Addressing systemic inequities in Salt Lake City’s west side will require a number of changes to the way City Hall operates, the candidates running for mayor said Thursday at a debate focused on west-side issues.
State Sen. Luz Escamilla, who lives in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood, said leaders need to move City Hall “into the neighborhoods” rather than expecting residents to engage with the city. And when officials do hold government meetings, she said they need to consider changes to things like the times of the day they occur in order to accommodate working families, who may be juggling multiple jobs.
The candidate also floated the idea of having interpreters on-site to help underserved communities participate in meetings “and feel they’re welcome.”
But “the first thing I think we do” to fix the perception of a powerless west side and to increase engagement of residents, she said, “is we elect a mayor from the west side.”
The crowd cheered.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, in turn, said the city needs to reevaluate the “assumptions and implicit bias” built into hiring practices for city boards, commissions and staff. She also suggested the city look at subsidizing child care for families during meetings to make it less burdensome for them to participate and even to help pay for transportation to get to the meetings.
“What I’m trying to say to you is we need to break the wheel,” not reinvent it, she said later. “The west side has been suffering systemic issues — whether it’s about what we accept for crime, what we accept for where housing is, the kind of services provided here, where trees are even planted. We’ve got to break this wheel, people.”
Geographic equity has become a major issue ahead of next month’s election, and Thursday’s debate, hosted by the Westside Coalition at the Utah State Fairpark, offered the most specific look yet at how the mayoral hopefuls would approach the west side if elected.
Both candidates have previously expressed a commitment to ensuring affordable housing solutions like single-room occupancy units are not consigned solely to the west side. Mendenhall, an air quality advocate, has proposed planting 1,000 new trees on the west side during each year of her administration and Escamilla has promised to bring “navigators” to City Hall to help uncertain residents get the resources they need.
Mendenhall, who has touted her experience in City Hall throughout the race, has argued previously that her opponent lacked specificity in her vision for how to accomplish their shared goal, while Escamilla has criticized the council for doing too little too late for west-side communities.
The debate Thursday came the same day new polling numbers released by UtahPolicy.com showed Mendenhall with a 13-point lead over Escamilla — a much wider spread than the councilwoman had in a Salt Lake Chamber poll conducted at the beginning of the month that The Salt Lake Tribune reported on Thursday. In that survey, her apparent 5-point lead was roughly equal to the poll’s margin of error, plus-or-minus 5.23 percentage points.
“It’s certainly encouraging,” Mendenhall said of the poll results in a written statement Thursday afternoon, though she said the numbers are “not consistent with what we’re seeing at the doors” and that her campaign expects the election to be “much closer than this.”
The Escamilla campaign also said its internal numbers were “very different” than the poll conducted by Y2 Analytics and forecasted a tight election.
“We’re getting great feedback on the ground and are going to keep running the same GOTV campaign that pushed us over the top in advancing past the primary,” said Rudy Miera, Escamilla’s campaign manager.
Some 46% of voters surveyed said they planned to vote for Mendenhall, while 33% said they were voting for Escamilla. A large number of voters remain undecided, at 20%, and 1% said they planned not to vote. Of the undecided voters, 56% said they leaned to Escamilla.
According to Utah Policy’s reporting on the poll, Mendenhall has the support of “strong” and moderate Republicans over Escamilla and also leads with independent voters and “strong” Democrats. Escamilla had greater support among those on the west side, while Mendenhall, who lives in the 9th and 9th area, had an advantage on the east side.
The survey of 745 registered Salt Lake City voters was conducted from Oct. 16 to 22 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
During Thursday’s debate, the candidates touched on a range of issues, promising to continue the city’s policy of not collaborating with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials, to increase the presence of people of color and underrepresented groups in the senior leadership team in City Hall and to improve transit access on the west side.
They also touched on issues related to the inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for the northwest portion of the city that is expected to bring increased air, rail and truck traffic and more tailpipe emissions to a community that already experiences poor air quality.
The bill creating the inland port was passed with little discussion by the Republican-led Legislature during the 2018 session and Mendenhall, during her opportunity to quiz her opponent, questioned whether Escamilla’s relationship with Utah leaders is strong enough to prevent the “next assault” on the city from the state.
The senator and Zions Bank executive pointed to her record of 50 bills passed through the Legislature and the endorsements of a number of her colleagues there as evidence of her ability to work with the state.
“I’m running because I believe I have a better opportunity to create a strong capital city,” she said, again questioning the city’s role in creating the inland port, as she has at several other debates, and attempting to present herself as the candidate best capable of providing change.
If elected to the seat in November, Escamilla would become the first mayor of color and the first to live west of Interstate 15.
During her question to her opponent, Escamilla raised doubt about Mendenhall’s leadership on the City Council, arguing that conditions have worsened during the councilwoman’s six years in office and asking why voters should trust her to make progress on the biggest issues facing the city.
Mendenhall pointed to her work improving city roads through an $87 million road reconstruction bond that voters passed last year and by doubling maintenance crews, championing a women-only homeless resource center in Salt Lake City and improving transit connectivity through new circulator buses.
“That’s the kind of change we’re making in Salt Lake City,” she declared.
The candidate, in turn, challenged the idea that Escamilla would represent a change in the mayor’s office, pointing out that current Mayor Jackie Biskupski “doesn’t endorse me but does endorse my opponent,” Mendenhall said.
“Talk about a continuation of the current administration,” she said.
Escamilla argued the mayor’s endorsement was less about supporting her and more about not wanting to endorse Mendenhall, because of problems that “have been continuously going on between the City Council and the mayor’s office.”
Salt Lake City’s election for mayor will take place Nov. 5.