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Erin Mendenhall: A lifelong war with pollution pushed her to run for Salt Lake mayor

Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall laughs with her campaign staff during a meeting at her campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.
Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall laughs with her campaign staff during a meeting at her campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — One of Erin Mendenhall’s fondest memories with her father was sitting with him on the back porch as a child, waiting for the moon to peek out from behind the mountains.

She was 7 years old when her parents first moved to Utah from Arizona, choosing an agricultural neighborhood in Sandy. She remembers watching from the foothills as the moon would rise — her father, Don, waiting to dabble in a hobby he’d fostered ever since he was a little boy.

He built a “moon bounce” antenna in their basement, a high-powered antenna that would ricochet radio signals off the moon. When the moon was in view, he would power up the antenna and talk to people all over the world using Morse code, Mendenhall said.

Even as a child, her father had a passion for radio communications. Mendenhall recalled hearing stories from her grandmother that he would build an antenna from the confines of his bedroom to listen to his favorite radio show when he was grounded. Later in life, when he served in the war in Korea, he worked in radio for the Army, she said.

“He was just brilliant,” Mendenhall tells the Deseret News from a conference room in Publik Coffee in Salt Lake City.

Little did young Mendenhall know — as she’d watch her dad bounce signals off of the moon — he’d already been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that would take his life eight years later.

Mendenhall was 14 when he died.

Her father’s death rattled her world but set her on a trajectory that would shape her career and, eventually, what would propel her to run for Salt Lake City mayor.

“He’s been gone 25 years, but there’s not a day I don’t think of him,” said Mendenhall, now 39, speaking in her methodical, soft voice.

A tattoo on her shoulder of a ham radio tower memorializes her father, surrounded by blooming desert plants. The plants, Mendenhall said, were inspired by her growing love for Utah and her fascination with their ability to not only survive but thrive in a time of drought. The desert plants represent her own experience of surviving a “drought,” she said, or “coming to live without a parent from a young age.”

“It’s about evolving and being adaptive in circumstances that are often out of our control,” she said.

As a teenager, Mendenhall had already begun grappling with the possibility she, too, would die of cancer as a genetic trait. But later, when she went to the University of Utah as an undergrad, Mendenhall read the book “Living Downstream,” by Sandra Steingraber, about a county in Illinois that her dad grew up in. She learned the area had a disproportionate number of cancer cases, which the author said was caused by exposure to DDT, an insecticide. She recalled her father telling her of how he and his sister would run out under the planes as they sprayed DDT and it “fell on them like snow.”

That led Mendenhall to develop a passion for the “intersection of science and policy” and how policy decisions can impact people in real ways, including their health.

That passion grew into urgency when, in a striking moment 13 years ago, Mendenhall said she was holding her newborn son, Cash, when she heard a news report that Salt Lake City’s air quality was so bad, it could potentially take two years off of his life.

“If you’re a parent and you watch a movie with your children, you notice parts that you never thought of before,” Mendenhall said. “That’s what air pollution became to me. I couldn’t imagine raising that sweet baby in a place where I believed that it was a detriment to his mortality.”

But instead of leaving the city she had called home for more than 20 years — first living in a 9th and 9th basement apartment after graduating high school — Mendenhall said she chose to stay and fight to make it a better place for her family and future generations.

From activism to public office

Driven by her war with air pollution, Mendenhall began volunteering as an air quality activist and was hired by Utah Moms for Clean Air as their first employee. But she said she quickly realized she could more effectively fight for changes as someone sitting at the decision-making table rather than protesting outside the door.

So in 2010, Mendenhall co-founded a new nonprofit, Breathe Utah, and went from activist to leader. In her work for the nonprofit, Mendenhall developed an academic curriculum and taught more than 8,000 Utah students about how to reduce emissions. She also worked to help pass legislation that incorporates more air quality awareness into the state’s driver education curriculum.

“I don’t think ever before has it become so critical in politics from the local to global level that we have politicians who are able to work with science and research to make policies,” Mendenhall said.

So that’s why Mendenhall said she went back to the University of Utah and just this year graduated with her master’s degree in environmental science, building on her 2004 bachelor’s in gender studies.

Air pollution has also shaped Mendenhall’s daily life. She drives an electric car, bikes or takes the bus. At home, she cans food, gardens, sews — all with the goal to practice sustainability and reuse whenever she can, she said.

“She lives it,” said Michelle Hofmann, a pediatrician who has known Mendenhall from air quality circles for nearly a decade.

Hofmann — who also co-founded Breathe Utah — said when she first met Mendenhall, they were both mothers concerned about the effects of air quality on children. From the onset, Hofmann said, she’s been “so impressed” by Mendenhall’s ability to both connect with people on an emotional level, while also letting facts and science drive decision-making.

“Erin is incredibly thoughtful. She thinks through things, asks questions, tries to probe all the other angles,” Hofmann said. “She really just has that amazing sense of composure. There are many difficult situations that we all deal with every day, but she knows how to keep her emotions in check in a way that helps cultivate dialogue and solutions.”

In 2014, fostering a reputation as a data-driven policy wonk when it came to pollution, Mendenhall was appointed to the state’s Air Quality Board, Utah’s top air quality regulator, where she’s served multiple terms as the board’s chairwoman.

From losing her father to giving life to her sons and daughter (Cash, 13, Everett 9, and Milå, 3), those experiences have shaped air quality to become the “lens” she views all issues. It’s the reason why she entered politics, along with her “love for people,” she said.

But because air quality — like climate change — is such a vast issue that requires policy changes from all fronts, Mendenhall said for years it has felt no matter what she does, it hasn’t ever been enough.

So she took another leap, this time into politics. In 2014, Mendenhall was elected to the Salt Lake City Council’s east-side District 5 seat to represent areas including the Central 9th, East Liberty Park, Liberty Wells, Ballpark and Wasatch Hollow neighborhoods. At the time, Mendenhall said, she didn’t see herself as a “viable candidate,” as a mother of two children and no “big bank account.”

“But I learned pretty quickly when I decided to jump in, those are not the signifiers of a good candidate,” Mendenhall said. “The work ethic I have and the love for people and the willingness to show up time after time to conversations was really what drove voters to support me, I think.”

On the campaign trail

T-minus five days until ballots would hit mailboxes, Mendenhall huddled at a cluttered table in the back of a Sugar House storefront that doubled as a storage area, reaching over a box of Einstein’s bagels as she chatted with a group of campaign staffers — all either in their 20s or about to turn 20.

Above them, hanging from the wall, was a tattered campaign sign from one of Mendenhall’s past City Council races, cracked and faded from the elements.

The field director, Luigi Guadarrama, 23, sat next to Mendenhall, giving other field campaigners a pep talk as they were getting ready to go knock on doors for votes.

“This election is literally in your hands,” Guadarrama said, urging Mendenhall’s staffers to prioritize “self-care” as Election Day approached.

Mendenhall, smiling, quipped: “Are you talking to me?”

“Yes, especially you,” he said.

Mendenhall, earlier that morning, laughed about forgetting to eat amid the chaos of campaigning, rushing from event to event and prepping for debates. But she and Guadarrama urged her young staffers as the campaign approached the finish line to dig in, stay focused, but drive home what Mendenhall has urged them to do from day one: Be kind.

“You know that when it gets intense that people get uglier, and I want us to continue to consciously up the love. Even when we get more stressed and we’re working harder and there’s more attacks, we up the love, over and over and over, with intention,” she said. “Let’s not let the stress take apart what we’ve worked so hard with intention to build.”

Kindness and love has been a major theme of Mendenhall’s campaign, said staffer Gabby Romney. “I have no doubt that Erin loves us,” she said. “She’s showed us that from day one.”

Later that morning, within moments after Mendenhall arrived at a meet-and-greet event at a Salt Lake County senior housing complex, City Plaza Apartments for Seniors, she was greeted by Michael Bridgeman, urgently apologizing to her.

When a confused Mendenhall asked why, Bridgeman jokingly said, “I ruined your image,” opening a notebook to show her a hand-drawn photo of her. Mendenhall, putting her hand over her heart, gasped and smiled, taking the drawing as he handed it to her.

“No one has ever drawn a picture of me. I’m so flattered,” she said. “You made my day.”

Bridgeman told her she could keep the drawing — and that Mendenhall had already earned his vote.

“I was impressed with you from the start,” he said.

The two chatted a while longer before Mendenhall took a microphone and spoke to a small crowd of Bridgeman’s fellow seniors, touching on issues ranging from the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority, affordable housing, population growth, open space preservation and more, returning to the same point she drives home to pitch herself as the best candidate for mayor.

“I’m asking voters to let me walk from the north end of City Hall to the south end,” she said, referring to the City Council offices just down the hall from the mayor’s office. “We don’t have time for a learning curve for a mayor that hasn’t worked in city government.”

A pledge to put city ‘tool kit’ to best use

Mendenhall said her record shows she has the nuts-and-bolts knowledge within City Hall to do even more as mayor.

During her time on the City Council, Mendenhall worked to find $21 million for affordable housing programs to incentivize developers to include less expensive units in their projects. She also advocated to put to voters an $87 million bond question to help fix the city’s crumbling road infrastructure and supported a sales tax hike to fund money for roads, police, affordable housing and expansion of transit options.

As City Council chairwoman, Mendenhall negotiated with state leaders to get some city concessions on a special session bill to adjust the Utah Inland Port Authority legislation — though Mendenhall has said the city still has a long way to go to address whether the port authority usurps city land use or taxing powers.

As air pollution continues to haunt Mendenhall — an issue that she says must be tackled from every angle, from housing to transportation — she believes she can do even more as mayor, ready to propose “aggressive” policies to reduce pollution.

“In this state, for a person like myself, there will always be more that I wish we could do. So having the stamina and the optimism to keep after a horizon that I am not sure we’ll ever reach takes a certain type of person,” Mendenhall said. “The opportunity of being a person in a leadership ... who can also have a productive conversation with state leaders, even though a Democrat from Salt Lake City, is an optimistic opportunity for us.”

Mendenhall says her six years at City Hall have taught her how to best use the city’s “tool kit” and she can absolutely do more at the helm of her own administration to use those tools in the best way possible to advance initiatives with a focus on air quality, with plans to expand affordable housing, transit options, build a “sustainable tech ecosystem” within the city, and more.

“I’ve been working with this tool box for six years, and as much as one can, I have a clear vision of where we can go as a city,” Mendenhall said. “As mayor, I can take us there faster.”