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Natalie Gochnour: Salt Lake City belongs to all Utahns

Salt Lake City mayoral candidates wait to debate from the KSL-TV studios in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 15, 2019.
Salt Lake City mayoral candidates wait to debate from the KSL-TV studios in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 15, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Next week Salt Lake City voters will select their final two candidates for mayor. Meanwhile, the 94% of Utahns who live outside the capital city and who don’t have a vote will watch as finalists emerge. Why should all Utahns care about this choice?

I have a simple answer: Salt Lake City belongs to all Utahns.

Some capital cities — like Carson City, Nevada; Sacramento, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico — serve as the seat of government, but that’s all. It’s an important role, but falls far short of a true urban center.

Salt Lake City claims both. It is the seat of government and the undisputed center of business, culture, entertainment, education, health care and transportation in the Intermountain West. It is Utah’s central gathering place, and all Utahns have a stake in its future.

That’s why residents of the Beehive State should pay close attention as Salt Lake City voters select the final two candidates for the runoff election in November.

I had the opportunity last week to moderate a Salt Lake City mayoral debate for the Sierra Club. Since I live outside the city, I don’t vote in this election, but I’m watching with interest. While sharing the stage with the candidates I observed the following:

First, this is an uber talented group of candidates who care deeply about the city. The candidates are articulate, knowledgeable, civil and gracious. They know the issues, share convictions with skill and passion, listen as others speak and represent the best of public service. It’s a refreshing change from the bone-on-bone politics, contempt and self-interest found in Washington, D.C. Utahns are fortunate the capital city’s mayoral race attracts this caliber of leaders.

Second, the candidates possess distinct differences in style. In the pool of hopefuls, you will find a mix of showy, folksy, scholarly, diplomatic, down-to-earth, approachable, expressive, fun, genuine, intense and more. I predict many votes will be cast based on these style points, in part, because the candidates share many policy similarities.

Third, notwithstanding their common views about the inland port, air quality, housing affordability and other issues, there are important differences. Some candidates have legislative experience; others do not. Some have city council experience; others do not. Some have a proven track record of environmental accomplishments; others profess a commitment to the same. Some have a reputation for collaborating and building consensus; others seem more emboldened in their viewpoints. Voters face a difficult decision filled with tradeoffs.

I will leave it to voters to discern the right choice, but I will offer two reflections on how these candidates can best represent Utahns like me who don’t have a vote but care deeply about our urban home.

I’ve observed that successful regional economies, and the central cities they call home, combine a spirit of enterprise with a spirit of community. Salt Lake City needs both. Too much of a business focus will ignore the needs of neighborhoods; too much of an inward-looking, provincial focus will negatively impact economic dynamism. The best candidate will find ways to weave together the delicate balance of business and civic actions.

Also, I view the greater Salt Lake region as a collection of cities with strong economic and cultural ties. The urban core and surrounding suburbs and exurbs are interdependent. It is a single commutershed, airshed, watershed and regional economy. The region is well served by leaders who recognize this interconnection and embrace the needs of the larger region. He or she must be a “mayor to the region” because solutions to many problems will transcend political boundaries. The idea that Salt Lake City can carve itself out as an urban island is false. Both the city and the region share a common destiny.

I’m grateful Utah’s capital city attracts this caliber of candidates. For those who have a vote, place your vote. This is an important election. For those who don’t, let your voice be heard. Salt Lake City belongs to all of us.