- Derek Carlisle
With all the potential challenges facing Salt Lake City in the coming years, the current mayor's race has offered an opportunity for candidates to share big visions and bold ideas.
That's been the tone so far in Salt Lake City's mayoral race. When current mayor Jackie Biskupski made clear that she wouldn't be running for a second term, a mind-boggling eight candidates stepped up to the plate in the race to take over at City Hall. The roster represented a cross-section of Salt Lake voices and backgrounds; most of the candidates touted forward-thinking platforms. Indeed, the poisonous runoff of Trump-style partisanship wasn't about to ruin the vibe in this progressive city: At a mayoral forum on Muslim issues over the summer, six of the candidates even gathered for a smiling photo-op with the event's organizers.
Now the race centers around two candidates: Erin Mendenhall, the outspoken air-quality advocate who has represented District 5 for the past six years on the Salt Lake City Council, swept to the lead in the August primary. Luz Escamilla, an 11-year veteran of the state Senate and executive at Zions Bank whose district covers the westside and parts of West Valley City, squeaked into second place, beating out expected frontrunner Jim Dabakis by 421 votes.
The voters decide who will become the next mayor in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 5. For many, ballots will be mailed to their homes soon. To get you hyped for the occasion, City Weekly arranged sit-down interviews with both candidates and grilled them about their platforms. As the city grows, both of them advocate for sustainability, inclusivity and structural equality—but they also tout different skill sets and approaches.
As usual, the Q&As are edited for clarity and length.
- Ray Howze
Background: Born in Mexico City, Escamilla grew up in the border city of Tijuana and crossed every day to attend school in the U.S. sister city of San Diego. She moved to the Beehive State to pursue a bachelor's degree in business marketing at the University of Utah. She obtained a master's in public administration, also at the U, and has worked as the vice president of community development at Zions Bank while also serving on the state Senate since 2008.
How has living in Rose Park shaped your view of the city?
My experience has given me an opportunity to see and understand the inequalities that exist [in the city]—some of the disparities based on zip codes and social determinants of health. It's interesting to see some gaps of services related to the grid and access to public transportation and lighting in the streets. Literally, the divide in our city by I-15 gives you that divide. There's also a lot of richness and diversity on the westside. It's an exciting place, it's vibrant, it's alive. I'm very excited for an opportunity to have a city that represents everyone, and we can all work together really to eliminate that divide and be able to have that quality of life for everyone.
You often talk about the importance of data and research, and Erin as well has talked in depth about policy issues during the campaign. What's the importance of focusing on data and policy as a guide to your platform?
The way I see policy issues is data-driven. I think my MPA—my master's in public administration—gave me that kind of structure. I'm a data geek. I really love data. I really love those best practices. But I also believe in stories. My experience as a legislator has shown me that there's uniqueness to peoples' stories, and that really is a big drive. I feel very passionate about the work I do and I like to hear peoples' perspectives of where they're coming from and why this is important to them. I cry with people. Not everyone thinks it's great—my campaign is like, "Don't cry!" To me, it's important. Part of what drives me to do things is passion, because people are in situations where we can make it better for them.
Rent prices are going up, it's difficult to find housing that's affordable in the city. A lot of people have to pay large percentages of their income just on housing. How would you address that as mayor?
We're about to release our housing plan. I'm very excited. I'll say this—one of the things I'm very conscious about, is that I need to listen and work with everyone. I don't have all the answers. There are great people and great institutional knowledge in Salt Lake City. I've been surrounding myself with many people like that, and some of them have been helping me put together this plan. We have to really think outside the box and really use all of our tools that are available—everything from zoning [to] ordinances. What you want to do is make sure our affordable housing is east, west, north and south. It can't just be concentrated in one community.
You also have to be careful not to bring gentrification to [underserved communities], because that's what's happening right now. It's pushing people out. We're losing families that can't afford to live here. I think we need a steady line item in city government about affordable housing. One year there was only $120,000 of appropriations; [another time], it was $21 million. We need consistency, because I think that really sends an important message. And it shows commitment.
How do you hold developers accountable to make sure that they're actually building things that meet lower-income peoples' needs?
You can't just have affordable housing and then super high-premium costs, because you miss the middle. If we have 20 new condos coming out, per se, and you say, "Well, I'm going to do three or four of them with affordable housing components"—and then the rest will only be super high-end, high-priced, because you're mitigating costs through that—we're then leaving behind the middle class opportunity, too. We also need to make sure there's pricing for the working families and middle class and the ones who need help and support.
They really need to buy into our vision. We want a Salt Lake City that's sustainable, that will allow all communities and everyone to participate in our economy. There's people that can afford those very high-end prices, but we also need to make sure there's pricing for the working families and middle class and the ones who need help and support. We'll provide tools, we will have someone helping those developers and making sure they buy into that vision and provide them with [options], whether it's discounts and expediting permitting processes or impact fees.
The minimum wage is $7.25 an hour in Utah and it hasn't changed since 2009. How would you work to improve wages in general across the city?
The way you do it is when you are talking to companies coming to Utah, through [the Redevelopment Agency], giving money to them to develop, those metrics of the RDA should include pieces on living wages. You can't have a conversation with them and say, "Yeah, here's $20 million for development," and not expect them to have metrics. I don't care how you label the jobs, those jobs need to make a minimum wage of "X." You expect them to have wages of a minimum of $15, $17, $20 an hour. [Also] do they provide health care, or not? Child care? Are their plans sustainable?
Starting in the summer there's been a very confrontational and vocal opposition to the inland port. There's been demonstrations and protests, people flooding the Capitol and delivering letters.
I think there's always been opposition. At least from my district.
So where do you see the opposition fitting into the greater discussion about the inland port?
They're in my district, most of them. They're my constituents. The constituency of the Northwest Quadrant—I'm one of them. I live there. That hits me. For us, as a community, there was an issue related to the process of transparency, the behind-doors-dealmaking that undermined that community.
[The inland port] was really a loss for Salt Lake City. Losing all the land use authority, the tax increment pieces—it's just unheard of, really. I think it's clear that the community—beyond Westpointe and the Northwest Quadrant area—doesn't think this is the right thing for Salt Lake City. It's really just an issue for congestion, of traffic, of pollution, environmental impact and health. From Day 1, I opposed all the legislation related to the inland port, except for my own bill that created the baseline in monitoring for air quality and water quality.
A lot of opponents are saying, "No port." Is this a situation where there can be, feasibly, no port?
Everything is possible in terms of a process like this, but the reality is, right now there's a state law to cover the ability of the city to have land-use authority, taxation, increments, everything. So we're in the worst-case scenario that we could be.
The city had already zoned that place for manufacturing, so there was going to be development there. I mean, maybe it was not going to be called an inland port—maybe it would be called something else. One of the pieces in my environmental policy proposal is to ask for a health impact study right away. It should be happening now. And if the state is not going to do it, then the city should do it.
Do you worry you'll lose your negotiating leverage if you support meeting with the state to discuss the inland port but also support the city's lawsuit against the project?
I don't see why. I think everyone would've done the same. I don't see any city just sitting back and taking it. And maybe the state decides to change course. I think there's possibilities. I wouldn't say, "Oh, no, it's a done deal." I think there's appetite to work together. There's appetite to find common ground.
Your environmental plan includes a proposal to cut tailpipe emissions 25% by improving access to buses and other modes of public transportation. How do you convince people that they don't need to drive their cars? That seems like such a big ask.
It's a huge ask. Couple things—one, it has to be convenient. There has to be enough opportunities for you to ride the bus and get to your place on time. The timing is critical. The amenities—so, they call them amenities. I don't like that word.
You mean bus shelters, right?
They call them "amenities." And that kills me. If it's minus 20 degrees, it's not an "amenity." You're going to start feeling the cold—it's a necessity. If it's raining, if it's 110 degrees, it's not an amenity.
So, it has to be effective, efficient. It has to be convenient. It has to be affordable. And you have to get close. Now, the city, their master plan they put together is actually pretty good. I think in incremental steps we can get there.
What do you think about e-scooters?
There's an issue of safety. It has to be regulated. There has to be order in this process, right? We can't now be creating ADA problems: Because they leave the scooters on the sidewalk, people who are using other modes of transportation due to their disability now are prohibited to do that. We obviously want to work with those companies providing the service, but we have to talk about how they're maintained. We want to create more active transportation, but [it has to be] safe.
You've talked before about making City Hall more accessible—
You've talked about bringing in navigators, language interpreters to City Hall.
I'm interested in a cultural shift about how we provide services at City Hall—toward this idea that we're here to serve you. We have a whole [plan] called "Ready for Business, Salt Lake City." We're going to have navigators available and take you through [the small business permitting] process with them. But also it's about bringing City Hall to neighborhoods. Not everyone can get to City Hall. We need to have city meetings, budget conversations, directors from our different departments coming to the communities and neighborhoods, hosting those meetings there.
How do you pay for that? Is there budget space for it?
You make it. It's intentional. You want to be inclusive? Put your money where your mouth is.
What would your governance style be as mayor?
I've been in the workforce for 30-plus years, I've done a lot of different things. I recognize I don't have the answers for everything. I know how to get surrounded by people who are experts on issues. But I also know how to listen. I've been doing that as a legislator, I've been doing that as an administrator, as a leader in my field of work. And I strongly believe in empowering people to make decisions. The mayor needs to have those relationships of trust with their department heads. I want them to feel empowered. I also want city employees to feel that innovation is important and that they can participate in innovation and change. I really want a City Hall where people feel like, "OK, I'm being heard. I'm respected as a professional here, and my issues and my ideas matter."
- Ray Howze
Background: Mendenhall moved to Salt Lake Valley with her family when her dad, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was 6, could take a job that would allow him to travel less. She got her bachelor's in gender studies at the U and a master's in science and technology with an emphasis in environmental science. The co-founder of Salt Lake nonprofit Breathe Utah, she got her start in grassroots activism and advocacy work before running for City Council and taking the District 5 seat in 2014.
How has living in 9th & 9th for 22 years shaped your view of Salt Lake City?
We call it Small Lake City with loving affection. We're a little big city, and the intention I think that draws people like myself to live here also fosters a strong community identity and an ability for us to go far as a city. Living in a place where I can support my friends' businesses and art and endeavors is part of the reason that I live here. I ride my bike around the city on purpose, in part for health and air quality but also to feel more connected to my community and have the ability to stop and grab a pound of coffee at the Coffee Garden on my way home.
You and Luz have both been going into a lot of detail about policy and talking about data, the importance of research. What's the importance of having these discussions that are very detailed and policy-based?
I don't know what else people would want us to be talking about. I think that there's a difference in our skill sets that we bring to the conversation. I come from grassroots, community organizing, nonprofit environmental work, and still do that work as the chair of the Air Quality Board and with regard to open space for the state. But my toolbox is city-based, so I can talk all day about policy, financing, community collaboration, because that's the work I do for the city. We need to be talking about not just how we want better air quality and a more accessible city for everyone and greater affordability, but how I'm actually going to execute that vision. Don't just tell me the sweet words—show me the path.
What would your governance style be in City Hall?
We need a mayor who will not back down or will not walk away out of frustration or out of any other personal gripe. The job of the mayor is to show up, stay at the conversation, be forthright and forthcoming, with whoever I'm working with, and that's what I've done for our city. That's what I'll keep doing. But in terms of working with the City Hall staff, with the community, with other government agencies at the county or the state or beyond, the role of the mayor I see as a catalytic position—sort of like an hourglass. The mayor sits at that pinch point in many ways, and at the bottom of the hourglass you could imagine all the administrative functions that the mayor oversees and is the executive of. The top part of that hourglass might be the advocacy role, the relationships that the mayor is responsible for cultivating and maintaining to get us more as a capital city, as a city in political contrast to our state.
Rising rents and a limited number of affordable housing options puts an extra burden on a lot of people. How would you work on this?
I've led on the affordable housing initiatives in Salt Lake City in the last five years, bringing $21 million to the table to leverage private investment for more affordable units in our city than we were going to receive before. I very much know and understand the crisis that we're in and the tools the city has to get more out of it. We have an incredible amount of growth and investment in our city coming in the pipeline. How we work with those investors will determine whether or not we get any affordable housing and to what extent we do. It's everything from doing a deep dive on our zoning to see what barriers we have to geographically equitable distribution of affordable housing across the city, to working with the development community to figure out how we can get more from the millions of dollars we're putting toward loans at this point to build more affordability.
We've had more than 1,500 new units come on in the last several years—we know that our financial tools are one of the most effective ways to entice developers to contain affordability. I don't know that it's creating enough affordability. I think we need to strengthen that. And that's where an inclusionary zoning conversation comes in. But there's another way—the zoning we have and where we allow different types of housing, whether it's micro-units in a multi-family complex, or tiny homes, which we don't allow yet in Salt Lake City.
Tiny homes will require a pretty significant change to the zoning that we have today. Making housing more accessible has a lot to do with the square footage of it, and there's some creative communal housing types across the country that Salt Lake City should explore.
Minimum wage, at $7.25 an hour, hasn't changed since 2009. Could the mayor push for a local minimum wage hike?
Nope. You can thank our state legislature for tying the hands of all 247 cities and towns in the state from being able to affect minimum wage. What we can do is insist that the businesses and corporations that we invest in, in this city, are bringing fair wages, better wages, even union jobs to the city.
How does that work?
I'll give you two examples, one we just did with Stadler Rail. Stadler had a facility here, a small one, they are looking to expand. They build passenger railcars. They were looking to leave Salt Lake City. We wanted them to make that investment here, and one of the benefits that they brought to the table in order to receive this partnership was an apprenticeship program targeted at Salt Lake City students. Highland High and West High students can apply for a two-year apprenticeship program. At the end of it, they end up with an associate's [degree], a résumé and a $48,000 a year job and an opportunity to interview, continue with Stadler. That's something we'd never undertaken as a city, that kind of direct benefit opportunity to our residents.
Since this summer, there's been increasing opposition and a lot more confrontational opposition from activists and organizers. Where do you see this opposition fitting into the discussion about the inland port?
Activism, as it always has in democracy, creates the space for a conversation with its opposition. That's how I came into air quality work a decade ago—from being a protester and recognizing that all of our activism was pricking the ears of decision-makers. I co-founded Breathe Utah to intentionally walk into that space of policy-making and negotiating with those decision-makers. I think, similarly, the activism around the inland port is creating the space for a better conversation—hopefully a more transparent, public and equitable conversation as it relates to our environment, our tax future and our land use decisions for this city.
A lot of the activists have been calling for, "No inland port." Do you see that as a feasible option, or is some kind of inland port in some sense inevitable?
The land that is being targeted for the inland port is privately owned. This land is entitled to develop, and the reason it's entitled to develop—well, that's the role of cities, is to zone land and work with the property owners. But the real issue is that if the city weren't working with these property owners, the state would take it over, as it has thousands and thousands of acres south of I-80. That would be the biggest loss for Salt Lake City, and our environment, that we could fathom. This private property, unless it comes up for sale—in which case, the city should buy it—is going to continue to be developed. The question is under whose guidance, the city's or the state's? The city needs to stay in that role of development.
You've come out in support of the lawsuit that Mayor Biskupski has filed—
No, the city has filed it.
That the city has filed. But you've also said that you would negotiate with the state. Are you worried that maybe that'll weaken your position?
Absolutely not. I have never been in support of the state taking our land use and our taxing authority. That was something I tried to negotiate in the negotiations that I held when the mayor walked away last year. The state has known all along that I want those authorities back for Salt Lake City. It's absolutely consistent with every conversation I've ever had with the state. It's a constitutional issue, and it's better decided by the courts than having Salt Lake City go to battle with the legislature every session over what should ultimately be decided by the judicial system.
Cars are so central to getting around here, so what incentives could you give people to stop using their cars to cut down on carbon emissions and improve air quality?
We need to make it cheaper and easier to take public transportation. Also, the future of any great American city isn't just one way to get around, it's lots of options. Buses are a part of it. Bikes, scooters even. Rideshare. Subsidized rideshare. These are all parts of our transit master plan that we created recently. When I was chair of the council last year, we funded the first phase of implementation. We have our very first circulator buses: 21st South, 9th South and 2nd South. Soon there will be a bus coming through Rose Park. That's Phase 1. And we need phases two and three here as soon as possible.
But if we wait for our taxpayer dollars to be able to afford to buy up the rest of that plan, it will be too late. We have to bring partnerships to the table to pay for this. I want every ticket in Salt Lake City to be a transit pass. When you think about how many partnerships this would take, it's not very many. It's the city and the county who own and operate most of the arts and culture venues. The University of Utah has already done this. The ticket to your football game is the ticket to your transit: Whether you're coming from Ogden or Provo, you got your ticket to the game—you can get on Frontrunner, Trax, bus, and get where you need to go.
The city plans next year to renegotiate the contract with Rocky Mountain Power, and both you and Escamilla advocate reworking the system to achieve 100% renewable energy goals by 2023. How exactly would that work?
Do you know how energy transmission works?
Like, with power plants and stuff?
Yeah [laughs] I'm definitely not the guru on it. So, the electric transmission infrastructure goes from really big, high power that breaks down to smaller-scale towers that breaks down to individual building distribution. And I'm grossly over-exaggerating—or under-exaggerating—the complexity of it, but at that highest level of transmission, where it's coming straight from either a solar farm or coal-fired power plant or a wind farm, it's all going into the same tube, so to speak. For Salt Lake City to say, "We're going to have 100% renewable energy coming into our city," well, we're going to be assuring that the amount of energy that we use in our city is being produced by renewable energy sources.
You just cut off the coal and fire up the solar panels?
I wish it were that simple.
Do you have any thoughts about how to bring more diversity into City Hall?
We can learn from what other creative cities around the country are doing. Some of what I've learned so far is in reexamining our applications for boards and commissions, for employment, to examine implicit bias that is built into that. We can't extract ourselves from the cultural reality that the status of women is among the lowest in the nation here. And that is worse for women of color. And of course, other marginalized communities in this city are also disadvantaged in accessing conversations and influence. We need to be continually reassessing the implicit bias that is built into our whole systematic process for engaging people.
Other ways that we can engage more of the community is by changing the way that we meet and we ask for feedback. It's very difficult for many people to meet us in our house, so to speak [i.e., to attend meetings at City Hall]. We need to bring conversation opportunities out into the communities in their spaces and on their times. If that means going to community learning centers in the morning after kids are dropped off at school, that's one way for us to do it. Going to work centers, meeting with people during lunch breaks to get feedback—these are some of the ways that other cities around the country are better engaging communities. Even contemplating subsidies for Lyft and Uber for people to be able to attend the meeting or take transit. The city could subsidize child care for board participating, board commission, volunteer participation. Also, food is sometimes an obstacle—so, providing a meal or a subsidy for a meal.
Where do you get the funding to provide stipends like these?
You get it from the city's budget. You prioritize things and you make it happen.