SALT LAKE CITY — Jenny Wilson was in her 20s when her father, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, was the projected winner in the 1988 race for Utah governor — a Democratic frontrunner, which many seem unheard of in Utah politics today.
Ted Wilson had a big lead in the polls. And yet, come election night, he lost.
In a black and white photo of that night, concern riddled both Wilsons' faces as they watched incoming results.
Now 53, Jenny Wilson has a title that matches one that her father once held: Mayor Wilson. Two months ago, she succeeded Ben McAdams to become Salt Lake County mayor.
Standing in her office Thursday, Wilson held that black and white photo, recalling the disappointment of that loss, for both her and her father.
"It was a tough year," she said.
Like her father, Wilson is no stranger to losing — like many other Democrats in Utah. But also like her father, she's seen her fair share of wins.
She attributes her success in Utah politics to watching her father lead from a young age, being able to work well with Republicans, and sticking true to her genuine interest in her community — values she says she intends to hold tight as she leads as Salt Lake County's newest mayor.
"I feel incredibly prepared," Wilson told the Deseret News in an interview at her office this week.
And her father thinks so, too.
"When you get to be my age, you are thrilled when a child, in a definite sense, follows in your footsteps. Now we walk together," Ted Wilson said, laughing about how now when someone calls "Mayor Wilson," they both turn.
Ted Wilson says Salt Lake County residents can expect a practical and realistic mayor from his daughter — but also one that's not afraid to tackle big issues.
He recalled years ago, when his daughter decided to produce and direct a film about the three-day, harrowing 1967 rescue on the North Face of the Grand Teton, when seven rescuers — including himself — risked their lives to save an injured climber.
He remembers saying at the time, "Oh Jenny, come on, you're not going to make a film," questioning if she had the time or the money to make it a worthwhile endeavor.
"Well, she made it happen because she told me to go park my opinions elsewhere," Ted Wilson said, chuckling. The result was the award-winning film, "The Grand Rescue."
That determination and boldness is what Salt Lake County can expect from her as mayor, he said.
"When she sets out to do something, she does it," he said. "People will like Jenny. They won't always agree with her, and they may suggest things to her they know are impossible, but they better be careful doing that. It may just happen."
Fighting the fight
Last year, after 10 years on the Salt Lake County Council, Jenny Wilson launched her campaign for U.S. Senate, first expecting a challenge to now-retired, seven-term Sen. Orrin Hatch — a fight she saw had a path to victory. But then, when Hatch announced his retirement and highly popular Mitt Romney jumped into the race, it became a much harder climb.
Still, Wilson was in. She campaigned hard. The loss on election night wasn't unexpected — but it was part of being a Democrat in Utah: "fighting the fight."
"I've been around long enough to see that not every batter up has a hit," she said. "I equate the wins and losses to baseball. It's part of the game."
Victory went to a different Democrat last year — McAdams, who narrowly beat former Rep. Mia Love. But his win opened up a new door for Wilson.
As he packed up his office to head to Washington, the then-Salt Lake County councilwoman prepared to launch a new campaign and make her case to the 1,100-member Democratic Central Committee that she was the best fit to replace McAdams.
She swung, she hit, and it was a home run. Wilson beat another federal candidate, Shireen Ghorbani — who would later go on to take Wilson's vacant seat on the council.
Because she grew up in a political family and has over a decade of political experience, Wilson acknowledged some may see her as a "career politician." But she brushes off that label, shaking her head.
"I'm a Democrat," she said, laughing. "I just don't know how anybody in the state of Utah can call anybody on our side a career politician."
"We have to be gritty, you know," she added. "There aren't that many high-level opportunities."
Most of all, she said she cares about her community and has worked in politics because she wants to make an impact.
Aside from 10 years on the County Council, Wilson has a wide variety of experience in other fields, from producing and directing "The Grand Rescue," to spending some time in the private sector, when she worked for the University of Utah's Moran Eye Center — a job that took her to villages in Nepal.
She has also worked in a variety of positions including administration, fundraising, government relations, and project management for organizations including Sundance, Voices for Utah Children, and the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games. In the '90s, she also served as chief of staff to Utah Congressman Bill Orton in Washington D.C.
She said her interest in policy dates back as far as she can remember when she grew up watching her father lead — and it has definitely had an influence over her and her passion for policy.
"Not everyone grows up the mayor's kid, right?" she said, noting that's a life her two sons — Zach, 16 and Max, 13 — now get to live. "It was a great one."
Balance of power
"In a state that's Republican dominated … it's important that you have Democrats willing to take those risks," she said. "And while I do have an alliance with the Democratic Party — I believe in Democratic Party principles — at the same time, I see good in both parties."
That's why, Wilson said, she's excited to serve as mayor to Salt Lake County.
"I fundamentally, as a Democrat in office, am fighting for balance," she said, referring to the slight Republican majority on the Salt Lake County Council. "I like the balance here in Salt Lake County."
Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless, who has worked with Wilson in a number of different capacities, including on the Jordan River Commission, has glowing praise for the new mayor, even though they come from different political parties.
"The cool part about Mayor Wilson is she's never been afraid to cross that line and talk to me as a Republican," McCandless said. "It's not about parties. It's about people, and that's who she's always been. She's an incredible breath of fresh air."
In her first State of the County address this week, Wilson said she's come into office over a county that has much to celebrate, crediting her predecessor for leaving the county in a financially healthy place, with excellent, expert staff.
She said that expertise became vividly apparent to her within days after she took office. A huge storm pummeled the Wasatch Front, dumping massive amounts of snow and leading schools to call their first snow day in at least two decades.
Despite the snow, she got to the county building at 5:45 that morning. Within 15 minutes, "we had it figured out," she said, and she made the call to close the county to non-essential staff. And yet other employees — from public works and the Meals on Wheels team tasked with bringing food to the county's elderly — still got to work.
It's that expertise and institutional knowledge Wilson says she intends to keep, and she hasn't called for any mayor staff shakeups, though she is forming a new Office of Environmental Services to focus on air quality.
For the most part, Wilson has kept much of what McAdams left behind the same — though there was one thing she couldn't wait to change.
Under McAdams, the mayor's office glowed bright orange — his signature color. Not in Wilson's taste, she decided pretty quickly to repaint the wall to a lavender color. The project turned into somewhat of a symbolic transition of power when she got the idea to invite McAdams to repaint the wall with her.
Once they finished the wall, Wilson and McAdams hugged — and she accidentally smudged lavender paint on McAdams' orange tie.10 comments on this story
She still has the tie in her office — and plans to maybe frame it, she said, laughing.
"He's been a great mentor," Wilson said, noting that they've stayed in touch, and she values that relationship as she moves into the future of her mayoral administration. "I can't overemphasize how important that is to have that."
Wilson's term ends in 2020 — but she's already announced her candidacy for that race.
"I want (Salt Lake County residents) to know that I'm really committed to this job," she said. "I really love this role."