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Victoria Petro-Eschler has always been interested in politics, but when the smell of smoke from a burning chemical-coated railroad bridge engulfed her home west of Salt Lake City in 2021 and she found no official answer, she decided it was time to make Sequel.

It was time to act.

“I could see stuff falling from the sky. You could feel it in the air. People were having headaches,” she said. “I just realized that getting the city to connect with our neighborhood in a way we care about is a skill, it’s an art, and the city needed help with that.”

So she ran for the Salt Lake City Council District 1 seat, which includes Rose Park and Jordan Meadows, and won.

Like Petro-Eschler, many others also eyed the two city council seats on the West Side last fall. In the end, eight candidates — three in District 1 and five in District 2 — were on the November ballot.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Councilwoman Victoria Petro-Eschler speaks at a press conference announcing a new ride-sharing service in conjunction with Salt Lake City and Utah Transit Authority for the west side of the city, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.

This interest extended beyond political hopes to political donors.

In District 1, candidates raised $74,000 — a far cry from the millions racked up in some congressional races, but 13 times more than the $5,700 raised in 2017.

In District 2, which covers Fairpark, Glendale and Poplar Grove, contestants raised nearly $105,000, a whopping 850% jump from the $11,000 raised in 2019.

Various candidates emerge

Interest grew with no popularly elected incumbent seeking another term from the West Side.

District 1 Representative James Rodgers resigned in early October after already ruling out a third term. District 2 council member Andrew Johnston left in the spring to become the city’s director of homelessness policy and outreach. The board selected attorney Dennis Faris to fill this position. (Faris raced in the fall but failed to defeat eventual winner Alejandro Puy.)

This left the field open to a range of newcomers. New faces emerged from non-traditional backgrounds, often encouraged by specific organizations or individuals to come forward.

“A lot of people feel that we need to have a wider range of people running and getting elected,” said Matthew Burbank, a professor of political science at the University of Utah and a longtime Salt Lake City City Hall watcher. “And so I think there was a bit more value in having a diverse pool of applicants.”

The ranked voting system also eliminated the need for primaries and allowed candidates to continue running and raising funds until election day.

“As a result,” Burbank said, “I think what you’re likely to see is we’ll see more spending, given the nature of these types of elections.”

Voter turnout for District 1 has increased from 25% in 2017 to nearly 33%. Engagement has also increased, Petro-Eschler said, particularly on issues such as unresolved homelessness and soaring housing prices.

“There is optimism on the west side. And having choices makes people optimistic,” she said. “So now our job is to harness that optimism to remind those people that they are being heard.”

In District 2, however, turnout fell from 37% in 2019 to 29% last year.

“The municipal elections are difficult. It is sometimes difficult to hire certain people, especially in neighborhoods like mine where it is a popular neighborhood with a minority majority,” said Puy. “It’s not because people don’t care. It’s because of the challenges and barriers my community faces.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alejandro Puy, District 2, says a few words after being sworn in as a member of the Salt Lake City Council, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.

It was the political consultant’s first candidacy for public office. Puy prevailed after an exhaustive campaign that focused on knocking on doors and including Spanish speakers in the conversation.

One of his opponents, Nigel Swaby, who heads the Fairpark Community Council, doesn’t think there’s necessarily a growing interest in West Side politics. He credits the growth of fundraising to the ability to select new leaders without the challenge of incumbents. It also points to a demographic shift in the West Side neighborhoods.

“People who live here are wealthier than they were in the past because home values ​​have gone up so much,” Swaby said. “You have a lot of new blood, which will also increase participation, and that includes financially.”

Fears of gentrification

This real estate explosion leads to a new concern: gentrification.

“We have huge gentrification forces going on,” said Petro Eschler, who is also executive director of Salty Cricket Composers Collective, a cultural nonprofit. It can bring in new people to improve the fabric of West Side neighborhoods, she said. “But, if left unchecked, gentrification has left communities like mine in ruins and other towns.”

Puy, an Argentine-born and recently naturalized U.S. citizen who has made his understanding of the Latino community a guiding principle of his campaign, said he is seeing these neighborhood shifts — and not always for the better.

“A lot of Latin American families and minority families are moving out of the West Side because of gentrification and the cost of living,” he said. In a neighborhood where Hispanics often seek multigenerational homes, he added, the growing volume of small studio apartments won’t be enough.

“We have to work really hard to look where the city needs to look, because that’s where our families with kids are on the west side of Salt Lake City,” Puy said. “That’s where we have a disproportionate impact from the homeless shelter crisis that we have in our city. We still have some issues with crime.”

In the end, Salt Lake City has reached an important milestone: electing its most diverse city council in history. For the first time, most members (four out of seven) are racial and ethnic minorities. And, for the first time, a majority (four more) are openly LGBTQ.

What this historical diversity leads to City Hall remains to be seen. The trend of growing political interest on the West side, however, is set to continue with competition between candidates and potential challengers, according to Burbank in the United States, especially now that these new council members have shown the way. in the future. generations.

“Things that have motivated people to think about more diversity, to think about representing a wider range of people and on city council,” the political scientist said, “I don’t think that’s all going to go away.”

Salt Lake City Council. Top row, left to right: Ana Valdemoros; Amy Fowler; and Alexandre Puy. Center: Darin Mano. Bottom row, left to right: Chris Wharton; Dan Dugan; and Victoria Petro-Eschler.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America member of the corps and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for the Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps him keep writing stories like this; please consider making a tax deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion