After lagging 17 points behind her competitor on election night, state Sen. Luz Escamilla conceded Wednesday to her opponent, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, in the race for Salt Lake City mayor.
No new election results will be posted until Thursday afternoon. But with 9,744 outstanding ballots in the capital city, according to the Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, it appeared mathematically improbable that Escamilla would be able to bring in enough votes to catch Mendenhall.
The mayoral hopeful told her supporters on social media she was “disappointed with the results” but in a news release announcing her concession said she was pleased with the race she’d run.
“As I look back over these past few months, what I will always keep with me is how beautiful this city and its residents are," Escamilla said in a statement. “I’ve met so many incredible Salt Lakers during this campaign. I’ve made new friends and learned this truth: east siders care about the west side and west siders care about the east side. In these times when we see so many divisions, it’s a reaffirmation of our great city to see that we all care about each other.”
Had she been elected, Escamilla would have made history as the capital’s first mayor of color and the first to live west of Interstate 15.
On election night, she trailed her opponent by more than 5,800 votes, bringing in 41.40% to the councilwoman’s 58.60% — a much wider lead than even Mendenhall’s campaign said they had been expecting. The senator initially said she wouldn’t concede until all the ballots were counted, but it was unclear at that point how many were left.
Election results won’t be final until the official canvass in two weeks.
After Escamilla’s announcement, Mendenhall quickly congratulated her opponent on a race well run.
“Luz is a dedicated public servant and a true champion for Salt Lake City," she said in a statement. "Her candidacy made this a better campaign and her continued public service will help make Salt Lake City a better home for all of us. I look forward to working in partnership with her to move our city forward.”
Escamilla had trailed Mendenhall and former Sen. Jim Dabakis in the August primary on election night before leaping ahead of Dabakis into second place as outstanding ballots were counted. The ensuing head-to-head general election campaign generally drew good reviews for being substantive and focused on policy.
One of the few controversies that emerged was the role of the billboard industry which, for the second consecutive Salt Lake City mayoral election, tried to have an outsized role by using political action committee donations to circumvent campaign donation limits. The signs overwhelmingly favored Escamilla, whose campaign said it did not solicit nor coordinate with the billboard companies.
This isn’t the end of public service for Escamilla, who is in the middle of her four-year Senate term and said at her election night party Tuesday that she would continue to “work hard,” either as mayor or in the Legislature. Mendenhall is in the middle of her second four-year term for Salt Lake City Council and replacing her will mark the second time in two decades or so that the council will have to make an appointment to fill a vacancy.
In a tweet Wednesday, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who had opted not to run for re-election, highlighted the historic nature of the election, which featured two women on the general election ballot in Salt Lake City for the first time.
Biskupski had endorsed Escamilla in the race and donated to her campaign but congratulated both candidates in the race and Mendenhall on her victory Wednesday.
“My office will work diligently to ensure a smooth transition,” she said on Twitter.
Mendenhall will become the city’s 36th mayor when she takes office in January.
Ian Koski, a spokesman for Mendenhall’s campaign, said the unofficial mayor-elect would not be giving individual interviews Wednesday but would hold a news conference Thursday to provide more details about her transition.
Mendenhall, a resident of the 9th and 9th neighborhood, has promoted her six years of service on the City Council as something that had been missing in the mayor’s office, which has been led in recent years by former state legislators. She has a background in nonprofit and air quality work and has said clean air will be among her top priorities going forward.
As a candidate she promised, for example, to advocate for more aggressive carbon reduction goals and to plant 1,000 new trees on the west side every year to reduce air pollution and improve equity with the east side. She has also expressed support for the creation of a city-based snowblower and lawn mower exchange program.
The new mayor also wants to cultivate a tech ecosystem in the capital city and plans to convene 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, one of the biggest challenges facing the city, Mendenhall 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.
Mendenhall was the surprise first-place winner among a crowded field of eight candidates in the city’s primary election in August. Ahead of that contest, she raised and spent only the fifth most among the eight candidates. During the general election, she emerged as the top fundraiser in what became one of the most expensive mayoral elections in Salt Lake City history.
On Tuesday, her supporters credited her early election night lead to the many hours spent at residents’ doorsteps and her specific policy proposals.
In an email to supporters before Escamilla’s concession, Mendenhall characterized the campaign as like “falling in love with this city all over again.”
The campaign, which featured more than a dozen debates between both candidates, was a lot of work, she wrote but said “the really hard work is still in front of us.”
“We can do better,” Mendenhall said in the email. “We can change the way people move through, in, and around our city by expanding public transit. We can bring renewable energy into our city sooner than it is planned for today, and we can ensure that buildings going up in our city generate fewer emissions.”
“There are real challenges facing this city,” she concluded, “but none so big that they cannot be overcome if we work together.”