SALT LAKE CITY — The day after her stunning election night lead, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall reveled in her campaign’s success — though careful to note not all ballots have been counted, still throwing into question who she’ll face in the general election.
“I’m still digesting the results of last night,” Mendenhall said while addressing reporters on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building Wednesday, reiterating her team’s confidence that final election results will keep her as the top vote-getter in the Salt Lake City mayoral primary.
“Our campaign is currently recalibrating and preparing for the general election in November,” she said.
Both of her potential opponents, former state Sen. Jim Dabakis and state Sen. Luz Escamilla, are “lovely people,” Mendenhall said, adding that no matter who advances she believes the general election will be “strong and robust.”
Mendenhall ended election night leading in first place with 624 votes ahead of Dabakis, while Escamilla trailed in third place only 109 votes behind him.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said 8,158 outstanding Salt Lake City ballots have yet to be counted in the race — which could possibly cause the races to flip, though pundits point to more uncertainty with Dabakis’ lead over Escamilla than with Mendenhall’s lead with nearly 24 percent of the vote.
“With this many outstanding ballots, you just never know,” Swensen said.
The race likely won’t be decided until at least 3 p.m. Thursday, when Swensen is expected to post the next batch of results. If margins are still close, the race could drag out until more results are posted at 3 p.m. Friday or finalized at the two-week canvass.
“We knew it was going to be close and that this was a possibility. All we can do is wait and hope our final efforts were enough to see us through the primary and into the general,” Escamilla said in a statement. “Either way this shakes out, it’s been an incredible race and I cannot thank my supporters enough.”
Dabakis said he’s simply waiting for the race to hash itself out rather than stressing over whether he could lose his spot in the general election.
“I slept like a baby last night. I’m perfectly fine,” Dabakis said on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic” show Wednesday. “The votes, I believe, will be counted fairly and accurately, and if I win, I win. And I will have great energy and enthusiasm for the next phase.”
Confident her lead will hold, Mendenhall issued a call for a “clean” and issues-focused general election, which she said she hopes will allow voters to delve “deep” into top Salt Lake issues, including air quality and environmental issues. She also called for a televised debate specifically on climate change and air quality, as well as debates in every single City Council district hosted by community councils.
“The primary election made it clear that voters want the next mayor to make air quality a priority,” Mendenhall said. “Let’s make sure our general election reflects that.”
Mendenhall got her start in politics through air quality advocacy, co-founding Breathe Utah. She currently serves as the chairwoman of the Utah Air Quality Board.
Mendenhall’s election night lead surprised pundits, including Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, who pointed to a growing feeling of “momentum” for Mendenhall as the councilwoman headed into the primary.
That “momentum,” Cotti said, could have come from a number of fronts for Mendenhall, from performing well in the dozens of forums and debates leading up to the primary, to winning over a list of grassroots endorsements from labor unions to leaders of local community councils.
Cotti also credited Mendenhall with running a “strong ground game” when it came to what the councilwoman described as a “strategic” and “targeted” approach to seeking voters.
Primary races aren’t always about money — which Mendenhall’s lead proves. Even though she raised a fraction of what other campaigns raised, she gained traction among voters through that “ground game,” Cotti said.
“Primaries are often about clear communication with voters, but also about ensuring you have turnout from the voters, and that requires a strong ground game,” Cotti said.
“This is not about who can raise the most money,” Mendenhall said. “This is about connecting with the community, and I know how to do that.”
Additionally, Cotti said Mendenhall’s experience at City Hall and her pledge to be a collaborator at both city and state levels could have resonated with many voters — at a time when tensions between Salt Lake City and Utah legislators are high amid the controversy and a legal battle over the Utah Inland Port Authority.
“I think the narrative she crafted of her ability to work through tough issues at all levels of government worked,” Cotti said. “I think people are looking for a government to work for the people and to be effective — and she has a track record of being able to do that.”
Mendenhall throughout the campaign has said “anger is not a strategy” when it comes to working with state leaders — an apparent reference to Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s refusal to continue negotiating with state leaders over the inland port.
Though Mendenhall has pledged to continue Biskupski’s lawsuit to sort out the constitutionality of the port authority as it relates to city and land use and taxing authority, she also pledged to balance that with a working relationship at the state level.
“I hope Salt Lakers are understanding that we don’t exist in a bubble here in Salt Lake City and that many times in our history (we’re) affected by the decisions the state makes and that we get more as a capital city when we show up to those conversations than when we choose to walk away in frustration,” Mendenhall said.
She’s already framing the next phase of her campaign — highlighting that no matter who advances to the general election alongside her — Dabakis or Escamilla — they’ll need to choose from someone with city or state experience.
“After 12 years of mayors with experience on Capitol Hill, our voters are ready for a mayor with experience in City Hall,” she said.
Another point Mendenhall said she learned from voters is that they’re “tired of rhetoric and they’re ready for results.”
Contributing: Ladd Egan