Salt Lake City has a new mayor. Just who it is, though, isn’t yet official.
Despite City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall’s big lead Tuesday, rival Sen. Luz Escamilla wasn’t giving up, saying her campaign plans to wait for more ballot counts throughout the week.
The first numbers from the County Clerk’s office after polls closed at 8 p.m. show Mendenhall ahead, taking just more than 58% with 19,819 votes out of a total 33,818 counted. Escamilla was trailing at 41.40% with 13,999 votes. As of 11 p.m., all precincts were reporting results.
“The election results are looking lovely,” Mendenhall said to a crowd of cheering supporters after they watched the results come in during a watch party Tuesday night.
A few blocks away at Escamilla’s gathering, the longtime state senator said they plan to wait and see.
“We want to see better numbers of course, but we also know we’re the underdog, a grassroots campaign and we needed to overcome a lot of things,” Escamilla said. “I’m confident we did the job we needed to do.”
Election Night was the culmination of a jam-packed race for the mayor’s office. Eight candidates initially vied for the position currently occupied by Jackie Biskupski, who is not seeking re-election. Mendenhall and Escamilla took the two top positions in the August primary—marking the first time in Salt Lake history that two women rose to the top of a mayor’s race in a general election.
In recent months, they have campaigned relentlessly across the city while facing off in multiple debates to discuss major issues like air quality, homelessness, public transportation and the inland port.
They’ve also sat down for drinks with City Weekly writers and addressed questions on how they envision the city’s future, both of them championing platforms in which sustainability, inclusivity and economic equality sit center stage.
“The race for mayor highlighted some uncomfortable realities about our city—geographic divisions, racial divisions, even spiritual divisions,” Mendenhall said during a speech Tuesday night as supporters and campaigners sipped on craft beer and helped themselves to a full spread during a watch party at Publik Space on West Temple. “It is our enduring responsibility as Salt Lakers to unite our city, to speak out when you see inequity, to bring ideas for addressing systematic change and long standing challenges, and to help us create a city whose opportunities can be accessed by everyone.”
The crowd included a number of movers and shakers in Salt Lake’s political establishment, including District Attorney Sim Gill, ACLU of Utah strategic communications manager Jason Stevenson and City Councilmembers Amy Fowler and Chris Wharton.
“I’ve seen her passion for our city, her dedication, her eloquence, and her ability to really open up and try to understand all perspectives,” Fowler, who endorsed Mendenhall during the primary, told City Weekly. “She’s not somebody that’s just stuck in her way and won’t reach out and try to understand other peoples’ ideas and perspectives.”
A More Subdued Reception
Meanwhile, a few blocks over at Escamilla’s campaign headquarters, dozens of supporters gathered around hoping the initial voting results would turn out differently.
When 8 p.m. rolled around, a staffer yelled, “They’re up!”
Seconds later, an “Oh, shit” could be heard from someone in the nearby crowd. When the preliminary results were posted, it showed Mendenhall holding a more than 5,700-vote lead.
The crowd wasn’t pleased, but Escamilla said it wasn’t entirely unexpected. In the August primary, Escamilla initially trailed former Sen. Jim Dabakis for second place. As more ballots were counted in the ensuing days, she passed Dabakis to move on to Tuesday’s general election.
“We knew the margin was going to be there,” Escamilla said. “We knew that early voters are usually not the ones that come our way. It brought me a little bit of déjà vu … and we’re hoping we can pull something out like we did in August.”
Escamilla, who also received Biskupski’s endorsement, did not concede Tuesday and instead encouraged her supporters and staff to keep their hopes up, banking on the late mail-in votes. The day’s early results also showed Escamilla garnering more votes in the city’s Northwest Quadrant, the potential future home for the city’s inland port—a central topic in both candidates’ campaigns.
“I was out at 6:30 tonight on the westside of Salt Lake City [encouraging voters] and we’re hoping that can help us,” she said. “That’s our best shot at this point.”
Visitors at Escamilla’s party included Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Millcreek, as well as Salt Lake City District 4 Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros. The councilwoman was appointed to the seat after former councilman Derek Kitchen left for the state Senate. Tuesday’s results showed Valdemoros well on her way to winning the seat.
Valdemoros told City Weekly that no matter who wins, she’s looking forward to a new regime in the mayor’s office and hopes they’re as enthusiastic about moving the city forward as she says the council is.
“I’m excited to turn a new leaf with a new administration,” Valdemoros said. “I’ve built relationships starting at the primary, so that whoever won, knows that they have a councilmember who wants to collaborate and move things forward, not be an impediment.”
Around 10 p.m., Escamilla took the mic to address her supporters: “We need to wait until Thursday. Every vote counts. Every vote matters,” she told the crowd. This time around, they responded with cheers and a few shouts of, “We love you, Luz.”
Until more ballots are counted, Escamilla and company don’t plan to give up. “I don’t lose faith,” she said. “We’ve been there and we’re hoping we’ll pull it through Thursday.”
The sentiment continued in a news release sent by Escamilla Tuesday night. “We’re confident the outstanding ballots will break in our favor and we’ll come out on top,” Escamilla said, adding, “One thing is for sure … this race isn’t over yet.”
UPDATE NOV. 6, 4:04 p.m.: With 9,744 yet-to-be-counted ballots, Sen. Escamilla conceded the race late afternoon on Wednesday. “I just congratulated Erin,” Escamilla said in a news release. “We had a good conversation and I wished her the best of luck as our city’s next mayor.”