Salt Lake City mayoral candidates object to upcoming debate rules that would exclude half of them

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo ) Salt Lake City Hall, June 28, 2018.

Candidates running to be the next mayor of Salt Lake City are critical of plans to exclude half of the crowded campaign field at an upcoming debate, sponsored by the Alliance for a Better Utah (ABU) and the University of Utah’s John R. Park Debate Society.

Several candidates co-wrote a letter last week to ABU, asking that the plans be changed to allow six candidates to participate in the event, up from the four that organizers say is their preference.

“I love ABU, I think they’re a terrific organization,” said mayoral candidate Jim Dabakis. “I think they’re dead wrong.”

Dabakis, the presumed front-runner in the race, said the standing of candidates is currently very fluid. At the close of the campaign filing period on Friday, eight candidates had entered the race, and Dabakis said voters are just now beginning to focus on their platforms and priorities.

He compared the ABU/Park debate to the upcoming first debate for Democratic 2020 presidential candidates, which is expected to have as many as 20 candidates on stage who qualify based on donor support and polling.

“What’s the big deal?” Dabakis said. “The Democrats have 20 people on stage two nights in a row. I just think [ABU] should be more flexible.”

Limiting the debate — the most prestigious event during the primary cycle — to four candidates would undoubtedly exclude viable candidates. In addition to Dabakis, a former state senator, the field of eight mayoral hopefuls includes a current state senator, current and former members of the Salt Lake City Council, and well-connected businessmen.

Councilwoman and candidate Erin Mendenhall said Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s decision to not seek reelection naturally draws “a preponderance of candidates” aiming for an open seat.

"I think the community deserves to hear from these candidates that are working hard to get a conversation with the voters,” she said.

Asked for comment, the John R. Park Debate Society issued a prepared statement that declined to respond to the candidates’ concerns “in the interest of fairness.”

“However,” the statement read, “pending polling results, neither the final composition nor size of the debate has been determined.”

“While we would love to include every candidate in every one of our debates, we also want to provide a forum for voters to hear a substantive discussion on issues and the different views candidates hold on approaching those issues," ABU said in an email to candidates Thursday acknowledging the concerns they expressed.

Chase Thomas, ABU executive director, said it’s possible that additional candidates could be added in the event that polling shows statistical ties within a margin of error. In that event, the decision will “be guided by inclusivity because, like you, we believe that the candidates for mayor should be a product of informed voter choice."

But he reiterated that the current plans are to include only the top four candidates.

“[Our] preference is top four,” he said in an interview, “but we also want to be fair and we don’t want to be arbitrarily deciding between tied candidates who is going to be participating or not.”

Thomas said he expects the results from ABU’s polling this week, followed by additional announcements about the debate, which is scheduled for June 26.

David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, joined in the letter asking ABU to expand the debate. Like Dabakis, Garbett questioned whether the candidates’ standing can be fairly determined by polling.

“I do think that six is the best way to go about it,” Garbett said. “It’s still a manageable number, we would still be able to have a robust back-and-forth.”

Mayoral candidate and freelance journalist Richard Goldberger called ABU’s plans “undemocratic.”

“There are only eight candidates,” he said. “Let them show up and let them debate.”

And Corey Cronin, campaign manager for former city Councilman Stan Penfold, said limiting the debate to four candidates is a disservice to the voters of Salt Lake City.

“We are hoping that they expand the debate stage to six candidates,” Cronin said.

Businessman David Ibarra — who also signed the letter asking for six slots — said that it should be up to the voters, not a debate stage, to determine who advances to November’s general election.

“I just think it ought to be the people’s choice,” he said. “I don’t like it when we limit choice. We ought to expand choice and let them trim it down in the primary.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, did not respond to a request for comment. Mendenhall also wrote on her campaign Facebook page that the more candidates on stage, the better.

“The filing deadline was literally last Friday and this approach could already write off half the candidates in the race,” Mendenhall wrote. “Doesn’t it feel like every official candidate deserves a chance to talk to voters up on that stage, particularly this early in the race?”

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.