After nearly a year of contentious campaigning, the bickering has ceased, the polls have closed and the votes for who will lead Salt Lake City through the next four years are flooding in.
And if those early unofficial returns hold, that person will be the same one who led Utah’s capital during the past four years: Erin Mendenhall.
The incumbent mayor jumped to a hefty lead Tuesday night, grabbing 59% of the vote.
Her chief rival, former Mayor Rocky Anderson, followed with 34% and long-shot candidate Michael Valentine had 6%.
Mendenhall took the stage at her downtown watch party to applause, confident enough in the results to tell her supporters she would “regroup for a second term” with new energy and urgency.
“This election ends with voters saying loudly and clearly that they want Salt Lake City to keep moving forward together,” she said. “Salt Lakers are not afraid of our incredible future. We’re excited by it. This election was a repudiation of cynicism, and it was a rejection of the politics of fear.”
The Mendenhall crowd erupted in cheers as the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office revealed the first returns. After taking the stage, Mendenhall thanked volunteers, labor unions and her administration.
“Even though it was my name on the ballot,” she said, “it was the hard work of a whole lot of people that made this possible.”
A block away, at Anderson’s watch party, the former mayor and his team were visibly disheartened by the first returns, some of them shaking their heads. Anderson was “not very happy, pretty surprised” by the numbers, he said, “but they are what they are.”
“It would take a lot of catching up,” Anderson said, “to change the result.”
He later added: “I think the writing’s on the wall, but I was advised by the elections clerk not to concede until the ballots come in. So it’s not a formal concession, but I do think it would take a minor miracle for this to turn around right now.”
Under ranked choice voting, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, with second- and third-choice votes on those ballots being redistributed to the remaining candidates.
The first wave of votes included mail-in ballots Salt Lake County Clerk Lannie Chapman’s office received through 6 p.m. Tuesday. Chapman said the early returns also account for ballots returned to drop boxes — likely those returned by midafternoon Tuesday.
Anderson, seeking a third term after more than a decade away from office, officially declared his entry into the race late last year and thundered a steady drumbeat of criticism at Mendenhall, painting her as a failed mayor who has overseen a weak response to homelessness and left Utah’s capital in a state of despair.
Along the campaign trail, the ex-mayor pushed for creating a legal homeless campground, cracking down on illegal camps and focusing on diversion programs.
Mendenhall, the former City Council member seeking a second mayoral term, portrayed Anderson’s fiery rhetoric as unproductive, telling voters she knows how to build relationships with state and other local officials to address the region’s weightiest issues, including homelessness.
Ahead of Election Day, she announced city initiatives that mirrored portions of Anderson’s homelessness platform.
In August, she said the city would work with the state on establishing a sanctioned homeless camp before temperatures plunged in the winter months. That camp, slated for a city Redevelopment Agency-owned parcel at 300 South and 600 West, has yet to open.
Less than two weeks before the election, Mendenhall announced a crackdown on illegal camps, ordering city police to clear out offenders as long as space is available in area shelters, which were recently expanded or formed to temporarily accommodate a surge of demand during the wintertime.
Throughout the campaign, she touted her administration’s record on affordable housing, saying she and her staff helped create more affordable units than all previous mayoral administrations combined.
Anderson’s proposal to set up government-owned and -operated housing, she argued, would be far costlier than her administration’s approach of investing in private ventures. Anderson countered that his plan would take the profit motive out of housing and leave city residents with perpetually affordable housing while giving the city ownership of valuable assets.
“However anybody voted, everybody knows that we have serious, serious problems that need a lot of attention,” a disappointed Anderson said on election night from a D.J. booth, while a couple of dozen of his supporters huddled on a dance floor. “There are hundreds of people out on the streets, unsheltered people in this community, because we have people who didn’t plan, who didn’t do what was necessary to provide adequate shelter. And we’ve made certain that everybody in this community knows. I don’t know why that didn’t move them over to voting differently.”
Still, Anderson said he wishes Mendenhall and her team “the very best, because I want them to succeed — I’ve always wanted them to succeed. So I hope that they will listen to this community, that they’ll do what needs to be done to transform this place into the safe, clean, beautiful, loving, compassionate place that we all deserve.
Despite having to fend off scathing criticism of her record on homelessness, Mendenhall attempted to strike an upbeat tone in her reelection bid.
Her first term was marked by a series of calamities, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a major earthquake, a tree-toppling windstorm and protests against police shootings, but she told voters those types of experiences made her “crisis-tested” and have led Utah’s capital to emerge stronger than before.
Mendenhall said Tuesday night she was proud of the campaign she ran, adding that it was one rooted in love, not anger.
“We talked about the results we’ve achieved together and why partnership is a better path and a better approach than going it alone,” she said. “We disagreed, for sure. But we didn’t demonize or demagogue. We didn’t run negative TV ads or send mailers attacking our opponents. We didn’t fearmonger. We didn’t spread rumors, and we didn’t engage in dirty tricks.”
As she sets her sights on a second term, the mayor said she wants to pursue ambitious new ideas, such as a 60-acre “green loop” around downtown, creating an entertainment district to support the Utah Jazz, building more tiny-home communities, turning Main Street into a promenade, attracting Major League Baseball to the city, and working with the state, county and other cities to do more for unhoused Utahns.
“What a great time to be a Salt Laker,” she said. “I love this city. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting me and loving this city with me. I’m honored to keep serving you.”
Additional ballot returns were expected to be released late Tuesday night and in coming days. Results must be finalized by Dec. 6.
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