It didn’t look good for Laurie Stringham on election night.
The at-large Salt Lake County Council candidate took it all in at the Republican watch party, masked and socially distanced at her own table. She was down by 6 percentage points to incumbent Democrat Shireen Ghorbani.
“I had several media people smile at me, say, ‘sorry about your race,’ ” Stringham said. “I smiled and said ‘they haven’t counted all the ballots, we can still win this thing.’ ”
A friend was surprised, Stringham recalled, saying “that’s a lot to overcome.”
The skepticism wasn’t unfounded. Ghorbani not only was a sitting council member, but she had earned political chops running for Congress and county mayor. She had a strong social media following and had outraised Stringham seven to one. Stringham’s past campaign experience came from helping others behind the scenes.
Stringham remembered turning to her incredulous friend on election night. “I said ‘you watch, I’ll win by 1,500 votes.’ ”
As the county counted more mail-in ballots and updated results day by day, Stringham’s margin narrowed. Then she pulled ahead. On Nov. 16, Ghorbani conceded. Stringham had won not by 1,500 votes, but by 1,189, becoming the first at-large County Council member ever elected from the county’s west side.
“It feels a bit symbolic,” Stringham, a Kearns resident, said. “The population is shifting out west. The county’s problems are mostly on the west side. A lot of the solutions and infrastructure and growth is going to be on the west side.”
Stringham, 48, calls herself “very much an optimist,” as her election prediction shows. She also brings an eclectic résumé with her to the County Council.
As a fine arts student at the University of Utah, she went from cleaning houses to working for former Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office and, later, his campaign. At the same time, she also helped out in the costume shop at Pioneer Theater Company.
“It was always an interesting experience, going from a really conservative office to a liberal theater and fitting in with both,” Stringham said. “That’s always been a unique situation in my life. I kind of fit into both worlds in a very different way.”
She quit both positions after landing a dream job in costume design, but the opportunity fell through. Unemployed and unsure of what to do next, Stringham said she was randomly offered an apprenticeship after a piano tuner was impressed by her sense of pitch. That lead to her own business as a professional tuner. Schools were among Stringham’s clients, and it opened her eyes to the disparities among different communities.
“When a piano can’t be tuned anymore because it won’t hold its tune, you condemn the piano. The little pegs break down over time, and the piano either needs major repair or to be tossed,” Stringham said. “On multiple occasions, I would condemn a piano on the east side of Salt Lake County, and in a short period of time, I’d come across the exact same piano on the west side from a teacher requesting a piano who didn’t have one.”
As she raised her five children, Stringham also occasionally volunteered at schools as a substitute. Then she learned she could become a licensed teacher without a degree in education.
“I’m one who has taken the opportunities life offers me,” Stringham said.
She joined the faculty of Skyline High School four years ago as a theater instructor.
“It has been quite the challenge,” Stringham said. “There is a real pushback for teachers who do an alternative route for getting their license.”
In addition to arts and education, Stringham has a passion for recreation. She has served as a board member on the Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center for 22 years.
“We’re not a recreation facility, we’re a public health facility,” Stringham said. “We deal with preventative health, if that makes sense — eating healthy, exercising, those are things we offer to the community.”
She said her time working with the fitness center has also equipped her to oversee the county. The fitness center board operates as an independent elected authority, overseeing budgets, policy and creative partnerships with the public and private sectors.
“We have to approach [governing] differently and I always have ... people out here know that about me,” Stringham said. “Government can’t run exactly like a business but there are some good best practices that government can follow.”
Stringham said she plans to bring more scrutiny to the county budget joining with her fellow Republican council members, who now hold a veto-proof majority.
Salt Lake County GOP chairman Scott Miller said the party’s sweep of all the contested council seats proves county residents want change and more fiscal responsibility. He pointed to last year’s 7.8% property tax hike as a source of county voters’ frustrations, a message Stringham and her fellow incoming Republican council members Dea Theodore and Dave Alvord focused on in their campaigns.
“We’re all struggling, especially with the coronavirus,” Miller said. “Laurie latched onto a message that she’s going to be a champion of holding our government accountable.”
Miller praised Stringham’s many years of volunteer work and civic engagement. It helped add to her appeal, he said.
“She’s been down in the trenches working with the normal, everyday person for a long, long time,” Miller said. “I just think people are so tired of the standard politicians, they want people who are there to try to help make their lives a little better.”
Sitting County Council members applauded Stringham’s election success, including Richard Snelgrove, a Republican, who encouraged her to run for county office.
“Good people tend to attract support, and that’s what I saw in Laurie,” Snelgrove said. “Her personal qualities and magnetism attracted good people.”
Although she’s a newcomer to elected office at the county level, Snelgrove said Stringham has plenty of political savvy, pointing to the success of her shoestring campaign.
Republican council member Aimee Winder Newton also lauded Stringham’s victory. As an at-large candidate, Stringham was elected from the same pool of county voters who handily voted against President Donald Trump and reelected Democratic Mayor Jenny Wilson.
“It was a surprise to see her eventually win this seat ... I’m excited to work with Laurie, she’s going to be a great asset on the council,” Newton said. “A lot of times we get people who win office and want to make a bunch of changes ... she’ll be one who listens before she acts.”
Stringham plans to bring her optimism, take-life-as-it-comes attitude and her comfort around people of all political persuasions with her as she takes her seat on the nine-member council.
“As an at-large council member, I represent all, not just one side,” she said. “I really think we have a great future ahead of us. I think people are capable of coming together.”