SALT LAKE CITY — It’s an issue both candidates running to become mayor of Utah’s capital would rather avoid, eager to keep the race issues-focused.

And yet, in recent days, religion has emerged as a hot-button topic in the race — to both candidates’ disappointment.

Now both women are denouncing religious “bigotry” and expressing hope that Salt Lake City voters won’t hinge their votes based on their religion, but rather their policy stances, track records and experience.

“There is no space for religious bigotry in 2019, and I’m shocked that it’s happening,” candidate Luz Escamilla said in an interview this week, noting that throughout her 12 years of public service it has never been an issue.

Said her opponent, Erin Mendenhall: “At the end of the day, I judge lawmakers on how they vote, not on how or whether they pray. And I hope other voters do the same.”

The issue of religion — and bigotry — came to light last week when Rocky Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor, posted on Facebook that Salt Lake residents are “threatened with the prospect of a Mormon mayor, (Luz Escamilla), who seems willing to do the bidding of the church, the developers, and the bank where she has been employed (and which employs so many elected officials — and not because they’re bankers!)”

State Sen. Luz Escamilla smiles as she talks with members of the media at her campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall talks with members of the media during her mayoral primary election night event in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Anderson’s comments prompted columnist Michelle Quist to write a response in the Salt Lake Tribune accusing Anderson of throwing a “bigoted attack” at Escamilla because she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and “resorting to low-brow religious bigotry instead of explaining why his candidate is better.”

“Just imagine if this candidate was Jewish. No really, just imagine it for about two seconds,” Quist wrote. “Just because a person is a member of the church doesn’t mean she’ll do that church’s bidding. And if that’s your claim, prove it.”

Anderson lashed back at Quist, accusing her on Facebook of taking the sentence out of context and factual errors, saying he “never attacked anyone for her religion” but he’s rather “pointing out that we don’t need any more Utah politicians who do the bidding of the dominant church ... or developers.”

Escamilla has remained mostly silent on social media about the issue — save for thanking her opponent, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Mendenhall, in a comment in response to Mendenhall’s post denouncing Anderson’s comments without naming him.

“Attacks on a candidate’s faith are beneath the dignity of this community and have no place in our politics,” Mendenhall wrote on Facebook. “None. Our community is welcoming to people of all creeds, races, and identities, and intolerance cannot be allowed to erode these cherished values.”

Utah’s top elections official, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — who is currently running to be Utah’s next governor — also weighed in. The Republican and Latter-day Saint posted on Twitter, offering “a little unsolicited advice for my Utah friends.”

“Try to ignore angry, bitter, bigoted people. Even those who are terrible mayors.”

The social media jabs sparked by Anderson’s post are the first public displays discussing religion in the Salt Lake City mayor’s race. During the crowded primary, before Escamilla and Mendenhall narrowly rose to the top of a field of eight candidates, religion never surfaced as an issue.

The field now narrowed down to two — the first time in Salt Lake City’s history when two women will be on the general election ballot — religion has bubbled to the surface as a talking point among voters attempting to decide which of the candidates to pick in November.

That’s not surprising to Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, who notes Escamilla and Mendenhall are both Democratic candidates with very similar policy stances on many issues.

And while Salt Lake City is known as a place rich with people of diverse backgrounds — whether it be race, political affiliation or religion — Salt Lake City isn’t insulated from the significance of religious affiliation in a state that’s largely dominated by Republicans and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“For either one of them, this is something they’re absolutely going to have to deal with,” Burbank said, noting the church’s headquarters is in Salt Lake City, it’s among the city’s largest property owners and employers, and Salt Lake City is home to many of the church’s members.

“Anytime you’re talking about Utah politics, the issue of religion comes up because, of course, that tends to be one of the big themes in an awful lot of Utah politics,” Burbank said. “In particular, it comes up in the mayor’s race because the mayor in Salt Lake City is one of those very few positions, even though it’s formally non-partisan, that has by and large been dominated by Democrats over time.”

While many Republicans are members of the church, Burbank said Democrats tend to “not fit into that mold of being members of the church, although there are certainly a significant number who are members of the church” and Democrats.

It’s been more than three decades since Salt Lake City last elected a mayor who was a member of the church. The last was former Mayor Ted Wilson, a Democrat, whose term ended in 1985.

In a city with a diverse block of voters within a state where religion has such a significant presence — and depending on who the voter is, religious affiliation can be seen as a positive or a negative — Burbank said religion is somewhat of a landmine for Salt Lake candidates.

“It’s a very tricky issue,” he said. “I think for both of them, they would prefer not to be dealing with this type of issue. It can very easily go badly wrong. Either candidate could possibly have this be seen as a mark against her, and that’s absolutely something you have to pay attention to when running for office when it’s probably going to be a very close race.”

Burbank said candidates are trying to attract as many voters as possible, but there’s “no advantage” to either candidate if their religious affiliation might “exclude” some voters who might vote against them if they find out their religious stances do not match theirs.

But both Escamilla and Mendenhall hope Salt Lake voters won’t hinge their votes on religion.

To do so, Mendenhall said, is subscribing to “identity politics” — judging someone on their race, ethnicity, class, or, in this case, religion — rather than their experience or policy stances.

“Surely different people consider different identity components of the candidate, but ultimately what hopefully the campaign is about is about the city and community’s needs, not about how or whether someone prays in the privacy of their lives,” Mendenhall said.

Asked if she was religious, Mendenhall told the Deseret News she’s a “spiritual person” who doesn’t “align with an established church at this point in my life,” adding “I have a lot of respect for institutions of religion that contribute to our society.”

Mendenhall expressed irritation at the question, saying, “Even asking the question in the media is perpetuating the identity politics that I’ve been frustrated with.”

Yet religious affiliation is something Salt Lake voters care about, said both Burbank and Matthew Bowman, associate professor of religion and history at the School of Arts & Humanities at the Claremont Graduate University, and the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies.

“It matters, even if a candidate doesn’t believe it should matter,” Bowman said.

“People certainly care,” he said. “Even if a candidate doesn’t stake out a position on this, they can’t help but do so because the presence of the church is so powerful.”

Bowman noted the historical “polarization” between church members and nonmembers in Utah dates back into the 19th century, when Salt Lake City was home to a large mining population of people who weren’t members of the church. “So this has really been boiling for a long time,” he said.

Bowman noted the intersection of religion and politics doesn’t only happen in Salt Lake City. He said other cities have similar dynamics, such as Boston and the Catholic Church. Additionally, he said Salt Lake City can be likened to cities like Austin, Texas, and Nashville Tennessee, as blue strongholds in otherwise red states.

In fact, people outside of Utah and unfamiliar with the state’s politics might be more surprised to find Salt Lake City has a prospect of electing a mayor who is not a member of the church, Bowman said.

Religion certainly is a big “cultural” part of the city, Mendenhall said, but “when it comes to an election, it’s about the city, it’s about the community, it’s about our needs and our issues.”

“Salt Lake’s history absolutely has a strong religious context, and it’s also the place where many people who are not involved in religious activities come to participate in this community,” she said.

Mendenhall said as mayor, she’d still be an effective partner with the church, even if she’s not a member — noting Salt Lake City officials worked with the church when siting one of the new homeless resource centers, and the church donated the old Deseret Industries building on 131 E. 700 South, which has now become the Geraldine E. King Women’s Center.

“I aim to have an open, honest and forthright relationship with the church so that we can come to one another with our shared desire of Salt Lake City being a vibrant, livable, safe and strong community for our residents,” Mendenhall said. “They have come to the table for small to large needs in this community, and most of the time they do it without recognition, which I respect and understand.”

Escamilla pushed back on any claim that she’d be beholden to the church when making policy decisions.

“My moral compass does not begin or end with my worship. It’s bigger and more complex than that,” she said.

Escamilla said her religion is “a big part of my cultural identity,” but noted that her track record voting on issues such as alcohol policy, medical cannabis, women’s reproductive rights and others aren’t totally consistent with the church’s stances on such issues.

At the same time, Escamilla said as mayor, she’d work with the church like she would with any other religious organization in Utah.

“To suggest that I make decisions based on my religion is insulting to me,” Escamilla said. “I encourage people to research my record. ... I think that should define me, not only one piece of who I am.”

Escamilla said if anyone voted against her based on her religion, it would be similar to them voting against her based on her ethnicity.

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“I’m confident the voters of Salt Lake City who embrace diversity, embrace inclusiveness, and I will not be discriminated against because of my religion in this election,” she said.

Both Escamilla and Mendenhall urged voters to more deeply study their differences as candidates. Though both Escamilla and Mendenhall hold similar general policy stances, they differ in background and approach.

Mendenhall has City Hall experience with nuts-and-bolts knowledge of how the city works and close relationships with the neighborhoods, particularly on the east side, the district she has represented on the council.

Escamilla has legislative experience as a state senator and touts her ability to work with lawmakers on Capitol Hill while fighting to represent Salt Lake values, particularly for west-side and minority residents, which also reflects the district she has represented in the Senate.

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