SALT LAKE CITY — The two women vying for mayor opened up about their histories, hopes and visions for Salt Lake City Sunday during their first joint speaking engagement since they both advanced in last Tuesday’s primary election.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla set the stage for a friendly, respectful race. During a question-and-answer forum at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, they often called each other “the good councilwoman” or “the good senator,” and praised one another’s experience and knowledge.
Both Mendenhall and Escamilla promised to focus on air quality, immigration and protecting the city’s interests in connection to the inland port. They both also described personal experiences that prompted them to become public servants.
Mendenhall’s family came to Utah when she was 7, she said. Her dad had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He passed away when she was 14.
“My mother, my brother and I were left behind. ...I grew up believing that, as my father’s father had also died of cancer, that that was a probability in my genes and there was little I could do about that,” she said.
But when she went to the University of Utah for her undergraduate studies, Mendenhall was asked to read a book called “Living Downstream” by Sandra Steingraber about a county in Illinois that Mendenhall’s own dad grew up in. She learned the area had a “disproportionate” number of cancer cases, which the author said was caused by exposure to DDT.
As she read the book, Mendenhall said she recalled her father telling her how he and his sister “would hear the planes coming, and they would run out to run under the DDT as it was sprayed because it fell on them like snow.”
She said that experience made her want to work “at that intersection of pollution and exposure in our own lives and the decisions we make at the policy level.” Mendenhall used that passion to help found air quality nonprofit group Breathe Utah. She later ran for a spot on the City Council when she learned the only councilwoman at the time was retiring.
Escamilla became involved in government as a way to give back to the country that she said gave her “a beautiful life.”
“I love this place. Salt Lake City is a place my parents decided to send me here to go to school. Coming from a different country was very scary. I was the first one in my family to immigrate here. Came here from Mexico,” Escamilla said.
In August last year, she said her dad passed away from a respiratory lung condition that “aggravated here in Salt Lake City.”
“And it becomes very personal when you have these conversations. It resonates to me how important it is to provide public service. My dad reminded me every day how important it was for me to give back to the country that provided the opportunities to put a Mexican immigrant now in the place of being in the state Legislature and enjoying the beautiful life of this great nation,” she said.
She said she decided to run for the Legislature while she was working for then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as the director for the State Office of Ethnic Affairs. Her job was to represent the five ethnic groups for the state government, Escamilla said.
“The opportunity to understand how government works, but also how disparities were real and how those achievement gaps, health care, social determinants of health, were changing the outcomes of people based on their ZIP codes, based on how their last names were spelled, or the type of education they were getting. It was telling for me,” she recalled.
Seeing some lack of compassion for ethnic groups at the Capitol, she decided to run for the Utah Senate.
When asked about their stances on immigration, both women promised — like current Mayor Jackie Biskupski — to tell the city police force not to aid Immigration and Customs Enforcement with raids or deportations.
Mendenhall said she would focus on bringing high-tech jobs to the area, noting that Utah County houses growing tech giants while Salt Lake City hasn’t attracted its share. She also emphasized her vision for making public transportation easily accessible throughout the city.
While many of their visions and goals intersected on topics like air quality, immigration and the inland port, their plans differed on a few points. Among them, Mendenhall said she wouldn’t reorganize the city administration upon her possible election. Instead, she would retain current administrators for the value of their experience and knowledge.
“We have great people there today. It’s been four years of really trying to rebuild,” she said.
But Escamilla said she would reorganize the city government and focus on helping it become more efficient, improving communication to underserved communities like her own in Rose Park, and bringing “city hall to the neighborhoods as well.” She said the underserved communities are often forgotten when it comes to educating them about air quality, and that would be an area of focus for her.
The race will mark the first time in the city’s history that two women run against each other in the mayoral general election, effectively guaranteeing that Salt Lake City this year elects its third female mayor.