As a teenager, Luz Escamilla spent two years crossing the border every day from her hometown in Tijuana to attend high school in San Diego.
She says she had “great parents that value education. As professors themselves in universities in Mexico, they felt that the best quality of education in the world was in the United States."
So Escamilla moved to Salt Lake City after high school to attend the University of Utah. “It’s just been wonderful,” she said. “It’s a city that has provided me with opportunities to pursue my American dream.”
Soon she began organizing minority communities. “We learned that you have to get engaged … in order to make a difference,” she said. “At the same time, we were seeing the limitations of not having representation.”
Escamilla has represented portions of westside Salt Lake City and West Valley City in the state Senate since 2009.
She’s running for Salt Lake City mayor against city councilwoman Erin Mendenhall. 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 Escamilla on Tuesday, Sept. 10. Our conversation with Councilwoman Mendenhall is available here.
To hear condensed versions of both interviews, click here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On a “Sustainable” Salt Lake City
“The growth that we're seeing is causing unintended consequences and growing pains. A Salt Lake City that’s sustainable means a Salt Lake City that, number one, represents all Salt Lake City. And that the prosperity that we're trying to achieve is not only for a certain group of residents.”
Escamilla said sustainability should be a part of every conversation, from housing to air quality to the types of jobs that come to the city.
“In Salt Lake City, you need to make $24 an hour to afford rent. I want to make sure that we’re incentivizing and providing support to businesses with those type of wages, that are going to provide health care and child care.”
Escamilla points out that there is not universal preschool or even kindergarten in Utah. “The role, I think, of the mayor and the city is to lead on the conversations.”
On Attacks on Her Faith
Former Mayor Rocky Anderson wrote last week that Salt Lake City is “threatened with the prospect of a Mormon mayor (Luz Escamilla) who seems willing to do the bidding of the church.” The op-ed sparked outrage among some political observers and prompted Mendenhall to write on Facebook that “attacks on a candidate’s faith are beneath the dignity of this community and have no place in our politics.”
Escamilla, an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said “it’s hurtful to still see bigotry in 2019.”
“I'm confident that the voters of Salt Lake City will look into my record,” she said, pointing to 11 years of votes on issues such as medical cannabis, reproductive health and liquor laws that she said do not align with the Church’s positions on those topics. “I stand strong and proud of my votes that represent my constituency and that represent data-driven, evidence-based, good public policy.”
On the Inland Port and Air Quality
Escamilla says that the inland port is the second project in recent years planned for her district that her constituents don’t want. The first? A new state prison currently under construction. She said the inland port’s creation lacked transparency for her district, which stands to suffer the most harm from development and emissions.
“How do we mitigate an impact like that in terms of our congestion, in terms of transportation? We know what it means to have that air quality be impacted — the worst air quality in the entire region,” she said.
“There will be some type of development and I hope if and when elected, I could be the one that's pushing for responsible growth as much as we can. But we need to fight to the end to make sure that development doesn't take place as it's being planned right now.”
Escamilla pointed to her legislative work on air quality in years past. A bill she passed most recently will implement monitoring around the inland port area to track its environmental impacts as it comes online.
On The City’s Homelessness Crisis
Escamilla says homelessness “is a statewide issue.Obviously, Salt Lake City gets the biggest impact because we house a lot of our direct services for individuals experiencing homelessness.” It also takes a lot of public safety resources, she said.
“We need to strengthen that collaboration between the state and the county and the city,” said Escamilla.
She also said “wraparound services” and transitional housing are a better long-term investment than having many of the city’s homeless bounce back and forth between life on the streets and in the county jail. Escamilla added that mental health services still need to be balanced with police enforcement, and she said that police need more tools to address this issue.
On What She Hopes SLC Looks Like Four Years From Now
“If and when elected, I feel we will have a Salt Lake City that will be the proud capital city of the state of Utah. I’m a very data-driven person. I want to be more data-driven so the community can see how the needle is moving. I want all of you to feel that you can go to City Hall and feel that you’re being served and that the city’s working for you. I want a city that’s inclusive. That you can feel you’re part of the city.”