SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County’s longtime clerk, Sherrie Swensen, is gunning for an eighth term after nearly three decades in office, but an unexpected rival is challenging her.
One of Swensen’s right-hand employees — Rozan Mitchell, the Salt Lake County elections director — is running against Swensen. And it’s not exactly being considered a friendly competition.
"It’s been rocky," Mitchell admitted when discussing her decision to run against her boss in an interview last week.
Swensen said she was "taken aback" when Mitchell told her she was going to run.
"I guess I don’t know how I feel about it," Swensen said. "I have worked very well with her and I’ve trusted her, but again, it’s someone’s right to run and if that’s what she wants to do and that’s her goal, then so be it."
The rivalry between Swensen and Mitchell is among some of the interesting local races happening in this year’s elections. Other county seats up for grabs include the sheriff, district attorney, auditor, recorder and some County Council seats.
Mitchell is running as a Republican, while Swensen is running as a Democrat — though both women say they aim to keep the issue as nonpartisan as possible, both passionate about keeping the clerk’s office a politically neutral ground.
Mitchell said she decided to run for a variety of reasons, but "the bottom line is I really feel a change of leadership would be a good thing."
"Sherrie’s 28 years have brought some amazing experiences and opportunities to that office — but 28 years is a long time, and I really feel that it’s time for a change," Mitchell said.
The county elections director said she made up her mind after supporters started asking her why she wasn’t throwing her hat into the ring.
"I realized that if I really did want things to be different, it was up to me," she said.
While Mitchell said she recognizes the strength of the county clerk’s office, she’s "also acutely aware of the weaknesses." Those include room for improvement in the vote-by-mail marketing to improve voter turnout, and concerns about the county’s current election equipment and security, she said.
"Election security is really big in the news right now nationally, and I’m really worried and concerned that Salt Lake County isn’t taking it seriously," Mitchell said, noting that Swensen "feels confident" that the county’s current voting system will be sufficient for the next presidential election in 2020, even though other counties are switching to a new system starting this year.
Swensen disputes Mitchell’s concerns, noting that even though Mitchell is the elections director, "she’s never brought any of those concerns to me." She said "security is absolutely paramount to me" and she’s worked hard to transition voters to a vote-by-mail system and increase outreach and education for voter turnout.
Salt Lake County Elections Director Rozan Mitchell inspects the write-in section on various ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. Mitchell has filed to run against her boss, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. (Photo: Hans Koepsell, KSL)
As for security and new voting equipment, Swensen said she first oversaw new equipment implementation in 2006, about two years after other counties, and she learned the advantages of waiting for others to work out the kinks beforehand.
"Jumping on board right away with a new system isn’t necessarily the right thing to do," Swensen said, noting that she plans to do the same in the coming years. She also pointed out that Salt Lake County has invested in upgrades for the current system, whereas other counties haven’t.
As for Mitchell’s stance that the clerk’s office could use some fresh blood after 28 years, Swensen said she has unique experience that the clerk’s office needs, and not just in elections, but in the marriage and passport division.
"We learn something new with every cycle, and I can tell you that all of the years that I’ve been in the office and the experience that I’ve gained through all of those years are a plus, not a minus," Swensen said.
Mitchell’s decision to run has put a "strain" on their relationship, Swensen acknowledged, but she said that strain began back in 2016 after Mitchell implemented a new process to have poll workers update info for provisional ballots, which Swensen said resulted in long waiting lines at polling places during the presidential election.
But back in 2016, election officials had warned of the potential of long lines because so many voters seemed to be waiting until the day of the election to vote. Counties throughout the state saw instances of long lines, but Salt Lake County polls were particularly packed.
Afterward, Mitchell attributed the waits for the need for more polling places, but because state law restricted counties from adding polling places less than 15 days before an election, there wasn’t much county officials could do.
Mitchell said while things have been strained between her and Swensen, she hopes they can "remain friends."
Here are some other interesting local races in 2018:
Salt Lake County
Three County Council seats are up for election. One incumbent, Councilman, Arlyn Bradshaw — a Democrat — is running unopposed.
But longtime Councilman Jim Bradley, also a Democrat, has two Republican challengers for his at-large seat: Roderick Threats and former state lawmaker Sophia DiCaro.
Two Republican incumbents — Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton and Councilman Steve DeBry — also have a challengers: Democrats Lisa Gehrke and Pamela Berry, respectively.
Auditor Scott Tingley, a Republican, is up against Garry Hrechkosy, a Democrat, and County Recorder Adam Gardiner, a Republican, is up against Democrat Rashelle Hobbs.
District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat, is facing Republican challenger Nathan Evershed, and Sheriff Rosie Rivera is being challenged by Republican Justin Hoyal.
The scandal around Utah County Commissioner Greg Graves, who has said he won’t seek re-election but plans to serve out his term despite calls for his resignation, has drawn a crowd of six candidates, all Republicans.
The candidates are James Dixon, Russell Billings, Teri McCabe, Karen Ellingson, Thomas V. Sakievich, and Tanner Ainge.
Graves has been accused of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. Though an investigator did not corroborate allegations of sexual harassment, he did conclude that Graves is widely viewed as a "workplace bully," among other things.
Commissioner Bill Lee — who is among those who have called for Graves’ resignation — also has some challengers: Republicans Rich Jarman and Timothy William Spencer and Democrat Jeanne Bowen.
Three candidates have also lined up to replace outgoing District Attorney Jeff Buhman: David Leavitt and Chad Grunander, both Republicans, and W. Andrew McCollough, a Libertarian.
Clerk/Auditor Bryan Thompson is seeking re-election but has three challengers: Republicans Amelia Powers and Stephen "Hemi" Hemingway and Jason Christensen, an Independent American.
Outgoing Sheriff Jim Tracy’s seat is also up for grabs, with four candidates, all Republicans: Jim Phelps, Michael Freeman, Mike Smith and Darin Durfey.
Davis County will have at least two new faces, with a sheriff and county commissioner not seeking re-election.
Two candidates — Kelly Sparks and Arnold "Butch" Butcher — are vying to replace Sheriff Todd Richardson, who isn’t running for re-election amid at-times rocky relationships with other county elected officials.
Commission Chairman Jim Smith is also leaving his post, attracting a pool of six, all Republicans: Kathleen S. Anderson, Thomas Tony Christopulos, Sherman B. Hawkes, Lorene Miner Kamalu, Beverly K. Macfarlane and Bruce Young.
Commissioner Bret Millburn, a Republican, is seeking re-election, with three challengers, including Republicans Brian Muir and Bob J. Stevenson, and Independent American, Tamara P. Long.
County Attorney Troy Rawlings, a Republican, also has some GOP challengers: David M. Cole and Samuel Lurlen Knight.
Clerk/Auditor Curtis Koch is running unopposed.