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SALT LAKE CITY — As Sen. Luz Escamilla and Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall hurtle down the homestretch to Election Day, they spent the last few days of the campaign knocking on doors, making final appeals to voters to become Salt Lake City’s 36th mayor.
Candidates and political pundits expect a tight race — but recent polling suggests Mendenhall could pull off a win if early voting trends continue.
“Early voting results suggest that Mendenhall will likely have a commanding lead heading into Tuesday’s election,” said Blake Moore, a principal at Dan Jones & Associates. “The most important factor to watch will be voter turnout and whether Escamilla’s campaign will be successful at rallying their supporters to either submit their ballots these final few days or show up to the polls.”
Recent polls by Dan Jones & Associates show Mendenhall maintaining a 5% lead among active voters in the Salt Lake City mayoral race. However, of those polled who have already voted by mail, Mendenhall has a “significant, double-digit lead,” Moore said, indicating that Escamilla’s best bet to close the gap is to rally supporters to turn up at the ballot box Tuesday.
Otherwise, polls suggest if those remaining to cast a ballot follow the trend of early voters, Mendenhall’s victory will exceed 10%, Moore said.
The race is still relatively tight when factoring in the poll’s margin of error. The polling was done in two phases during October. One portion of the survey, by phone, was conducted from Oct. 2 to Oct. 17, of 351 Salt Lake City residents. The second phase, after the release of mail-in ballots, was conducted from Oct. 22 to Oct. 30 of 359 Salt Lake City residents. The margin of error of the poll’s individual phases was about plus or minus 5.2 percentage points, but when combining phases to a total of 710 respondents, the margin of error lowers to plus or minus 3.67 percentage points, Moore said.
When considering a full sample of 710 residents polled for the entire month, 41.2% said they plan to, or did, vote for Mendenhall, while 37.6% said they intend to, or did, vote for Escamilla. However, 21.2% are either undecided or unwilling to disclose their vote. As Election Day approached, the proportion of undecided voters decreased, as expected, with Mendenhall maintaining a similar lead of approximately 5%, according to the poll.
Mendenhall and Escamilla’s campaigns expected a tight race. Other recent polls also show Mendenhall as holding a decent lead, but — as shown from the primary — polls aren’t always correct.
“I think this is going to be a very close race,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, noting that the very same voters who were undecided and waited to cast their votes in the primary are likely responsible for advancing Escamilla and Mendenhall to the general.
“Both of them are going to have to pay very close attention to voter turnout. They need people who voted in the primary to show up once again.”
If it’s tight enough when results post Tuesday night, Salt Lake City residents might not know their next mayor for several days.
“If it’s too close, they may have to wait, and that can happen,” Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said. “It’s never final until the board of canvassers’ certification and every last ballot is counted.”
As of Thursday, 26% of the roughly 91,000 ballots sent out had been returned, Swensen said. In 2015, the mayor’s race turnout was nearly 55%. Swensen said she expects to see a “spike” of ballot returns right up through Election Day.
“We’re going to get slammed,” she said. “We always do.”
An issue-focused, ‘productive’ race
When polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, the curtain will fall on a lengthy campaign season that began a year ago when the first primary candidates jumped into the race.
What started with a crowded field of eight has come down to a historical contest. For the first time in city history, two women are competing in the mayoral general election and to ultimately become Salt Lake City’s third female mayor.
Electing women obviously isn’t new to Salt Lake City, and so that hasn’t seemed to be top-of-mind to voters as they discern who they should elect to lead Utah’s capital over the next four years.
Rather, it’s been a highly issue-focused race.
“We’ve had an election contest that really has been quite substantive,” said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor. “It’s been about the vision and the ideas and the political experience of these two candidates.”
It’s been a “productive” election season, Burbank said, featuring dozens of debates, forums, and extensive media coverage focused on differentiating Escamilla and Mendenhall.
But to their frustration, both candidates say they heard again and again along the campaign trail voters were having difficulty distinguishing between the two.
To be fair, the list of similarities is rather lengthy.
They’re both Democrats (Salt Lake City hasn’t elected a Republican since 1971). They both promise progressive agendas. They both prioritize clean air and sustainability initiatives, promising to move up Salt Lake’s goal to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2023. They both pledged to improve transit and bus connections. They both rolled out affordable housing plans. They both promised to continue Salt Lake City’s lawsuit against the Utah Inland Port Authority, yet at the same time they both say they’re ready and willing to improve the city’s partnership with state leaders.
The list goes on.
The key differences between the two come from work experience, political approach and cultural background.
“This is a unique race where Salt Lake City residents feel really good about both candidates,” Perry said. “So it comes largely down to experience: someone who has state legislative experience or someone who has very local experience.”
State versus city experience
A key question posed to voters this year is to choose between a state lawmaker fresh off Capitol Hill, promising to bring her yearslong state relationships to the mayor’s office, or a city councilwoman with nuts-and-bolts knowledge of inner-city workings promising little to no learning curve.
“It’s going to come down to what kind of experience do Salt Lake City residents value the most,” Perry said. “Salt Lake City residents do take pride in the capital city, and they see the mayor as the one who represents them nationally and to the world.”
For a city that’s elected former state legislators the past two election cycles, Mendenhall argues it’s time Salt Lake City elects a City Council member who already has close relationships with neighborhoods and community councils.
“It takes a very different skill set to come from the state Legislature as a political minority than it is to have worked in the capital city government for six years, working on some truly difficult issues from homeless services to tax increases and road systems,” Mendenhall said. “Asking folks to walk down the hall of City Hall is, I think, philosophically and physically, a much shorter distance than walking down from the Capitol.”
Pointing out many of Escamilla’s campaign plans include working with the state, Mendenhall said she recognizes the state is a “critical partner” but “they are not our solution most of the time.”
“My approach is understanding the city’s tools and which ones we don’t have,” Mendenhall said. “Salt Lake City has been a leader on many issues for years, but now more than ever we have an opportunity to go farther on addressing the needs of the people. It’s important that we have a mayor who understands the tool kit to do that.”
But Escamilla argues she has both the executive and legislative experience — as well as established relationships as a longtime senator — to manage Salt Lake City’s intricacies and its big budget while also tackling big issues. She argues a broader collaboration with state leaders and improved relationships could make Salt Lake a “stronger capital city.”
What’s more, her supporters say Escamilla’s campaign is about more than just her.
“By electing the first woman of color in City Hall, the first Latina, which is the largest ethnic minority in our state, and the first immigrant, I think resonates to many Americans trying to bring back the hope of the American dream,” Escamilla said, pointing to feeling of frustration of American minorities under the current president.
“As a first-time west-sider as mayor, I think that’s a great opportunity to provide a different perspective of someone who actually lives and breaths the air where we have more inequities and gaps and disparities,” Escamilla said. “It’s about a Salt Lake City for all. It shouldn’t matter what ZIP code you live in. That’s our No. 1 message.”
Escamilla, an immigrant from Mexico, has been heralded as a “powerhouse” symbolizing hope for minorities and their opportunity to succeed in a state like Utah.
Mendenhall comes from the east side, where she lives in the 9th and 9th neighborhood. An air quality activist, Mendenhall says her lifelong war with air pollution pushed her to run for public office and now mayor. From her father’s death of cancer to her concern as a mother for her children, she says she’s driven by a passion for the “intersection of science and policy.”
Ethnicity and the east-side, west-side debate are likely “competing elements” in the election, Burbank said, acknowledging Mendenhall may have a bit more difficulty picking up votes in Escamilla’s Senate district. But he said both candidates have made their cases to voters all across the city.
After the primary, Escamilla and Mendenhall pledged to run “clean” campaigns. Contrasted with the much more contentious and at-times bitter 2015 race between incumbent former Mayor Ralph Becker and now Mayor Jackie Biskupski, the contest between Escamilla and Mendenhall has been much more publicly tame, though there were some moments of tension in debates.
Most of the time, that tension surfaced over the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority — a hot-button issue from multiple angles, including environmental impact, the debate around whether state leaders violated the state Constitution when they created it, and the city’s historically complex relationship with the state. Escamilla and Mendenhall clashed over who has the cleanest record.
Mendenhall says Escamilla “went on the attack” first in several debates when she questioned Mendenhall’s role as a City Council member voting in favor of a warehouse development within the port’s jurisdiction. It’s a tactic Mendenhall said was telling only half of the story, arguing city leaders were under pressure from state leaders to work with property owners wanting to build an inland port.
Escamilla argues she didn’t “attack” first, noting moments in some debates when she said Mendenhall would make “pretty aggressive” comments implying she was “totally uneducated” on city processes.
But for the most part, the overall tone of this year’s election has been largely positive, Mendenhall and Escamilla agree, both saying they prioritized sticking to the issues.
“I have worked very hard to maintain that high standard so that Salt Lake City voters can have the most productive conversation about who should be our next mayor,” Mendenhall said.
Escamilla said it’s not in her personality to be aggressive, and she’d rather let her record speak for her.
“I think for both Erin and myself, clearly our job was to differentiate our policy and our background and our experiences, and that’s what we were trying to do,” Escamilla said.
Religion cropped up as an issue when former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson questioned Escamilla’s membership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a move that Escamilla called “offensive” and “shocking.” Both candidates have said they hope voters will base their decision on policy approach rather than “identity politics.”
Salt Lake City Council races
Three council positions are also up for election this year, with three incumbents vying to retain their seats.
For the District 2 seat, the southwest corner of the city made up of the Glendale and Poplar Grove neighborhoods, Moroni Benally is challenging Councilman Andrew Johnston.
For District 4, the central city district made up of Downtown, Central City and East Central neighborhoods, Leo Rogers is challenging Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year after former Councilman Derek Kitchen was elected to the state Senate.
For District 6, an east-side seat representing the Bonneville Hills, Sunnyside East, East Bench, Yalecrest and Wasatch Hollow neighborhoods, Dan Dugan is challenging longtime Councilman Charlie Luke.
Mail-in deadline Monday
Ballots must be postmarked by Monday. If you forget to mail a ballot, you can still drop them off at polling locations or other dedicated drop boxes on Tuesday before 8 p.m., when polls close.
Visit votesearch.utah.gov to find voting locations for your address or check with your city offices.
You may also still register to vote at a polling location where you can cast a provisional ballot.