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Mendenhall declares victory in Salt Lake City mayoral primary

Councilwoman’s ‘momentum’ nabs surprising lead; Dabakis and Escamilla locked in tight race for other November slot

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall hugs her campaign manager, Patrick Costigan, during her mayoral primary election night event in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Vote tallies showed her clearly in the lead.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall hugs her campaign manager, Patrick Costigan, during her mayoral primary election night event in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Vote tallies showed her clearly in the lead.
Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — In an unexpected turn, Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall topped former state Sen. Jim Dabakis in unofficial primary election results for Salt Lake City mayor.

If the numbers hold, Mendenhall and Dabakis will face off in the November general election to succeed Jackie Biskupski, according to the last numbers posted about 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Mendenhall nabbed the most votes — 6,924 — in the crowded eight-candidate field, giving her nearly 24% of the vote. Dabakis squeezed into second place with 21.56%, preventing five of the other six candidates from advancing to this fall’s contest. But the margin between Dabakis and third place’s Sen. Luz Escamilla — 109 votes at 6,300 to 6,191 — is so narrow, more election results could tighten or even flip the race, so Escamilla isn’t considered out of the running.

Early on, even Mendenhall wasn’t ready to claim victory — even though her young daughter danced around her mother’s election night party at Ellerbeck Mansion while exclaiming, “Mommy is winning.”

But her supporters grew increasingly excited, letting out celebratory yells as she maintained her lead as more results posted throughout the night. After 10 p.m., Mendenhall eventually claimed victory.

“I’m blown away,” she said.

Mendenhall credited her supporters for working with “grit and integrity and focus,” calling her campaign “the most grassroots of all the campaigns.”

“I’m here because of you,” she told her supporters. “This race is about Salt Lake City. It isn’t about money. It isn’t about earning votes. It’s about a conversation I want to keep having with you.”

Pointing out her campaign was funded from donations that were a fraction of what other campaigns took in, Mendenhall said, “we squeezed blood from a stone.”

“Maybe we should rely on my daughter to predict the election results,” Mendenhall quipped.

The councilwoman said results showed “Salt Lake City is ready for a mayor who knows how to work Salt Lake City government” and air quality. Her campaign touted her expertise as a councilwoman and an air quality advocate.

Mendenhall, 39, has served two terms on the council, getting her start in politics through air quality advocacy, co-founding Breathe Utah. She currently serves as the chairwoman of the Utah Air Quality Board.

Mendenhall’s early lead surprised political pundit Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, who indicated the lineup could change depending on how many more votes get counted.

“This could change very easily as votes are counted throughout the night and throughout the final canvass,” Cotti said, noting that in Utah’s last several election cycles “we’ve seen things come down to the wire with counting every last vote.”

Mendenhall’s lead comes amid a feeling of “momentum” for the councilwoman, Cotti said.

Polls have consistently placed Dabakis as the front-runner, while Escamilla has most closely trailed him, though margins have been so tight pundits have considered the second place slot in the primary to be a toss-up. Mendenhall was a close runner-up to Escamilla.

“Many people have felt (Mendenhall) was building momentum and those early results clearly show that,” Cotti said. “We’ll see if that holds.”

Dabakis’ campaign headquarters at Trolley Square buzzed as results were posted and staffers wrote percentages on a white board. There was no clear victory moment for Dabakis as his campaign mulled the numbers, but when he addressed his supporters he was met with cheers and laughter.

“It really doesn’t matter we won by this or lost by that, what happens is now it’s a two-person race instead of an eight-person race,” he said. “It becomes an entirely different race.”

Dabakis added: “Now we’ve got to go out and do the rest of the work so in 2 12 months we’re first on this list,” he said, to laughter from supporters.

Later Tuesday night, as his narrow lead over Escamilla tightened, Dabakis acknowledged it was a close race, but he wasn’t “nervous” because he’s “resigned to whatever happens.”

Dabakis, 65, served in the Utah State Senate for six years prior to his run for mayor. He’s taking a shot at becoming Salt Lake City’s second openly gay mayor to be elected and is known as an outspoken LGBT advocate as co-founder of Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center.

Escamilla stayed optimistic but “nervous” after initial results posted, saying she expected a close race that could come “within 100 votes.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” she said. “We feel bad for everybody that obviously wants it resolved, and I don’t know that we’re going to get it resolved tonight.”

Later Tuesday, Escamilla sent supporters home with no resolution.

“All we can do is wait and hope our final efforts were enough to see us through the primary and into the general. Either way this shakes out, it’s been an incredible race, and I cannot thank my supporters enough,” she said in a statement.

Just over 29,200 votes were tallied out of more than 94,000 registered Salt Lake City voters. Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she had “no idea” how many outstanding ballots remain to be counted.”

The next batch of results will post 3 p.m. Thursday.

David Garbett, environmental lawyer and former Pioneer Park executive director, has just over 15% of the tally in early returns, while businessman David Ibarra has nearly 9%, former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold about 7%, retired electrical engineer Rainer Huck just over 1% and freelance journalist Richard Goldberger with 0.86%.

Garbett, speaking to the Deseret News from his dimly lit campaign headquarters at Trolley Square, a floor below Dabakis, expressed “dampened enthusiasm.”

“It’s a pretty daunting gap right now,” he said. “Hats off to Erin for that big jump. ... That’s impressive.”

As more results came in, Garbett said he wasn’t ready to totally concede, noting there were still more votes to be counted, but acknowledged it’s “not looking good.”

“I’m not going to pretend it isn’t,” he said. “It’s premature to say it’s over, but I’m not optimistic. It’s certainly looking unlikely.”

Ibarra, however, “absolutely” conceded, he said, describing the results as “surprising.”

“They’re different from what we had hoped for for sure,” Ibarra said. “It shows Salt Lake City has a different idea of the leadership that they want. And I’m fine with that. The sun comes up tomorrow. I had a wonderful experience and, frankly, it’s all good. I have no regrets. I had a great team.”

Ibarra, who previously pledged to only run for one office — Salt Lake City mayor — said he’ll accept Salt Lake City voters’ decision and step away from Salt Lake City politics heading into the future and focus on his business work.

Penfold issued a statement saying he was “proud” of his campaign.

“This has been an incredible campaign with so many qualified candidates,” Penfold said, adding that since he first launched his campaign in October, he’s listened to residents and used that feedback for his campaign. “I’m proud of the work we’ve accomplished.

The close of polls marked the beginning of a new chapter for Salt Lake City voters to decide who will lead Utah’s capital city for the next four years. While candidates began the race struggling to distinguish themselves from the jam-packed field, now begins the race to overcome a clear opponent in the general election.

The winner of this fall’s general election will take the place of Biskupski, who bowed out of the race in March, citing a “private” and “serious and complex family situation.” Biskupski made history in Salt Lake City when she narrowly unseated former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker in 2015, becoming the city’s first openly gay mayor.

In her single term as mayor, Biskupski saw the city through the highly controversial siting of homeless resource centers, at times clashed with the Salt Lake City Council over issues ranging from staff hires to how many homeless centers should replace the troubled downtown shelter, and most recently tangled with state leaders and other council members over the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority — still locked in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of its creation.

The state vs. city battle over the Utah Inland Port — what’s envisioned to be a massive, global trade hub in about 16,000 acres west of the airport — air quality, homelessness, affordable housing and transit have all been top issues in this year’s mayoral primary, and are sure to be top issues Salt Lake City’s next mayor will continue to confront in the next four years.

Political and economic pundits have stressed the importance of Salt Lake City’s mayor for not just the capital city, but also Utah as a whole and its place in national politics and the economy. While the mayor acts as one of the state’s few powerful Democratic voices and a symbol of Utah’s minority party, pundits say Salt Lake City’s mayor must also work alongside state leaders to represent a city that acts as a gateway to the rest of the state.

This year’s Salt Lake City race has also been among one of the most expensive primary races in Salt Lake City’s history. The eight candidates have reported in the most recent campaign finance disclosures raising more than $1.47 million since they began fundraising last year, already rivaling the roughly $1.5 million raised throughout the contentious 2015 mayor’s contest between Biskupski and Becker, including ahead of both the primary and general elections.

Dabakis was the only candidate with a significant amount of cash on-hand ahead of Tuesday’s election, while other candidates through their full weight behind surviving the primary. Days away from the primary, Dabakis only spent $124,000 of his $295,000, leaving him roughly $171,000 heading into the general election.

Salt Lake City voters once again demonstrated money isn’t everything when it comes to politics. Ibarra, for example, out-raised all of the other candidates, raking in more than $437,000 as of a week before the primary — much of his money coming from out-of-state supporters.

But even with the cash, Ibarra didn’t resonate with voters, perhaps because of his struggle to gain name recognition amid a crowd of prominent elected officials.

City Council races

This year, three Salt Lake City Council seats are also up for reelection — though Tuesday’s primary affected only one race after one District 4 candidate, Michael Iverson, was disqualified last week after he failed to submit his pre-primary campaign finance report on time.

Iverson’s disqualification meant any votes cast for him in the primary wouldn’t be counted, solidifying wins for incumbent Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros and challenger Lea Rodgers.

Tuesday’s primary decided who will advance in the council’s the District 6 race. Results show Charlie Luke leading with 50.5% of the vote, followed by Dan Dugan holding 37.5%. If the numbers hold up, those two would advance to November’s ballot. JT Martin gained 12% of the initial votes.

Contributing: Kim Bojorquez, Christina Giardinelli