SALT LAKE CITY — Candidates threw no punches in the televised Salt Lake City mayoral debate Monday as eight candidates struggled to stand out to voters amid the crowded field.
Monday's debate — hosted at the KSL-TV studios by the Pioneer Park Coalition, an organization that advocates for the downtown Rio Grande neighborhood — stayed mild-mannered, with no testy exchanges or rebuttals as candidates stuck mainly to their own talking points.
The debate came about a month before the Aug. 13 primary, when voters will decide which two of the eight candidates will advance to the November election and duel it out to become Salt Lake City's next mayor.
Though many candidates share similar stances on multiple issues, each candidate jockeyed to stand out amid the jampacked field, in both the debate and in a scrum with reporters after the broadcast ended.
Questions put candidates through their paces on topics ranging from the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority, homelessness, air quality, transportation and economic growth. While some candidates' answers were very similar, some subtle differences surfaced in the details.
Likely front-runners like former state Sen. Jim Dabakis and Sen. Luz Escamilla both repeatedly indicated that their experience at the Utah Legislature gives them the experience they need to be mayor of Utah's capital — to both partner with state leaders but stand up to Capitol Hill when needed.
During the debate, Escamilla pointed to her record of passing more than 50 bills during her 11 years of "being a Salt Lake City champion" in the Legislature.
"I know what it takes to make things happen," she said. "I have a proven record, experience, but I also have another tool in the toolbox … that is my colleagues in the state Legislature."
Escamilla, taking a veiled jab at Dabakis (who had a reputation for being a loud Democratic voice, but not necessarily a bill-passer during his time as a legislator), told reporters in a scrum after the debate, "I pass bills for a change."
Dabakis during the debate acknowledged, "Yes, I have a loud mouth" and "Yes, I stand up for what I believe," but he said he also knows how to "bring people together."
"When it comes right down to it, I know how to build bridges," Dabakis said. "I know how to get things done, but I also know how to stand up for Salt Lake."
Though Dabakis acknowledged he's been known as one to throw "grenades," he said he never makes it personal, and he has good relationships with the governor and leaders of the Utah Legislature.
All candidates except retired engineer Rainer Huck and freelance journalist Richard Goldberger vowed to continue Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's lawsuit against the state over the Utah Inland Port Authority and whether the Utah Legislature usurped city powers when it created the 11-member board to control the project.
Goldberger and Huck said they'd stop the lawsuit in its tracks, calling it too costly for taxpayers and a futile fight.
Like Escamilla and Dabakis, other candidates argued they, too, are bridge builders.
"I have never ever … seen an agreement be made when you insult the other side," local businessman David Ibarra said, calling the inland port debacle an "absolute mess" fraught with "leadership misbehavior."
Ibarra, who called himself a "different kind of candidate" that doesn't consider himself a politician, said the mayor's office would be his final destination — pledging he'd never seek another political office — and that he only wants to serve the city he loves.
Other candidates hinged their campaign on experience. For Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold, their experience comes directly from City Hall, both arguing they have the on-the-ground track record within city government to get things done.
Mendenhall — who led the Salt Lake City Council's negotiations with state leaders on legislation related to the Utah Inland Port after Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski walked away — says she has the ability to keep Salt Lake City at the table, saying it's "irresponsible for us as a city to stick our heads in the sand."
"We have a history of electing people to be our mayor who I think hope are going to walk up on the Hill and punch the state in the face," Mendenhall told reporters. "And we wonder why we get so little as a capital city?"
Penfold, who was chairman of the Salt Lake City Council prior to Mendenhall, said Salt Lake City will likely always "have a tough relationship with the state," but he said he, too, has the "leadership" skills to stand up for Salt Lake City while also not maintaining partnerships at the state level.
"We behave a little bit like we're victims to whatever the state is going to do," Penfold said. "I think we need to shift that perspective. I expect to be at the table and at the door."
Penfold and Mendenhall shared similar stances on several issues but differed slightly on some topics. On air quality, Mendenhall touted her experience as chairwoman of the Utah Air Quality Board, and said she has several ideas to combat pollution, including renegotiating with Rocky Mountain Power to bring renewable energy to Salt Lake City quicker, build out the city's bus system, and expand the city's electric car charging stations.
Penfold pointed to his experience bringing Salt Lake City's first free fare day. He said he would work with Utah Transit Authority to help bring free transit fare citywide, and he'd also work toward partnering with other cities and the state to bring free fare statewide.
Dabakis also said he'd push for free UTA fare citywide to get cars off the roads. Escamilla, however, said she'd focus first on bringing "equity" to public transit in Salt Lake City — an issue she says persists in connections for west-side residents.
David Garbett, former Pioneer Park Coalition executive director and environmental lawyer, jockeyed to tout his more dramatic solutions for air quality, including his hard-line stance against any Utah Inland Port, his aim to move the refinery and make the city carbon-free by 2023.
In response to a reporter asking whether his goals are unrealistic, Garbett doubled down. "Why wouldn't we look at it?" he said. "I think it's critical we have this conversation."
Ibarra pegged air quality as a larger issue that's intertwined with other priorities, including affordable housing. He said he'd aim to reduce commuting to Salt Lake City by helping more people live where they work.
Goldberger and Huck — lesser-known candidates that lag far behind the others in campaign fundraising — aimed to appeal to the voter frustrated with today's political climates. They both said they aren't career politicians.
Few differences surfaced between the two — both supporting what they called a homeless "campus."
Huck said the campus, which he suggests would be located somewhere in the city's northwest quadrant where the inland port is slated to be built, would accommodate 5,000 people.
Asked what he would do with the multimillion-dollar homeless resource centers that have already been built to replace the downtown homeless shelter, Huck said, "I guess they'll just be there."
Goldberger, who said he would declare an "emergency" within minutes after he takes office to deal with homelessness in Salt Lake City, raised eyebrows when he said he would hire refugees to "clean, clean, clean, scrub" the streets. He also told reporters after the debate that people experiencing homelessness are "feral."
"Civilized people do not defecate in the streets," he said.
Pressed on that comment, Goldberger said, "I say it like it is. … Some of them are semi-wild."
Ballots for the Aug. 13 primary are slated to be mailed to voter mailboxes by Tuesday of next week.