Will Salt Lake City mayoral candidates have to raise more than $1 million to be competitive?

Salt Lake City mayoral candidates have already brought in a combined $540,000 — and experts say they expect the crowded race will become even more financially competitive in the months to come.

Latino businessman David Ibarra led the pack of seven declared candidates with $234,931 in campaign contributions, while David Garbett, the next highest earner, brought in $111,131. Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis reported just under $101,000 and current Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski collected nearly $67,000, according to early financial reports.

“For candidates with better name recognition, like the mayor or Dabakis, the number of dollars may not be as critical as for someone who’s less well known,” said David Magleby a longtime Brigham Young University political scientist.

Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold brought in $26,454. Two candidates reported zero contributions: Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, and Aaron Johnson, a veteran and novice politician.

The campaign donations reported Friday are almost the inverse of a recent poll of Salt Lake City voters conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. That survey, conducted in mid-January, found Garbett and Ibarra at the bottom of a list of presumed and actual candidates for mayor. Dabakis led the group and Biskupski trailed behind him.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Though he raised among the least, Penfold had among the highest number of donors and said in a campaign email Friday that money won’t be everything in the 2019 race.

“This campaign will not be won or lost by which candidate raises the most money, but by the ability to show broad, grassroots support in our community,” he wrote. “We accomplished that today.”

But Dabakis told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’s heard from political advisers that they expect candidates will need to raise $1 million to be competitive. In the 2015 mayoral election, for comparison, former Mayor Ralph Becker spent $863,439, while Biskupski spent $536,420 — a combined total of $1,399,859.

“The campaign people that I talked to go, ‘Oh yeah, this is easily a million dollar campaign,’” Dabakis said. “'That’s just the way it’s going to be.' It just seems to be a kind of given and I’m appalled. It just isn’t the way that it ought to be.”

He acknowledged, though, that he wants to stay competitive. The way he’s reconciled those competing interests, he said, is to avoid taking money that would put any special interests “in the driver’s seat.”

Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah, said the dynamics are “a little unusual” with a seemingly vulnerable incumbent but he expressed doubt that many candidates would hit the $1 million mark — even with one already reporting more than $200,000.

“That’s a pretty healthy chunk of money,” he said of Ibarra’s fundraising efforts. “That’s a very good sign for his campaign, but it’s a long way from a million dollars.”

Ibarra, an entrepreneur and business owner who has often been a donor himself to Democratic campaigns, said Friday that he’s “delighted” with the results of his campaign’s fundraising efforts so far and noted that friends from “all over the country” have been generous in offering their supporting.

A spokesman for Biskupski’s campaign could not be reached for comment Friday.

Garbett, the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, said he’s “encouraged” to see a large number of donations early on but estimated he’ll need around $400,000 to run his campaign. However, he said the mandate to raise a lot of money isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I literally can’t do this without engaging thousands of people, and I think that’s a bright thing about this,” he said. “We all complain about the money in politics and it’s not fun to be on the phone all day, but it’s making me talk to people that care about our city and it’s making me get out there and really get a lot of time with people.”

Garbett’s father owns Garbett Homes, which is one of the largest homebuilders in the state, and the candidate received many contributions from family members. One of his hopes moving forward, he said, is to begin reaching smaller donors.

While early campaign donations don’t matter much to individual voters, Magleby said, they do matter to future donors, who are trying to decide if a particular candidate is viable enough to throw their money behind.

“If it’s a disappointing first report and you’re having to explain that we were late or we’re just getting started, that doesn’t help you get somebody who can give you a thousand dollars to do so,” he said. “This is money that is given based on a set of assumptions or calculations and the funds raised to date are a really important marker to people who give more than, say, $100 or $150.”