Commentary: A call for self-reflection: The Salt Lake City mayoral election and whiteness

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Luz Escamilla thanks friends and supporters as she awaits the ballot results in the Salt Lake City mayor's race, at her campaign headquarters, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Escamilla ran against Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who won.

As progressives in the state of Utah, we are proud to be part of a community that values fairness, equity, and opportunity for all. These values unite us in a state where many of us have experienced the pain of being an outsider. It is because of these shared values that we can’t stop ruminating about the results of our recent Salt Lake City mayoral election.

Two good, committed people ran for mayor of our city. One of them had over 20 years of experience as a leader in both the public and private sectors. Her career perfectly positioned her for the job. To our minds, there is no question that state Sen. Luz Escamilla was the most qualified, experienced candidate. And yet she lost the election by a wide margin.

We had an opportunity to be led by a powerful, effective, experienced woman of color and we missed it.

Many have told us it is time to move on and rally behind our mayor-elect. Let us be clear: We wish Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall success in her new role. Yet, in order for us to realize our collective vision for Salt Lake City, we ask that we all use the election results as an opportunity to self–reflect. As white women, we are sitting with the discomfort of the following questions and ask you to join us in reflection if any of these questions speak to you:

  • Have I tended to gravitate toward leaders who feel familiar to me, who speak or look like me, share my cultural experience or validate my personal history? The election results suggest that when people didn’t know either of the candidates, they defaulted to Mendenhall. Or, when people worried about having a mayor from the west side, they defaulted to yet another east side candidate as the “neutral” choice.

  • What do I think or feel about systemic racism? In the days following the election we joined in the many spirited conversations on social media. To the question whether race mattered in this election, so many insisted it did not matter at all. How could it and other facets of identity not matter?

  • How am I using my power and resources to create a more equitable Salt Lake City? Escamilla was eminently qualified for the job of mayor, and she raised similar amounts of money; but the results would suggest that Escamilla had to work harder. If you supported Escamilla, it was not enough to vote for her or chirp about her on social media. You need to do more if you want real change.

This commentary is not about this election. It’s about the future. But we are using this election as a critical springboard that tells us something meaningful about who we are.

As white progressive women, we call upon our neighbors to consider this issue: What is it that prevents our community from centering people who have been at the margins? From standing with westside residents and others who are most impacted by environmental injustice? From lifting up candidates who may not share our background but who share our vision for this community? More diverse voices signal and attract a greater number of businesses. This isn’t just clawing for equality, this is literally what’s best for all.

If we want to be allies committed to being actively anti-racist we need to work to shift the balance of power with our votes. That means getting to know candidates who bring different skills and experience. How can we as a community prepare ourselves to recognize and elevate a transformative leader when she’s staring us in the face?

Melinda Pettingill, Sugar House; Judi Hilman, The Avenues; Annabel Sheinberg, St. Mary’s; Mara Haight, Glendale; Teri Mumm, Fairpark; Lisa Diamond, The Avenues.