Salt Lake City mayoral candidate, bank executive, and immigrant, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, told us that she never imagined living in a country where her son would have the opportunity to learn how to play the violin. She also understands, as a Latina woman born in Mexico, the nervousness of being pulled over by a police officer.
The other candidate, clean air activist and City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, described to us losing at a young age her ingenious father to cancer. After his death, she found beauty in studying the resilience of desert plants — which form part of an elaborate tattoo on her shoulder memorializing this loss while also signifying new connections among friends.
Mendenhall has for many years called the eclectic, caffeinated and leafy 9th and 9th neighborhood home. Escamilla resides in Rose Park, living adjacent to the airport, where AC/heating and roof repair trucks line the streets and jets fly overhead. All prior Salt Lake City mayors have lived on the east side. Both candidates had children enrolled in the same preschool but do not know each other well.
The so far mutually respectful race is precedent setting: the first time two women are on the final ballot, with one being a woman of color. Both cite progressive policies and are Democrats; the last time the city had a Republican mayor was Jake Garn in 1972. Salt Lake City itself is a large governing enterprise, with an annual budget of $330 million and over 3,000 employees. (By way of comparison: Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s hometown of South Bend, Ind., compares at $380 million and 1,000 employees.)
When asked about political courage, each candidate had examples to share. Escamilla told us that a vote on a bill enacting enhanced penalties for polygamy represented her hardest across some 11,000 votes in 11 years as a state legislator. Mendenhall pointed to her recent efforts to win back city rights over the state’s push for an inland port while emphasizing her deep knowledge of municipal matters as a six-year City Council member — a decision-making role with “nowhere to hide,” given the body’s small size. Escamilla and Mendenhall identify similar policy prescriptions for clean air, housing affordability, homelessness, crime reduction, and transportation and infrastructure improvements.
The most controversial dimension of the race was initiated by former Mayor Rocky Anderson, who threw a political hand grenade — religion — into the mix by questioning Escamilla’s LDS faith (Salt Lake has not had a Mormon mayor since Ted Wilson in the 1980s). Anderson’s intervention has distracted from candidate platforms and could exacerbate the stubborn Mormon/non-Mormon divide in a state founded by persecuted pioneers. Escamilla, an LDS convert, and Mendenhall, who claims no denomination, have eloquently and bluntly spoken on the matter. Let’s help them defeat religious bigotry in any form, including toward non-members, inactive, or former Mormons. Voters are choosing a mayor, after all, not an archbishop.
We met Escamilla at her Harvey Milk Boulevard campaign office, where she described standing up to a leading Republican legislator who was planning to gerrymander her Rose Park district well into the monochromatic and largely one-party Bountiful area. Escamilla challenged him: If the committee went ahead with their redistricting plan, she would “call him first” when well-meaning Davis County police officers stopped and questioned her – a new (minority) candidate walking new (white majority) blocks. The Republican leader conceded.
During our meeting with Mendenhall, at an art-filled coffee shop on the west side, she said, “I’m fit and running to walk down the hall into the mayor’s office.” She promised to be a “catalyst” and offer a constructive tone with other key city stakeholders, including the LDS Church. Mendenhall’s thorough focus on infrastructure was reinforced by one of her supporters, a native Utahn who had moved back to Salt Lake from San Francisco, who said: “Erin knows how to get city sidewalks fixed.”
So, who should be Salt Lake City’s next mayor?
After much due diligence, close listening, and comparing detailed notes, we are split — a very slight tilt on opposite sides.
Whatever the election outcome — Mayor-Elect Escamilla or Mayor-Elect Mendenhall — we voters should continue to promote, literally, these two impressive public servants. Their skillsets and leadership qualities are what we need more of, indeed a lot more of, in our dynamic and diversifying capitol city and state.
PS: there is at least one front yard in Salt Lake City proudly displaying both campaign signs.
John Zaccheo, a 92-year old Rotarian, is a former pizza and Italian restaurant owner and business executive, who has called Utah home for almost five decades.
Kael Weston, a fourth-generation Utahn, is a former U.S. State Department official and instructor at Westminster College and Marine Corps University and author of “The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan.” www.jkweston.com