Salt Lake City voters say air quality is their most pressing issue, but mayoral candidates making it a top priority lag in new poll

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A new poll of Salt Lake City voters conducted ahead of this month’s primary election shows residents see air quality as the most pressing problem facing the state’s capital — and it’s an issue on which several say they have based their pick for mayor.

Ballantyne “especially” likes “his hope to remove the refinery and the power plant from our city,” she said. “I think those things are important contributors to our air quality problem and I’d love to see them go.”

About a third of 444 residents surveyed this week by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah agreed that air quality is the top issue in the city. But several mayoral candidates who have vowed to make that issue their top priority, including Garbett, aren’t polling as well in the race.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In a local nonpartisan election, voters “tend to react and respond to personality, in part, because they don’t have partisanship as an easy way to sort people out,” according to Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the U.

Local issues like air quality “are clearly important” to voters, he said. “The trick, however, is often that connecting a particular candidate to a particular issue in a way that says, ‘Aha, this candidate has a plan for addressing this issue that I think is important but nobody else does,’ that usually is not a feature of these kinds of elections.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 4, 2017 photo shows a hazy scene of downtown Salt Lake City. Air quality was in the yellow range.

Some candidates have made cleaning the air a bigger focus of their campaign than others, with Garbett and former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold the only ones to list it as their No. 1 priority if elected. Businessman David Ibarra has listed “the environment” more broadly as his focus.

Garbett has argued the city needs to put together a comprehensive plan for how to get to clean air. He also has promised to create a litigation wing at the city’s attorney’s office to go after polluters and to move the refinery and power plant, telegraphing to “any interested developer that the city is very interested in helping them to remove that.”

Ibarra has advocated for more aggressive green building standards, ending parking lot requirements for new construction and getting more people into affordable housing so they have shorter commutes and pollute less.

While Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall listed her top priority as basic infrastructure and streets, she also has called air quality “the single biggest threat to livability in Salt Lake City.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall launches her campaign for mayor, April 14, 2019. She entered the race with six years of council experience and with a background in the nonprofit sector, working previously as policy director and interim executive director of Breathe Utah.

As a mayoral hopeful, Mendenhall has advocated for more aggressive carbon reduction goals, incentives to clean up the dirtiest buildings in the city and creation of a program for residents to swap out polluting snowblowers and lawn mowers for climate-friendly ones.

That background, combined with her other city-rooted experience, is why Brad Slaugh, a poll respondent who lives in the East Liberty Park neighborhood, said he is supporting Mendenhall for mayor.

“She has been an outstanding representative for a really long time on that particular issue,” he said. “I think that issue is just really difficult, and she’s handled it in a thoughtful way.”

Slaugh, 53, also expressed some frustration with what he perceives as a lack of support for addressing air quality issues in the Republican-led Legislature — the very group some candidates are counting on to help clean the air.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, who polls show is currently leading among the candidates, has said he would work with the state to get funding for free-fare transit across the city as well as to create more funding for wood-burning stove exchanges in an effort to improve air quality.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Jim Dabakis gets animated as he talks about air pollution alongside fellow candidate David Ibarra during a debate for Salt Lake City mayor at the Salt Lake City Library, June 26, 2019.
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“We need a village here,” he told The Tribune in a recent interview, arguing that he is best positioned to act as a “liaison with the state” to cultivate big, rather than incremental, changes on emissions.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, who polls show in second place close behind Dabakis and closing, has expressed a similar position but points to her legislative record on air quality, including her work to increase the statute of limitations for polluters. If elected mayor, she has said she would partner with the state on other initiatives, as well as work to decrease vehicle emissions.

Several poll respondents reached by The Tribune on Friday said they plan to support the two front-runners in the race based on their stances on those issues that they see as the most important facing the capital.

Bill Finney, 78, said he sees addressing homelessness as a top priority and is voting for Dabakis because he believes he has the temperament, personality and relationships necessary to address it and other big issues.

“He did a good job at the Legislature in trying to create some balance, and I think he’ll do a good job at the city,” Finney said. “He’ll be a good voice. I don’t think he’ll do anything to embarrass us in any way and will represent the people fairly.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Sen. Luz Escamilla launches her official campaign for city mayor from the steps of City Hall, March 26, 2019. As the city grows and becomes more diverse, Escamilla said she would represent a number of overlooked communities, including the Latino population and the city’s west side.

Paula Espinoza, a 52-year-old Glendale resident, is particularly concerned about affordable housing and said she is drawn to fellow west-sider Escamilla, who lives in Rose Park.

“Luz is really on the ground with issues; she’s in touch with people” Espinoza said. “She’s been very vocal about working to keep services more toward the west side, so I think she’s going to really fight for some of the things that people on the west side really need.”

Some 28% of voters remain undecided in the Aug. 13 race and say they’re still eyeing candidates’ positions in an effort to decide whom they’ll support in the final days of the primary campaign.

The Tribune-Hinckley poll, conducted Monday through Wednesday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points and employed a mix of phone calls to landlines (35%) and cellphones (56%), as well as an online portion (9%).