The official candidate filing period may still be months away, but Salt Lake City mayoral hopefuls have been doling out dollars and stashing cash in campaign accounts in what could become a costly contest.
The latest campaign finance reports, from February, show Mayor Erin Mendenhall had roughly $250,000 available in her campaign account, eclipsing her highest-profile challenger, former two-term Mayor Rocky Anderson, by about $200,000.
“As things stand today,” Mendenhall campaign consultant Ian Koski said, “she is in a very strong position.”
From February 2022 to the same point in 2023, Mendenhall raised about $200,000 from prominent donors such as Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, and developer Joshua Romney — son of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah — both of whom contributed the maximum amount of $3,720 to the mayor’s campaign.
Mendenhall already had nearly $140,000 in her account at the beginning of the fundraising period and spent $88,000 throughout the following year.
Anderson, who served as mayor from 2000 to 2008 and is seeking a third term at City Hall, began raising money in August. He amassed about $125,000 between then and mid-February, spending about $75,000 during that time.
He had nearly $50,000 in his campaign coffers by the end of the fundraising period.
Anderson’s donors included entrepreneur and former mayoral candidate David Ibarra and prolific developer Kem Gardner, who each contributed the maximum $3,720. Both Ibarra and Gardner also gave max amounts through their businesses.
The former mayor, meanwhile, kicked in $10,000 of his own money to his campaign.
“I was pleased with what we were able to raise before the first reporting period, and I anticipate that we’ll be very competitive in this race,” he said, “if not with the money, certainly with our ground game.”
‘Always a fiscal conservative’
Anderson, who announced his candidacy late last year in a blistering speech, has lambasted Mendenhall for what he describes as a “failure of leadership.” He contends he has a proven record in his professional life and as mayor to tackle the city’s weightiest issues.
“I have the attitude that we’re going to do everything that it takes to win this race,” he said. “That’s the attitude of our volunteers, and that’s the attitude of those who have financially supported my race.”
Anderson said he feels daily that he needs to “step it up” with his fundraising but boasted about running a lean campaign without consultants. He said he writes all of his own social media posts, writes his own emails to supporters, and has volunteers knocking doors for him.
“I’m always a fiscal conservative, whether as mayor and spending taxpayers’ money,” he said, “or spending the money that people have generously contributed to my campaign.”
Anderson’s largest single expenditure — about $12,000 — went to Reagan Outdoor Advertising for eight billboards throughout Utah’s capital. He spent about $1,000 for engineering and production of a campaign song titled “Together” and another $5,000 to produce a music video for it.
He also paid a campaign staffer about $19,000, roughly $8,000 more than Mendenhall put toward Koski’s political consulting firm, Quorum Creative, during the reporting period.
Not going negative
Mendenhall doled out her single largest expenditure — about $37,000 — to GBAO, a public opinion research and political strategy firm. The company has worked with highly publicized campaigns such as those of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
Koski said the campaign donations the mayor received reflect the wide backing she has throughout the city. Supporters are not only happy with the work she has done, he said, but also with the way she has done it.
“People are standing with her,” he said, “to ensure she gets a chance to keep leading the city.
In 2019, Mendenhall raised nearly $537,000 on the way to her first term. She announced her reelection campaign earlier this month.
Koski said Mendenhall has changed the way the city operates and works with its partners on the county and state levels. It’s a change that is central to the mayor’s character, he said, and it will be a theme of her bid for a second term.
“Exactly as she’s done as mayor is how we intend to run her reelection campaign,” Koski said, “which is taking the high road, focusing on what’s best for the city, and doing her best to stay out of the negativity and cynicism that really plague our politics.”
Race could become expensive
Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said the early fundraising and spending are higher than what is typical, but this election — featuring an incumbent mayor trying to fend off a former mayor — is hardly typical.
“My general sense is both of these seem high,” Burbank said. “And, in part, that’s no doubt because Rocky Anderson declared early, and so Mayor Mendenhall knew this was coming.”
Burbank said it was unlikely there were many other candidates exploring a challenge to Mendenhall, noting Anderson’s early announcement may have dissuaded those thinking of jumping into the nonpartisan race.
Only one other candidate — Michael Valentine, a vocal opponent of demolishing the Utah Theater — has indicated he would run for the office. As of the February fundraising report, he had $16 left in his account after raising $100 from two donors and contributing $10 himself.
Burbank suspects this year’s mayoral race will be a high-dollar contest.
“Given the tone that Rocky Anderson set early, it seems to me like it’s entirely possible that where this would go,” he said, “... they raise a lot of money, they spend a lot of money, they battle it out, and this becomes quite an expensive race.”
The filing period for municipal candidates in Salt Lake City runs from Aug. 8 through 15.
Because the election will be held with ranked choice voting, there will be no primary. The general election is Nov. 7.
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