SALT LAKE CITY — Yet another candidate has jumped into the crowded Salt Lake City mayor’s race — and she’s got big-name backers from Capitol Hill.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, officially launched her campaign Tuesday on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building, surrounded by cheering supporters that included Democratic state lawmakers, as well as a Republican.
The longtime state senator — who served in legislative leadership this year as Senate minority whip — decided to jump in the race days after Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski announced last week she would not run for re-election.
This year’s Utah Legislature marked Escamilla’s 11th session, experience she said proves her ability to work across party lines, advocate for minorities and advance progressive agendas even in a Republican-controlled state like Utah.
"I believe that there’s no one who can be a more-effective advocate on behalf of our city," Escamilla said. "It’s time to elect a mayor who can represent all of Salt Lake City, from Rose Park and Glendale and from Brickyard to Federal Heights."
While Escamilla said Salt Lake City has much to celebrate, it’s also "facing some major growing pains" and it "cannot move forward" without addressing problems such as its failing infrastructure, affordable housing and homelessness.
She promised to be a "transformational leader" who prioritizes every citizen, including those on the west side.
Democratic leaders including Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City; House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City; and Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, all came to Escamilla’s campaign launch on Tuesday to support their colleague.
"Salt Lake City doesn’t just need a leader," Romero said. "Salt Lake City needs a champion. An advocate. … That person is Luz."
A conservative, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, also came to throw his support behind Escamilla — quipping he was the "token Republican" after the campaign launch. Joking aside, Anderegg said Escamilla is a "fantastic choice" because he knows she can "get things done."
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, launches her campaign for Salt Lake City mayor on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Photo: Katie McKellar, KSL
"I just look at Luz and say, ‘It’s not about being progressive. It’s about progress,’" Andregg said. "And she knows how to do that."
Biskupski — particularly in disagreements with state leaders and the City Council over the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority — has had a strained relationship with the Legislature in recent years. Anderegg said Escamilla as mayor could "make all the difference in the world."
He noted Biskupski was also a state lawmaker before becoming mayor — and said his interactions with her have "always been positive" — but "that being said, I think Luz is uniquely positioned to bridge that gap in a way, not only within Salt Lake City but throughout the entire state."
‘In search of the American dream’
Escamilla first came to Utah 20 years ago as an international student "in search of the American dream," she said. She was born in Mexico, her parents the first in their families to go to college. She said she spent two years of high school commuting from Tijuana to San Diego before moving to Utah to attend college at the University of Utah.
After graduating, Escamilla said she got a work visa, became a legal resident and in 2004 became a U.S. citizen. She later married her husband, Juan Carlos Escamilla. Together they have six children.
"That’s what I mean when I say this city has given me everything I dreamed and things I never imagined," Escamilla said. "In this city we believe in the opportunity for all."
In this city we believe in the opportunity for all.
–Sen. Luz Escamilla
Before her time in the Senate, Escamilla worked for Gov. John Huntsman Jr. as his director of the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs. In 2008, she was elected to the Utah Senate where she has served ever since. In 2014, Escamilla challenged Rep. Christ Stewart in a race for Congress, but she lost the general election.
In the middle of her four-year term at the Senate, Escamilla can keep her seat while running for mayor and can stay in the Senate if she loses.
With Escamilla and now Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall deciding to join the race as recent as last week, the candidate field has widened to nine. Other candidates are: former state Sen. Jim Dabakis; former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold; Christian Harrison, former Downtown Community Council chairman; businessman David Ibarra; David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition. Aaron Johnson, a veteran, and Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, have also opened personal campaign committees.
A primary to narrow the field for the November election will be held Aug. 13.