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November 24, 2021 News » Cover Story

Madam Mayor 

Erin Mendenhall on finding calm and community during nonstop crises.

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In January, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall will reach the halfway point of her first term in office. Elected in 2019 and sworn in at the beginning of 2020, Mendenhall's tenure has coincided with a period of relentless upheaval—from a global pandemic that shuttered the economy and claimed hundreds of city residents' lives, to geological and political fractures that threaten to shake Utah's democratic society off of its literal and figurative foundations.

Against that daunting backdrop, Mendenhall has forged ahead on initiatives large and small. One day sees the mayor challenging the state Legislature's feeble response to COVID-19, while the next day finds her, shovel in hand, planting trees on the city's west side.

In November alone, Mendenhall announced City Hall's reopening to the public, joined with Police Chief Mike Brown to tout the progress of new policing efforts and was crowned by City Weekly readers as the state's best elected official.

With the next chapter of her administration about to begin, City Weekly caught up with the mayor to discuss her goals, her favorite places to unwind and whether she plans to seek a second term in 2023 (spoiler alert: she does).

City Weekly: What do you love about Salt Lake City?
Erin Mendenhall: I love that we're a city of intention. We're here by choice and many of us moved to this city because we felt more accepted and welcome in this climate of creative, kind and conscious community. I believe that our cumulative intention underpins the character of who Salt Lakers are—it motivates us to support and advocate for each other, and it makes us more united and powerful.

In that same vein, our air quality problems and my love for this place drove me into activism, then advocacy, then running for office for the first time in 2013. I couldn't sit aside and accept the pollution we face in this valley, so I threw myself into figuring out how to make progress. I'm proud that, among other air-quality initiatives, our capital city is now, finally, on track to 100% net-renewable energy for all, and we're going to keep working to get there as fast as possible.

You've dealt with a pandemic, earthquakes, police protests and more. Has that left time for the priorities you ran on?
It's been a wild time in the world to be in elected office, but I couldn't have asked to be here at a better time. I ran to do whatever the city needed to thrive and that's what my team and I have tried to do, every single day.

There were times in 2020 when I realized that not only had my six years on the City Council prepared me well for navigating our city team through unexpected challenges, but running my campaign in 2019 was its own bootcamp of sorts for the velocity of challenges in 2020. We hit the ground running and opened a winter shelter less than two weeks after taking office, then never slowed down.

From the beginning, we set an annual plan about what we want to accomplish around my goals for our city. Then, despite all that transpired last year, we did an incredible job getting much of the plan done or well on its way. You can check out our 2020 performance at slc.gov/reportcard and our 2021 goals at slc.gov/2021plan, and you can expect an end-of-year, matter-of-fact report card every year I'm the mayor.

What moments as mayor—good or bad—will you never forget?
After I took the oath of office, I took off my high heels and walked alone through the empty rooms in my new office, just taking it in. I found what I later learned to be former Mayor Ted Wilson's old rocking chair in an empty cubicle and dragged it into my office, where I sat and took some deep breaths. I still sit there often to work through things, but that first, quiet and peaceful chance to settle in set the tone and energy I still feel when I'm here.

I will never forget the moment of realizing we were having a major earthquake, only days after closing the city due to the pandemic, and asking out loud while the Earth rattled, "Really?!" Earth answered with several hundred more aftershocks.

But probably my favorite moment so far was just a couple months ago after I implemented the K-12 school-mask requirement. A mother of three elementary-age kids approached me at a community meeting. She thanked me for making it possible for her kids to go to school safely and shared her sense of relief as a parent, then handed me a stack of cards her kids had made for me. Those kids and their words, written in crayon and marker, echoed others my office has received but struck a deep and grateful chord in my heart about the positive impact that decision has had.

Where do you turn for inspiration on the city's needs?
Nature is my best arena for thinking and centering, but I find I'm most inspired to do this work when I meet young people in our city. I like to read to kindergarten and first-grade classes around the school district and in meeting these beautiful kids, so full of life and potential, I want to walk out of that classroom and do whatever it takes to give them every opportunity to live their best life.

Finding the solutions that our growing, dynamic capital city needs is a never-ending process, concocted mostly from a tenacious belief that we can always find new and better ways and a constant curiosity that gets fed by work with my awesome team and our collective scouring the community—and the world over—for ideas and resources. Also, a solid seven hours of sleep each night helps.

I'm connected to about 40 other mayors across the country and around the world through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative that I was invited to participate in. Being the capital city mayor can be a loner job in some ways, so it's been fantastic to have a network of peers. I also keep in touch with some former mayors, both local and national, who I can tap into for wisdom and perspective.

Where do you take dignitaries to show off Salt Lake's nightlife?
In the near-two years that I've been mayor, all but about two months have been during a pandemic, so dining with dignitaries isn't actually something I've been able to enjoy!

But, I'll take this opportunity to say that I've had more meals with my family in these many months than I did in years past, and I'm incredibly grateful for this. We cook, make ice cream, shuck oysters, shake cocktails—the whole bit. But I still can't wait to make dining all around town a regular occurrence.

Any other cool places you like to share with visitors?
Up the tower of our beautiful City & County Building and into the cupola for a 360-degree view of the city is my favorite one-stop tour. The building was narrowly saved from demolition about 40 years ago, which is something I often think about when I walk into work.

It's so full of history and its location intentionally stands as a separation between church and state, as it was originally proposed to be quite near Temple Square.

If we have time, taking scooters from Washington Square to the beautiful City Creek Canyon is my next favorite tour. As locals, we may take it for granted how cool it is to have wilderness so close to our downtown core.

Where are some of your haunts that you visit in your free time?
Les Madeleines or Tulie Bakery; the Peace Gardens or the trail loop up and behind Red Butte Garden with my dog; The King's English Bookstore; and Lillie Bee Emporium or Commerce & Craft in Sugar House.

Name one under-appreciated Salt Lake City treasure.
Aside from the walk all the way to the end of Terminal B in our new SLC airport (joking!), Salt Lake City's section of the Jordan River Parkway and our nearly 50 miles of citywide public alleyways are historically underappreciated gems that I love. We are investing in them with new boat ramps, park rangers, multi-lingual wayfinding and a neighborhood alleyway adoption program.

Do you recommend being mayor?
Absolutely. Local government is where it's at! I wholeheartedly love putting my energy and mind into this work for Salt Lake City's 200,000-plus residents. I still wake up excited to do this job every day (even through 2020), and I couldn't have asked to be elected at a better time.

I ran to make good change, to get down to the deep layers of city government and eliminate barriers to make better opportunities for all our residents to thrive.

The social movement since the tipping-point tragedy of George Floyd's murder has propelled our nation into a reckoning with the systems that did not originate from a foundation of equity. We're doing that transformative work, like bringing sustainability and equity into the hub of city government, connecting better paying jobs with residents who need them, investing in more affordable housing and early childhood education for low-income families, planting a west-side urban forest, expanding public transit and getting 100% net-renewable energy for all of SLC.

I am honored to do this work with our communities and will absolutely be running for another term.

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Benjamin Wood

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