SLC mayoral debate will include all 8 primary candidates; ABU polling shows Dabakis with commanding lead

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Sen. Jim Dabakis talks about the inland port, in the senate, during a special session at the Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Dabakis is currently running to be Salt Lake City mayor, as is Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt lake City, pictured here seated next to Dabakis.

All eight of the candidates for Salt Lake City mayor will be allowed to participate in a debate later this month, a concession by organizers after plans to include only the top four, based on polling, were uniformly criticized by the mayoral hopefuls.

Polling released Thursday by the Alliance for a Better Utah (ABU), cosponsor of the debate, showed former state Sen. Jim Dabakis as the clear front-runner with 27% support. Sitting Sen. Luz Escamilla came in second, at 10%.

ABU is co-sponsoring the June 26 debate with the University of Utah’s John R. Park Debate Society and announced Thursday that including all candidates is the most fair way to compose the debate after their polling results did not produce a neutral way to differentiate a fourth-place finisher. The debate will be held at the downtown Salt Lake City Library, and broadcast live on KCPW.

“We are excited to see so much energy surrounding this debate,” Chase Thomas, ABU Education Fund executive director, said in a prepared statement. “We’ve seen passion from the community and from the candidates themselves, and the polling results show that many of the candidates are in a statistical tie. In an effort to make a fair and data-driven decision, we ultimately decided the best way forward was to include all the candidates in our debate.”

Dabakis said Thursday that he’s been an underdog his whole life and that’s the only way he knows how to approach his campaign.

“I am sure they are wrong,” he said of the poll results. “I am confident that I am behind, every single day knowing that I better knock on every door and get to every neighborhood and stay out as late as I can.”

He also said he was proud of the debate organizers for doing the right thing and including all eight candidates.

“I was not going to participate if they didn’t let everybody in,” Dabakis said.

Escamilla said she was happy the event was expanded to allow for the robust discussion the city deserves.

“I am very encouraged by these results, particularly since we only launched our campaign two and half months ago,” she said. “It matches the feedback we have been receiving on the ground as we take our message to the doors of Salt Lake City.”

ABU Education Fund’s survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling between June 10 and June 12 and included 480 likely Salt Lake City voters. The poll included Aaron Johnson, who withdrew from the race after signaling his intent to run, but did not include Rainer Huck, a late entry who filed his candidacy last week.

The polling showed Dabakis and Escamilla as the top two, followed by former city Councilman Stan Penfold with 8 percent, a three-way tie at 6 percent between businessmen David Garbett and David Ibarra and city Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, Johnson with 2% and freelance journalist Richard Goldberger with 1 percent.

The margin of error was 4.5%.

Katie Matheson, spokeswoman for Alliance for a Better Utah, said the decision to include all eight candidates instead of just four did not stem from the campaigns’ complaints, but instead reflected that the poll’s margin of error showed a statistical tie for all but the top two finishers.

“The feedback from the candidates had nothing to do with it,” she said.

More than one-third of the poll’s participants (34%) responded that they were not sure who they support. And approval-disapproval questions showed that most voters are unfamiliar with the individual candidates.

With the exception of Dabakis — of whom 47 percent of participants had a favorable opinion compared to 20 percent unfavorable — a majority of voters responded “not sure” when asked for their opinion of each of the mayoral hopefuls.

The ABU poll also asked Salt Lake City voters about their opinion of President Donald Trump, with 25% answering that they approve of his job performance compared to 69% who disapprove. Six percent of participants were not sure of their opinion of Trump’s performance.

Mendenhall said ABU’s poll was conducted “comically early” in the mayoral race, and that she’s not surprised by her standing.

“The campaign has really just begun and very few voters are even paying attention at this point,” she said.

Ibarra said his campaign is “right where we need to be” at this stage of the contest.

“We’re in the hunt,” he said. “We’ve got a great plan going through August.”

Garbett, who received the endorsement of former mayoral candidate Christian Harrison, said his campaign is excited about the movement in its poll results.

“I know we have a lot of work to do,” he said, “but this shows us that we are within striking distance of moving through the primary.”

The candidate field will be narrowed to the top two after in a primary election on Aug. 13, followed by the general election on Nov. 5.