Utah Senator Luz Escamilla hardly broke stride as she exited her 11th legislative session last month and headed straight into a campaign to be elected mayor of the state’s capital city in 2020.
In 2008, the odds were not in favor of a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant from the West Side of Salt Lake City to be elected to the Utah Senate, she said in an interview the day after announcing her mayoral campaign. As a young professional and mother, she was frustrated that whole segments of the population were underrepresented by state lawmakers, and her only option was to try and help solve the problem.
“I wasn’t going to wait for someone to ask me,” she said.
She set her course and won. Eleven years later, in the spotlight of enthusiastically supportive colleagues, friends, and associates from across the political spectrum, Escamilla was described as a pragmatic, data-driven policymaker and talented business professional – the experienced leader who Salt Lake City needs in today’s political climate.
She said many of her supporters are also mentors and associates she credits for her growth as a professional, leader and politician and she follows in their footsteps.
“It’s important for me to leave open doors because women have been opening doors for me,” she said.
A different light gets cast on Escamilla by those who oppose her principles and approach to policymaking. She has been attacked by anti-immigration campaigners, labeled a Mexican spy, and in the most extreme cases, received death threats against herself and her daughter.
As a freshman senator, Escamilla immediately earned bold wins for Utah’s Hispanic and other underserved communities, including formal appreciation for the “Work Done by the League of United Latin American Citizens” and a resolution to tackle root causes of gang violence.
An “aha moment” came one morning as she and her daughter watched a clearly derogatory cartoon depiction of Mexicans.
“She said, ‘Mom, why don’t they like us?’” Escamilla said. She knew she had to do more.
In 2010 and 2011, Escamilla fought for a bill that would make it possible for illegal immigrants in Utah to obtain identification cards allowing them to receive state services in return for paying taxes. Her efforts garnered national media attention, including an interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. The bill failed to pass, but she cemented her reputation as a policymaker who does not back away from real solutions, even if they invite controversy.
“Making a commitment to be part of the conversation on something as complicated as immigration is serious,” she said. “I believe in what I’m doing. I know we can solve problems with good policies.”
Eleven years of experience with policy-making and building relationships has been instructive in ways she couldn’t have anticipated. Today she sees the real value of that experience. “In the state, we change lives every day,” she said. “To see the result of legislation after it happens is just amazing…There’s a lot of humility in the process of becoming a good legislator.”
In Spanish, Luz means “light.” Through public service, Escamilla has become a beacon.