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45 Days Live: A Conversation With Erin Mendenhall

Erin Mendenhall talking with KUER's Nicole Nixon on September 9, 2019.
Renee Bright/KUER

Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall grew up “with a mom who calls herself a hippie and father who passed away when I was a young teenager.”

“I think in a lot of ways, I grew up fast,” she said, “but I also grew up feeling like I could protest, I could attend rallies and I could have my voice heard.”That changed 13 years ago, as she held her first child in her arms. As Mendenhall rocked her newborn son one morning, she heard a news report on the radio about how Salt Lake’s poor air quality could take up to two years off a person’s life.

“At that point I no longer felt like showing up to protest was getting my voice far enough,” she said. Mendenhall co-founded the advocacy group Breathe Utah and eventually ran for city council, a seat she’s held since 2014.

Mendenhall is running for Salt Lake City mayor against Democratic State Sen. Luz Escamilla. The two will face off in the general election on Nov. 5.

KUER spoke with both candidates at live events over two consecutive evenings in downtown Salt Lake earlier this week. Below are highlights from our interview with Mendenhall on Monday, Sept. 9. Our conversation with Sen. Escamilla is available here.

To hear condensed versions of both interviews, click here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On Climate Change and Air Quality
An agreement between Salt Lake City and Rocky Mountain Power would source 100% of the city’s energy from renewable sources by 2030, but Mendenhall believes that goal can be achieved much sooner. The contract is up for renegotiation next year, and Mendenhall said as mayor, she’ll fight to get renewable energy to the city’s grid by 2023.

Most emissions on the Wasatch Front, though, come from vehicle tailpipes. As Utah’s population grows, Mendenhall said “we must make it easier for people to come in and out and live within Salt Lake City without getting in a single-occupant vehicle. We have to make it easier and we have to make it cheaper.”

On Salt Lake’s Homelessness Crisis
“I have major concerns, particularly for Salt Lake City, when the Road Home closes and wintertime comes,” especially with shelter-resistant populations, Mendenhall said. She called the issue a humanitarian issue and an economic one. “It's hard to attract people to work here, to invest here, when they're having to step over so many people just to walk down the street,” she said.

As homeless populations have dispersed around the city, Mendenhall pointed to her efforts on the council to bring back the city’s police bike squad, and said she’s pushing to bring back the park ranger program to patrol city parks. “We can't lose our parks to a feeling of unsafety and criminal activity,” she said.

On Balancing Growth With SLC’s Historic Neighborhoods
“Part of what makes us so unique on the national level — as a capital city, especially — is our many intact historic neighborhoods. They are very integral and part of the characteristic of this city. And yes they are threatened with growth.”

Mendenhall says today’s concentrated growth and development around the Sugar House shopping center was a “deliberate and intentional decision” made decades ago. The neighborhood is growing taller and denser, “yet there are, for the most part, quite intact neighborhoods right next door to it,” she said.

“I think as we grow into the future, we have to continue having these conversations with the neighborhoods and the communities. What do we want to grow like? Each and every project area is different. It should be. But it's about having those conversations at the neighborhood level and making those decisions together,” Mendenhall said.

On Negotiating The Inland Port In Years To Come
“Salt Lake City is never been asked the question: ‘Do you want an inland port?’” Mendenhall said. The councilwoman called the legislation creating the project “the biggest abomination the state has ever passed against any city” but pointed to her efforts to negotiate a better deal with Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican lawmakers after Mayor Jackie Biskupski walked away from the negotiating table.

“The Legislature has talked about the probability of there being legislation every year on the inland port as it develops,” Mendenhall said. “Going forward, Salt Lake City needs to be anticipating and managing as best as possible every year.”

What She Hopes Salt Lake City Looks Like In 2023
“I hope that we're celebrating 100% renewable energy coming into our city that year. I hope that if we're sitting here on this stage, that 90 percent of [the audience arrives] by public transit. I want Salt Lake City to be a place where you can take a deep breath of clean air in January and where our legislature is working with us. I believe that I have that kind of expertise and energy to take us there.”

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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