Erin Mendenhall is taking the lead in the Salt Lake City mayor’s race.
According to preliminary results from Tuesday night, the city councilwoman has become the frontrunner with nearly 24% of the votes. She’s followed by Jim Dabakis, the outspoken former state senator, who sits at 21.5% and current state Sen. Luz Escamilla coming in at a very close third at 21.19%.
More than 29,000 ballots have been counted so far, with more results to be announced. The two candidates with the highest number of votes will advance to November’s general election.
“Voters want a real option on the ballot in November, not just two state legislators,” Mendenhall told City Weekly after a press conference Wednesday held on the steps of the City and County Building, taking a mild swipe at her two main competitors as she celebrated her lead.
“I think voters are saying they want to see someone on the ballot who has actual experience running Salt Lake City government,” she added. Mendenhall has served on the City Council representing District 5 for the past six years—experience she’s emphasized as she’s sought to stand apart from the rest of the candidates. “I think that my air quality background shows that I actually know how to work on this issue.”
Wednesday’s results bring an end to a jam-packed primary between eight candidates seeking to replace current Salt Lake mayor Jackie Biskupski, who isn’t seeking reelection. It’s been a friendly but tough race, as all of the candidates made clear when we sat down for a drink with each of the candidates to discuss their campaigns for this week’s Beer Issue.
For weeks, the mayoral hopefuls have been facing off in a series of forums and debates. Mendenhall has made air quality and affordable housing central issues in her campaign, touting her experience as the chair of the state’s Air Quality Board and emphasizing her interest in lifting the load of middle- and low-income city residents. She’s promoted ideas to make government more accessible to minorities and lower-income families and spoken out in support of Biskupski’s lawsuit against the inland port, while also saying she’d be open to negotiate with the state.
Most of the other mayoral candidates shared similarly progressive ideas, and at some forums the mood between them seemed downright jovial. But Dabakis acknowledges that the sheer number of competitors made this an extra-challenging primary.
“I think Salt Lake was truly lucky to have such good-caliber candidates, but it made it almost impossible to accurately get an intelligent response out. Eight of us stood at the debate stage and they would say, ‘OK! Give us your complete plan for air pollution—you have 45 seconds,” he tells City Weekly.
Barring any last-minute surprises when the final results are posted, he’s looking forward to having more room for discussion as he begins campaigning for the general election.
“It’s just the nature of having that many people in the primary, but that won’t be true anymore. We’ll actually get to talk and explain our positions on things, and I look forward to that,” he says.
Mendenhall’s lead is something of an upset victory, since Dabakis was the projected frontrunner in many polls conducted in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote. On the campaign trail, he’s put his folksy charm and storytelling gifts to good use while promoting the idea of using state funds and other resources to provide free fares for UTA public transit across the Wasatch Front. He’s also pledged to extend an olive branch to state lawmakers as he seeks to tackle intractable issues like alcohol laws, campaign finance and the inland port—a project slated for development by the state on a 16,000-acre plot of land in northwest Salt Lake.
Dabakis has saved up a war chest of $170,000 in campaign donations, which he’s set aside for the general election.
“The next move is to gear up and go out and meet voters and do what we’ve been doing every day since January 15th,” he says, “explaining to people what my vision for the city is and why I’m the best-qualified person to do it, and the mechanics of how I would do it.”
Escamilla hasn’t given up yet, though. She’s behind Dabakis by just 109 votes, and she’s waiting on the final results with hopes that she’ll pull ahead.
“We’re just waiting right now. We knew it was going to be very close,” she tells City Weekly. “We’re hoping for the best. There are still thousands of votes that haven’t been counted.”
Born in Mexico and raised in the city of Tijuana and in San Diego just across the border, she came to Utah in the late ’90s and has represented Salt Lake’s westside in the Utah Senate since 2008. Living on the westside, she’s proven to be an outspoken advocate for Salt Lake’s immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities, stressing the importance of using good policy and accurate data to bring sustainable development, environmental progress and effective public transportation options to Salt Lake’s most under-served communities.
Much of her support in Tuesday’s election came from Salt Lake’s western neighborhoods, where she took the lead by as much as 66% in some voting precincts.
“I’m happy. It means a lot to me. It’s actually pretty rewarding to see that people support me that much on the westside,” she says.
As for the other candidates, David Garbett came in fourth place with 15.8% of the votes, followed by David Ibarra (8.4%), Stan Penfold (6.9%), Rainer Huck (1.63%) and Richard Goldberger (0.86%).
Update, 8/16: Well, this mayoral election is full of surprises, isn’t it? The latest ballot results released Thursday afternoon show Sen. Luz Escamilla rising to second place, beating out contender Jim Dabakis. This means that she’ll be going up against City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall for mayor in the general election come November.
On Wednesday, early results had Escamilla trailing Dabakis by 109 votes. Now she’s ahead by more than 400 votes, taking 21.43% of the total. Dabakis conceded defeat in a tweet shortly after the results were announced.
“We knew we had an aggressive field game to get out the vote and these results show that our hard work paid off,” Escamilla stated in a news release Thursday.
Salt Lake voters will decide for either Mendenhall and Escamilla on Tuesday, Nov. 5.