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Wilson takes strong lead to stay Salt Lake County mayor

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson speaks on the phone at her campaign headquarters on election night in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Wilson is running against Republican candidate Trent Staggs,
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson speaks on the phone at her campaign headquarters on election night in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Wilson is running against Republican candidate Trent Staggs,
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is leading GOP challenger Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs just over 56% to 41%, according to election night results posted just before 11 p.m.

Green Party candidate Michael Cundick, an environmentalist and anti-inland port activist, was trailing with nearly 3% of the vote.

The 2020 Salt Lake County mayor’s race — among Utah’s highest profile local elections amid the drama of the 2020 presidential election — is essentially a referendum on the job performance of Wilson as mayor of Utah’s most populous county. She’s been mayor since January last year, when Democratic county party members picked her to succeed former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who resigned as mayor after being elected to Congress.

“We’re really pleased around here,” Wilson told the Deseret News from her campaign headquarters shortly after results posted. “I’ve been doing this long enough I feel like sometimes I have a sense of things, and I would have thought this is about right, but it’s always good to see it.”

Wilson, however, wasn’t ready to declare victory Tuesday night, noting only about 305,000 of Salt Lake County’s nearly 460,000 ballots so far had been counted in that batch of results.

“Let’s just say I don’t want to declare victory too early, but I’m incredibly comfortable with these numbers,” she said. “Statistically, it would be very difficult for my opponent to close the gap.”

Staggs, in a prepared statement, did not concede.

“I’m incredibly proud of the race we ran and the phenomenal effort of my team, donors and supporters,” Staggs said. “As we await more ballots to be counted we are hopeful that a majority of residents will agree with our message of the need for substantial reform at the county; restraining taxes and spending, empowering communities and responsible growth.”

Leading up to Election Day, Wilson didn’t run a typical campaign.

Rather than spending her energy on campaigning, Wilson has said her main focus has been on grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and the onslaught of other crises that have reared their heads in the chaos of 2020.

But her opponent, Staggs, invested much of his time on the campaign trail, seeking to pitch himself as a fiscal conservative with a proven record, promising to deflate what he called a “bloated” county budget and lead Salt Lake County through both the pandemic and future growth better than Wilson has.

Wilson, questioning Staggs’ experience to realistically manage the county any better, argued Salt Lake County couldn’t afford to undergo a leadership change amid a time of crisis.

“I cannot imagine bringing in a new mayor right now,” Wilson said in a Deseret News interview last month. “To hand over the keys to the county to a new mayor would be devastating to the county right now.”

As mayor of Salt Lake County, Wilson is seen as one of the most powerful Democrats in Utah. The post is a desirable target for the Utah GOP — a seat that Democrats have held onto for 15 years.

The voters’ verdict, which won’t be official until the final canvass in two weeks, will decide whether Wilson will keep the mayor’s office for the next four years, or switch to the first Republican mayor since former Mayor Nancy Workman, elected in 2001. That now appears unlikely.

“People want to see change,” Staggs said in a Deseret News interview during his campaign, confident the presidential election would energize Republicans to vote. Labeling Wilson a “lifelong bureaucrat,” Staggs said at the time he believed his message had been resonating with voters, who he said were frustrated with Wilson’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

But Wilson, backed by her strong election night lead, said the election results indicate “people appreciated some of the decisions I made during COVID. They understand I’m committed to the health and safety of every county resident.”

Council races

Democratic Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, whom delegates picked to fill the chair left empty by Wilson when she became mayor, was leading her Republican opponent Laurie Stringham for an at-large seat on the council, with over 53% to 46% of the vote.

For the open District 2 seat, left vacant by Councilman Michael Jensen who opted not to run for reelection, South Jordan Mayor Dave Alvord, a Republican, had over 53% of the vote to Democrat Deborah Gatrell’s nearly 47%.

District 6’s Councilman Max Burdick, who faced a long shot after he failed to win the Republican nomination in the primary but still ran as a write-in candidate, is on track to lose his seat, with write-in candidates receiving 0.15% of the vote. But the contest to replace him is narrow. Republican nominee Dea Theodore captured just over 51% of the vote, and Democrat Terri Tapp Hrechkosy had nearly 49%.

Councilwoman Ann Granato ran unopposed, and is set to stay in her District 4 seat.

Two Democratic candidates are on track to take office in the county’s assessor’s office and treasurer’s office. For assessor, Democrat Jennifer Fresques had nearly 53% of the vote to Republican Chris Stavros’ over 47%. For treasurer, Democrat Michael McDonald was narrowly on pace to unseat Republican Salt Lake County Treasurer Wayne Cushing, who trailed with 49% of the vote to McDonald’s nearly 51%.

Democratic Salt Lake County Recorder Rashelle Hobbs, with just over 54%, had a fair lead ahead of Republican Erin Preston, who had nearly 46%.