Erin Mendenhall takes big lead over Luz Escamilla in Salt Lake City mayor’s race

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall greets supporters on election night Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall appeared poised to become the next mayor after taking an overwhelming early lead over state Sen. Luz Escamilla in the capital’s closely watched mayoral race.

Election night ballot counting ended with Mendenhall enjoying a lead of more than 5,800 votes, bringing in 58.60% to Escamilla’s 41.40% in unofficial results. Updated voting tallies will be released in coming days.

Mendenhall’s supporters were jubilant as they watched the numbers come in at her election night party at Publik Coffee, even chanting her name as she stepped up to speak to supporters and reporters after the last ballots of the night were posted.

Though the candidate said she was pleased with the results, she declined to declare victory.

“We’re going to keep a close eye on the results," she said. "Obviously it’s not over yet, but the numbers are really exciting.”

While Escamilla trailed her opponent — 13,999 votes to Mendenhall’s 19,819 — she said she wouldn’t concede until all the ballots were counted, saying she was “hopeful” the remaining ones “could make a big difference.”

“This is what it’s all about,” Escamilla said, looking around a room of supporters at her campaign offices on 900 South. “We’re moving the needle and pushing to make this a better place for everyone.”

It’s unclear how many outstanding ballots are yet to be counted, and election results won’t be final until the official canvass is complete in two weeks. In the 2015 mayoral election, less than 39,000 votes were cast, so the 33,800 counted Tuesday night could be the vast majority of what is expected.

During the general election race, in which the mayoral hopefuls participated in more than a dozen debates, both candidates have articulated progressive visions for the city — but each has positioned herself as the person best qualified to lead the capital forward.

Mendenhall has touted her six years on the City Council as a value add to City Hall, which has been run by former legislators for the past 12 years. Escamilla, on the other hand, has promoted her years of service in the state Legislature and relationships on Capitol Hill as the best way to facilitate positive outcomes for the city.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he’s friends with both candidates but ended up voting for Mendenhall because of her City Hall experience.

“She has the right mix of technical knowledge, progressive passion and pragmatic knowledge of what it takes to get things done," he said.

Both candidates are currently in the middle of their four-year terms and would retain their seats if they lost the mayoral race. The new mayor will take office in January, replacing Mayor Jackie Biskupski who opted not to run for reelection.

The election has already made history as the first time two women have faced off for mayor on the city’s general election ballot. Whoever wins will become the city’s third female mayor — and Escamilla, if elected, would have become the capital’s first mayor of color and the first to live west of Interstate 15.

While the race was largely positive, Mendenhall, a 9th and 9th resident, told supporters that it highlighted “some uncomfortable realities” about divisions along geographic, racial and spiritual lines. The candidates’ religious affiliation — Escamilla is a Latter-day Saint and Mendenhall is not — came under scrutiny after former Mayor Rocky Anderson raised the issue on social media.

“It is our enduring responsibility to Salt Lakers to unite our city, to speak out when you see inequity, to bring ideas for addressing systematic change and long-standing challenges, and to help us create a city whose opportunities can be accessed by everyone, a city that’s safe for everyone,” she said.

Mendenhall has a background in nonprofit and air quality work and has rolled out several policy proposals related to sustainability throughout her campaign. She has 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.

Another of her major initiatives has been a plan to cultivate a tech ecosystem in the capital city — 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.

At her election night party Tuesday, several of Mendenhall’s supporters said they thought her early lead was a result of her detailed policy positions and time spent in the community talking to voters throughout the campaign.

Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton, who has endorsed Mendenhall along with several of his other colleagues on the part-time council, told The Salt Lake Tribune he thought the early results showed “how much she is focusing on her ground game.”

“These races are won and lost at the door,” he said.

Escamilla, an immigrant from Mexico and a Zions Bank executive who lives in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood, had promised to make a number of changes to City Hall to improve conditions for west side residents. Among her ideas was to employ on-site interpreters and navigators in City Hall who could help uncertain residents get the resources they need.

Several supporters at her election night party, where a handful of state lawmakers who have thrown their support behind the candidate were in attendance, said proposals like those had drawn them to Escamilla.

“I wanted someone that would prioritize our needs on the west side,” said Lloyd Solovi, who lives in the area.

Win or lose, Escamilla said she would be “taking some time with my family,” including at her daughter’s quinceañera Friday. And she planned to continue working hard wherever she lands.

“There’s so much at stake right now and, as mayor or in the Senate, we’ll continue to work hard," she said.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporters Bethany Rodgers and Clara Hatcher contributed to this report.