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Opinion: The fascinating political battles in Utah’s capital city

What are politicos conjecturing about the outcome of the Salt Lake City mayoral race?

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The entrance to the office of the Salt Lake City mayor is pictured at the Salt Lake City and County Building on Aug. 29, 2023.

The entrance to the office of the Salt Lake City mayor is pictured at the Salt Lake City and County Building on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Although only residents of Salt Lake City will vote in the mayoral and city council races on Nov. 21, the contests are of interest to citizens all across the state. Utah’s capital city is always a hotbed of political intrigue, so your columnists weigh in.

Popular incumbent Mayor Erin Mendenhall is facing spirited opposition from former two-term mayor Rocky Anderson. No polling has been released to the public charting the status of the race. Homelessness has emerged as a key issue in the contest. Does Mendenhall deserve criticism on this matter from her detractors? What are politicos conjecturing about the outcome? 

Pignanelli: “The mayor has got to work closely with a wide variety of people, city council, state legislature, governor, business, labor … in order to succeed.” — Mayor Marc Morial, New Orleans  

A native Utahn, I lived and worked most of my adult life in Salt Lake City. My wife and I reared three children and multiple pets in a 173-year-old home. I was active in many community organizations and honored to represent Avenues/Capitol Hill/Guadalupe residents in the Legislature for 10 years. Twenty years ago, I was a candidate for mayor.

The preceding “humble brag” qualifies me to articulate this judgment, and it is my own judgment, independent of this publication: Erin Mendenhall is a great mayor.

Salt Lake City has never been more energized in housing, economic development, cultural and entertainment opportunities. Mendenhall excels in developing relationships with neighboring jurisdictions and state leaders. She understands the priority for a mayor is to get things done, not make speeches.

Unfortunately, Mendenhall suffers from a horrific disability — not boasting of her achievements. This allows antagonists to unfairly dump on her the decades-old issues of homelessness. Yet behind-the-scenes research reveals Mendenhall is leading, but there are enough undecided voters to require nonstop campaigning.

City residents appreciate Mendenhall’s quiet competence and will award her a well-deserved victory. Of course, I will boast about my salient prediction after Election Day.

Webb: I think Rocky Anderson is a fun and engaging politician — especially if you like drama, contention and big battles with the Utah Legislature. Mendenhall has brought stability and sensible progressivism (if there is such a thing) to city politics. Mendenhall is plenty liberal, but her personal style is to avoid unnecessary fights, work collaboratively when more can be accomplished, and recognize which party runs the state. The fact that the entire city council has endorsed Mendenhall over Anderson speaks volumes.

Homelessness is certainly a legitimate issue in the mayoral race. Homeless camps and related problems have frustrated residents, merchants and visitors. However, the city, whether under Mendenhall or Anderson, isn’t going to solve homelessness any time soon. Neither is the state, despite the multimillions of dollars spent.

Homelessness has become an intractable problem because of societal shifts. When I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, we mostly (but not always) had large, intact families. Government didn’t deal much with homelessness, except to provide institutions for the severely mentally ill who were incapable of caring for themselves, with their families unable to cope.

Most families in those days lived very modestly, but most adults were married, children were raised by two parents, and extended families were generally able to take care of their own, including most of those with mental health challenges and addiction problems. They also received support from nonprofits, like churches.

Today, percentagewise, there are far fewer marriages, far fewer two-parent families, many more children with unwed parents, and much smaller families. Most of the consequences of these societal shifts, including homelessness, we have turned over to the government to solve. And government is a poor substitute for a strong family support system.

If only about 6% of Utahns live in Salt Lake City, should they care about its elections? Are the politics really that different from the rest of the state?

Pignanelli: Most states have different cities each with a specific focus for government, finance/business, higher education, etc. Utah is unique as Salt Lake City is Utah’s political, business, academic research, religious and historical capital. Thus, what happens between 2100 South and the foothills affects the entire state.

Also, the capital politics are dramatically different from the rest of the state. Mendenhall shines brilliantly in navigating the left-wing demands of her constituents and conservative realities of a red state. She understands Salt Lake City and the rest of Utah need each other despite the ideological differences.

Webb: I love Salt Lake City. I loved living and working in the heart of downtown for many years. The city has great neighborhoods and great people. However, I didn’t fit in politically, a fact that I accepted. Salt Lake City is a liberal island in a sea of conservatism. But it is Utah’s capital city and all state residents should want it to be vibrant and successful.

In prior columns we discussed the theoretical impacts of the congressional special election and ranked choice voting on municipal balloting. How will these affect Salt Lake City’s mayoral and council races?

Pignanelli: Both mayoral campaigns are utilizing messaging strategies to appeal to those GOP voters who normally dismiss municipal elections. Several city council races with multiple strong candidates may have unexpected outcomes because of ranked choice voting.

Webb: The special election will bring out a few more voters in the portion of the city within the 2nd District. Ranked choice voting won’t make much difference in the mayoral contest, but it could in some council races.  

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.