Cherie Wood was juggling her career and parenthood for years before she decided to run for mayor of South Salt Lake, Utah. And she let voters know she would continue to do so if elected.
"I had so many people tell me that I wasn't going to win," she says. "Just because of the culture here in Utah, you know, there's some strong emphasis for women to stay home and raise their families."
"I have boys-12, 10, and 3-at the time they were a little younger than that," she says. "My opposition was saying that I should be home with my kids. And so I wrote a letter to all the women voters in South Salt Lake and said, 'You know, I've always been a working mom, and because of my situation I will always have to be a working mom, and my kids are my number one priority. … But I know that I can prioritize my daily schedule and still be a really effective mayor'."
Her persistence paid off. Not only is Wood now the first female mayor of South Salt Lake, she's also the first to rise through the ranks as a government employee rather than going from one elected office to another.
She started working for South Salt Lake as a cashier when she was 19. "When positions would open, I'd apply for them," she says. "Then I realized I got to a point where I needed to go back to school if I wanted to continue to move up."
She earned her bachelors degree from The University of Phoenix at night, raising her kids and working for the city during the day. After stints as South Salt Lake's building department secretary and business licensing official, she was appointed to be the assistant mayor to Bob Gray in 2006; when he decided to step down after a single term, he suggested that she run for mayor. "I think I told him he was crazy," Wood says. But on a shoestring budget (she spent $8,300 on the entire campaign, according to a report by the Salt Lake City Tribune) and armed with a copy of "The Campaign Manager: Running and Winning Local Elections" by Catherine Shaw, she threw her hat into the ring-and won.
"This city had been in sort of a status quo for a while and she was elected on a campaign pledge that she was going to make some pretty dramatic changes," says South Salt Lake city attorney Lyn Creswell. "I think she really wants to invest her time and her abilities at the local level to transform this community... into a great asset and a great place to live and work in the state of Utah."
As a third-generation resident of South Salt Lake and a longtime local government employee, Wood had a clear idea of what she wanted to accomplish as mayor. "I think that business plays an important role," she says. "I think that having good schools, good green space, a good housing stock, healthy neighborhoods, I think that those are all vital, so those are things that we've been really focusing on."
Formerly known as a center of industry, Wood re-branded South Salt Lake as the "City on the Move." She created the city's Urban Livability Department in order to better use the city's resources and coordinate revitalization plans. And the state's largest urban renewal project-Market Station, 180 acres of former industrial areas slated to be transformed into a sustainable community-is moving ahead under her watch.
"She saw the vision, she went out and got it started," says Creswell. "It's going to transform this community."
"There's really been a lot of thought that has gone into this plan," Wood explains. She hopes to turn the shuttered Granite High School campus into a recreation and arts center, and streetcars would bring people into the community. "It will have retail, it will have mixed use office space, residential component, green space," she says. "Oh, I hope to live in it [someday]… Just knowing that you were a part of a really vibrant, sustainable community when it's in its completion in 20 years, will be a really neat place to visit."
Until then, though, she has a plan in place to revitalize South Salt Lake one small part at a time, putting a positive spin on the police term "broken window theory."
"If you don't clean up graffiti or take care of that broken window or that vacant house, that tends to have a ripple effect on the community," she explains. "We thought, 'What if we switched that around?'… What if we picked an area every year and we leveraged all our resources in that one area and so it would make that area strong and healthy and then it would ripple?"
So far, her idea has had a major impact. "We've received letters from people, how it's changed their lives, of how they have friends over to their house now and how they're happy to go home and how they love their neighborhood, which was not the feeling that they had just three months earlier before we started this project."
So what's next for this mayor on the move? "You know, people bring it up a lot about what my next steps are politically, but right now I'm really enjoying what I'm doing," she says. "I enjoy the impact that I'm making in my community."
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