During her six years on the Murray City Council, Diane Turner has gotten used to being the only woman in the room making decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of the municipality’s nearly 50,000 residents.
But that time is soon coming to an end, after Murray voters elected their first female-majority City Council this month in an election that brought historic wins for women across the Wasatch Front.
“I still can’t believe it," Turner said. “I think when you have more women, it changes everything.”
Utah has historically had lower-than-average female representation at all levels of politics. But advocates say it’s important to elect women to public office because they tend to reach across the aisle, compromise more and come up with different solutions than an all-male body would, thanks in part to their different life experiences.
“I’m really excited to see what is to come of it,” Murray City Councilwoman-elect Rosalba Dominguez said of the new council makeup. “I think people were just ready for change — especially in Murray, [which] historically has had men run the city.”
Dominguez and Kat Martinez, a longtime health care access advocate, will join Turner on the five-member council in January.
South Salt Lake — one of four cities in the county with a female mayor — will also have what is believed to be its first female majority in history next year after Natalie Pinkney, a new at-large councilwoman, and Leanne Huff, who was elected to serve District 1, join three other women on the seven-member body.
Pinkney, 26, is also thought to be the first black woman elected to the council, which she called “another big moment” for residents in the growingly diverse community.
“I heard it from other people of color but even from people who aren’t people of color about how that is what they want from the city is that diversity,” she said. “And I think it does a disservice when we don’t have a city council that’s reflective of citizens.”
Women — and especially women of color — remain underrepresented in city halls across the state. But South Salt Lake and Murray aren’t the first in Salt Lake County to win female majorities.
Millcreek, one of Utah’s newest municipalities, formed its government with a female majority and maintained that in the most recent election. And Sandy, which elected more women than men to its body in 2017, increased that majority from four women to six in this election. That leaves Councilman Zach Robinson as the only man on the seven-member body — a position familiar to women like Turner and many others who have found themselves outnumbered through the years in cities across the Wasatch Front.
Riverton and Draper elected a majority of women to their city councils in 2017 but now again will have male majorities after the results of this month’s election.
Davis County also made history this year, with Layton’s election of its first female mayor, Joy Petro. Just a few miles north, West Haven maintained its female-majority council in the most recent election and the Roy City Council gained a female majority.
Taken together, that means at least six cities across Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber counties will have more women than men on their governing bodies next year — a bump from the state of things before the 2017 municipal election, when only Millcreek and West Haven fit that bill. Fourteen of the 65 municipalities in those counties had no women serving on their city councils during the same time period.
WASATCH FRONT CITIES WITH FEMALE MAJORITY COUNCILS:
• South Salt Lake
• West Haven
Erin Jemison, the staff lead for the YWCA on Real Women Run programming, attributes the shift, in part, to the continuation of interest among women in running for office after 2016, thanks in large part to shifts in national politics.
“There’s definitely a cumulative snowball effect or a wave effect happening” in Utah, she said. “When people are seeing people they know in their communities or even in their families or in their friend circles stepping into leadership, I think that subconsciously gives women permission to do the same.”
About one in five of Utah’s 104-member Legislature are women and five of them are women of color — a historic high, though Utah still ranks 36th among state legislatures for the percentage of women in office. The national average is 28.9 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
No Utah women are currently elected to statewide office. And there are no women serving in Utah’s six-member congressional delegation, putting the state at 0% female representation in the highest levels of elected office.
And while electing women to municipal seats is often seen as an important steppingstone to improving representation at the state and federal level, Jemison said, it’s important in its own right.
“We often say, ‘Well, it can be a great door into higher level office,’ and I always say, ‘Yes, and really important high-level decisions for our day-to-day lives are made in those bodies and I would love to see more women getting elected in those offices,’” she said.
Giving overlooked communities ‘a voice’
For several of the women about to begin their terms on historic female-majority councils, it’s not enough to serve as a symbol for underserved communities. Instead, they’re pledging to take an active role in representing and listening to a number of groups that have often felt overlooked in city halls.
For Pinkney, that means people who are living paycheck to paycheck — a group she understands well, having grown up in what she describes as a working-class family in which “hard work and local leaders” made the difference in her success.
“I just really saw the power of policy leaders who get it, who understand not just from their professional experience or their research experience but their personal experience what it means to be struggling and what service looks like,” she said.
Pinkney, who came to Utah to attend graduate school at the University of Utah, has lived in the city for two years. She sees room for improvement when it comes to government transparency, particularly with the budget, and hopes to find innovative ways to support city residents with a small tax base.
When the time comes, Pinkney said she wants to host “empowerment engagement” sessions to encourage more resident participation around the city’s financial plans. She also intends to advocate for the council to look at new and creative revenue streams in an effort to avoid either cutting services or burdening residents with a tax increase.
That might look like “a commuter tax where we are actually taxing people who work in the city but don’t live in the city,” she said. “Just by doing that here in South Salt Lake — our daytime population doubles in size — it could actually bring close to $3 million into our city.”
In Murray, Dominguez said she wants to focus on preserving the historic character of her district and ensuring residents in a recently annexed portion of the city have better access to government services.
She also wants to create a Youth City Government, which she participated in with Salt Lake City as a high school student at Judge Memorial Catholic High School.
“I believe our youth, they have a voice, too,” she said. “They’re citizens, too, and they should be able to actively participate in it and learn government in a way that I did.”
Martinez, who works with the Utah Department of Health, said she plans to be “aggressively inclusive of all community members” — meaning new development should strive for better than by-the-books compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I want to make sure as we do community development that we do it with all community members in mind and with that as environmentally friendly as possible,” she said.
Martinez also hopes to be more responsive to residents who feel overlooked by helping them “navigate the processes that sort of govern our residential lives.”
But at the end of the day, she hopes the impact of her decision to run for municipal office will be felt at home, too.
“I thought it was so important — I have two girls and one little boy — that they see that women run for office and that’s something they do,” she said.