Two women to face off for Salt Lake City mayor for first time in city’s history
Luz Escamilla and Erin Mendenhall will be on November ballot; Jim Dabakis finishes third in primary
SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla will face off in November to become Salt Lake City’s mayor.
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.
Updated election results posted Thursday show that Mendenhall remained in the lead with 8,928 votes and 24.27% of the vote, while Escamilla moved up to second place with 7,884 votes and 21.43%.
The new batch of results flipped the race, bumping former state Sen. Jim Dabakis out of the running for the general election and putting Escamilla back in the race. Dabakis, who fell to third place with 7,463 votes and 20.29% of the vote, conceded to Escamilla shortly after the results were released.
“I lost!” Dabakis, who led in the polls before Tuesday’s primary, posted on Twitter. “Greatest honor of my life to serve full time people of Utah and SLC for 8 years. I never compromised my principles!”
It had been “a long two days” for Escamilla since the first results were posted, the state senator said with a laugh, seated in her quiet, nearly empty campaign headquarters. She’d learned about the updated results minutes earlier while huddled around a computer with a handful of staffers and family members — a far cry from the fanfare of Tuesday night’s watch parties.
Escamilla said she was surprised by Thursday’s results, but not surprised by the closeness of the race.
“We knew it was going to be an uphill battle, and for a while I was saying it’s going to come down to a couple hundred votes,” she said. “I kind of called it on that one. Now, with a little bit bigger margin, we feel better.”
“The place where these two differ the most is in their experience, and they can each play up their own roles within state or city government.”
On election night, Mendenhall took a surprising lead with nearly 24% of the vote, claiming victory to advance to the November general election. Dabakis’ 109-vote lead over Escamilla left too close of a margin to call the race for the second place vote-getter, throwing into question who would advance to the general election.
It’s not likely margins will change significantly again — though another posting for results is expected at 3 p.m. Friday. Most all of the nearly 8,000 Salt Lake City ballots that still needed to be tallied after election night were included with Thursday’s updated results, save for ballots still being reviewed for eligibility and provisional ballots, according to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.
The city has had two female mayors: current Mayor Jackie Biskupski, and Deedee Corradini, Salt Lake City’s first woman mayor, who served from 1992 to 2000.
The race comes one year after a record number of women candidates for office in the U.S. led some to declare 2018 the “Year of the Woman.”
“I think it’s interesting that this is coming after the Year of the Woman, but electing women is not anything new for Salt Lake City or Salt Lake County voters,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Gender “was really not a major part of the campaign,” Cotti said. “It was policy-focused with these two candidates that won, focusing on their careers and records and public service.”
“I think it’s interesting that this is coming after the Year of the Woman, but electing women is not anything new for Salt Lake City or Salt Lake County voters.”
If Escamilla wins, the city would also have its first Latina mayor.
“I think it’s awesome for Salt Lake City to have two women on the ballot for mayor,” Escamilla said. “A lot of firsts, for sure.”
Escamilla said she believes her campaign’s “message of sustainability, inclusiveness and cooperation” resonated with voters, as well as her status as a working mom.
“We are a very diverse city, and we’re growing fast,” Escamilla said. “The growth is great, but it also comes with pains.”
The broadness of both Escamilla’s and Mendenhall’s campaigns may have also appealed to voters, Cotti suggested.
“I think Salt Lake voters are looking for a city government that is willing to tackle the really tough issues that the city is facing,” Cotti said. “(Escamilla and Mendenhall) were not focused on one policy or issue. They were talking about a variety of challenges that Salt Lake is facing.”
A mile away from Escamilla’s headquarters, shortly after Dabakis conceded to his opponent in a tweet, the former state senator said he had “mixed feelings” about Thursday’s results.
“For me, the voters have spoken,” Dabakis said. “I get the message. It’s time for some new leadership and I think it’ll be great.”
Dabakis attributed the outcome of the primary election in part to “low voter turnout,” and noted that he “said no” to “sleazy money” throughout his campaign.
“Also, it’s kind of the Year of the Woman,” he said. “This is the Year of the Woman in a lot of ways.”
Dabakis said he hopes the future mayor will “recognize that if there’s a big swamp in Washington, there’s a big swamp in Salt Lake City, too.”
“I feel strong, I feel good, I feel empowered,” he said. “I’d rather lose by telling the sons of (expletive), ‘No, keep your money.’”
The former state senator said he doesn’t plan to ask for a vote recount. He also doesn’t plan to run for office again.
“There is no political future for me,” Dabakis said. “I’m riding off into the sunset.”
In a statement Thursday, Mendenhall said she is “excited and ready to keep going” to the general election.
“Senator Escamilla is a formidable fundraiser, but I think we’ve proven that you don’t buy votes, you earn them,” Mendenhall said. “Given a choice between a campaign driven by the community or driven by money, I’ll take our community every time.”
She said she hopes Escamilla will join her “in committing to a clean campaign, disavowing whisper campaigns and anonymous, dark-money PACs.”
“I look forward to a general election campaign that I hope will delve deeper into the policy challenges facing our city, and will challenge the candidates to offer real solutions to them,” Mendenhall said.
Cotti said that, going into the general election, she expects the two candidates to further distinguish themselves through their “two different narratives” of city-level political experience and state-level political experience.
“The place where these two differ the most is in their experience, and they can each play up their own roles within state or city government,” Cotti said. “We got a hint of it in the primary. ... I think we will see that on a more pronounced scale during the general election.”