Gay politician, Latina senator vie for Salt Lake City mayor

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Updated 1:48 pm PDT, Wednesday, August 14, 2019

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An outspoken gay politician and a Latina state senator remained in a tight race Wednesday to see who might face off against a pollution-fighting councilwoman for the Salt Lake City mayor’s seat.

City councilwoman Erin Mendenhall came out on top in the crowded primary race on Tuesday, but the second-place spot was too close to call with about 100 votes separating former state Sens. Jim Dabakis and Luz Escamilla.

All three are Democrats vying to lead conservative Utah’s capital city, a liberal island where no Republican has been elected mayor in four decades.

The top two vote-getters will compete in the general election in November. Election officials are not expected to release additional primary results until Thursday afternoon.

Mendenhall, 39, rose to prominence advocating for clean air in Salt Lake City, which is set in a valley where weather conditions can cause pollution to become trapped and temporarily make the city’s air the dirtiest in the country. She has served two terms on the city council. She unexpectedly topped the two candidates with statewide experience to lead the field of eight, garnering nearly 24% of the vote Tuesday night.

In second place was Dabakis, 65, who is well known for his bombastic progressive style in conservative Utah and a social-media presence that has landed on late-night shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Dabakis has said he knows how to manage a key friction point in the state by working with his former colleagues in the ultraconservative state legislature, where he was the only openly gay member for six years.

Escamilla, 41, also touted her statewide experience and said it would make her the best voice for Salt Lake City. She’s taken a more low-key, but nevertheless effective approach as a Democrat in the GOP-dominated statewide body.

She grew up in Mexico, came to Utah as a college student and became a citizen in 2004.

Escamilla was just 109 votes behind Dabakis on Tuesday. If she makes it to the general election and wins, she would be the city’s first Hispanic mayor.

The winner in November will replace Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake City’s first openly LGBTQ mayor. She decided not to run for a second term citing an unspecified family situation.