Lake City’s northwest side.
Mendenhall, in turn, called Dabakis’ narrative about the council’s involvement, “revisionist history at its worst.”
Dabakis says Salt Lake City “threw open the barn door” to the inland port, he said, with two agreements negotiated with developers north of Interstate 80 before the state took over the city’s land and taxing authority in the final hours of the 2018 legislative session.
During those negotiations, in which Mendenhall served as council chair, he argued the city was “at a maximum leverage moment” with landowners who wanted to benefit from tax cuts. Instead, he says, the council signed a “feeble agreement” that didn’t fully address environmental protections and gave away “full power, executive and jurisdictional control of the heart of the inland port.”
The deal was so bad, he argued, that after the city is finished suing the inland port, "they should sue themselves for gross incompetence.”
“The City’s explanation at the time was that they wanted to be ‘a good business partner to the property owners and to facilitate an inland [port],” Dabakis wrote. “Frankly, I don’t blame developers. They were doing what developers do. Squeezing the best deal possible for their own interests. These experienced developers and their shark-attorneys found easy prey in inexperienced and somewhat overconfident City leaders.”
While Dabakis noted that Mendenhall acted in conjunction with others on the council, he said he has “some concerns about reuniting the ‘all-star’ team on the City Council who created this mess.”
“If Erin has an explanation of all that, I’d like to hear it,” Dabakis told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday afternoon.
Mendenhall, in a statement on Thursday, said the creation of the inland port “has always been about the reality of the influence, power and willingness of the state government to override city authority.”
“I understand why Senator Dabakis and others are circling the wagons over their failure to protect Salt Lake City in the state Legislature during the inland port negotiations, but trafficking this mythology to protect their own reputations is incredibly disrespectful to Salt Lake City voters.”
The candidate has defended her record on the inland port from similar attacks at several mayoral debates, including her recent support for a $28 million tax increment reimbursement for one of the developers to build an industrial site within the inland port area — a move many see as the first step in building out the project. Had the council not voted for that deal, she has said, the city would have been in breach of contract and control of the land in question could be turned over to the state.
Mendenhall has also noted her help negotiating several positive changes to the original bill creating the port authority with the Legislature after Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski declined to participate in conversations with the state.
Among the amendments the city obtained was a reduction in the size of the port area that removed environmentally sensitive wetlands, a carve-out of 10% of the tax increment from the port to be set aside for affordable housing and a clarification of the port authority’s land use appeal process as a last resort.
As a state senator, Dabakis voted against the original bill creating the inland port but was one of the architects behind the modified legislation the council negotiated with the Legislature.
Escamilla, who voted against both bills, could not be reached for immediate comment Thursday afternoon.
Dabakis narrowly missed a spot on the general election ballot but was long perceived to be the front-runner in the crowded primary race, thanks to early polls that showed him in the lead, though behind a large number of undecided voters. He lost to Escamilla, once his colleague in the Senate, by fewer than 500 votes, earning some 20% of the 37,266 votes cast.
During the campaign, he pushed for free-fare transit across the city with the help of state money and positioned himself as the candidate best able to work across party lines to accomplish “big ideas.” Dabakis also bemoaned the influence of money in politics and advocated for campaign finance reform, returning between $1,000 and $5,000 during the campaign in donations from lobbyists or people who do business with the city.
Former mayoral candidate David Garbett, a environmental lawyer and one-time executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, threw his support behind Escamilla in the race late last month. Businessman David Ibarra has endorsed Mendenhall.
The other contenders in the primary election have yet to offer public support for either of the general election candidates.
Known for his occasional stunts on Facebook Live and unabashedly outspoken nature, Dabakis told The Tribune last month that he plans to launch a new nonprofit media organization that will seek to give voice to the state’s progressives and confront Utah’s institutional power players — including elected Democrats. He has said he has no plans to run again for political office.
He and his husband, Stephen, have been traveling since the election, and Dabakis made his endorsement post from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he said he has been working to teach college students about American politics under President Donald Trump’s administration.
This story will be updated.