Salt Lake City mayoral candidates raising big money ahead of August primary

In what’s shaping up to be an expensive race, the eight candidates for Salt Lake City mayor have raised a cumulative $735,000 since February, according to new campaign finance reports released Monday evening.

Businessman David Ibarra again led the pack with the highest number of donations among the candidates at $159,087. Not far behind him were former state Sen. Jim Dabakis — who polls have shown is the early frontrunner in the race — who collected some $152,317, and state Sen. Luz Escamilla, who received $139,648.

“I feel like it shows that no one’s going to outwork me. Nobody,” Ibarra said of his financial lead, noting that he’s been working 80-hour weeks and has talked to more than 1,300 residents while knocking on doors as part of his campaign. “The enthusiasm shows that I want the job of mayor and not just the title.”

Ibarra has also spent the most money of all the candidates, with $226,019 in campaign expenditures during this financial reporting period. He has a bigger share of large donations compared to his next-highest-raising opponent, but Dabakis had the largest individual donation thanks to a $30,000 transfer from himself.

Dabakis told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday that he’s proud his campaign generated among the highest number of individual contributions during this cycle. But the former state senator also raised concerns about the influence of money in elections and called for campaign reforms, while noting that he has himself returned between $1,000 and $5,000 in donations from lobbyists or people who do business with the city.

“I don’t want to portray myself as Joan of Arc or anything,” he said. “I just am trying to figure out on a personal basis what’s reasonable until we can get to the point where Salt Lake City sets a new standard, a gold standard for the state of Utah on campaign finance. I’m talking very seriously about public financing, because the system is broken.”

City code already states that it is illegal for anyone who enters into a contract with the city to make a contribution to a candidate or personal campaign committee. The prohibition applies to businesses and organizations as well as any individuals who are direct contractors.

Dabakis has said previously that he’s heard political advisers 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.

Escamilla, who announced her candidacy following the first campaign finance deadline in February, has raised $139,648 so far in the campaign and had the highest number of individual contributions this reporting period — a showing she said was evidence that she’s running a “grass-roots campaign.”

“We are not self funded,” she said. “I’m part of the working class so we knew at the beginning of this whole process that we knew other people had a better financial situation, more of a self-funded type of situation. So we’re excited we were able to raise the amount of money we did.”

Escamilla has all but been endorsed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who did not donate to her campaign during this cycle. However the mayor’s wife, Betty Iverson, made a $500 donation.

Former Pioneer Park Coalition leader David Garbett, who raised $132,132 from 436 contributors during this reporting period, noted that his campaign had nearly tripled its number of individual donations.

“The donations vary based on people that have contributed to the campaign,” he said. “A lot of people, it was a stretch for them to help out and I’m just so grateful for that.”

Garbett’s father owns Garbett Homes, which is one of the largest homebuilders in the state, and the candidate’s largest donations of $3,560 include some from family members as well as from Garbett Construction, Inc. and Garbett Land Investments. His smallest donations during this reporting period were around $4.

Rounding out the group of candidates with contributions of less than $100,000 were Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who reported raising $92,615, and former City Councilman Stan Penfold, who raised $51,282. Rainer Huck, a retired electrical engineer and ATV activist, received one campaign contribution, a $10,000 donation from himself, while Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, reported one $500 contribution.

Mendenhall said she’s encouraged by her fundraising and thinks her campaign is picking up speed, noting that she expects to raise more than $100,000 this week. But she said it was never her expectation to raise “dollar for dollar” the amount of other candidates.

“Given where I stack up in the candidate pool and that I have a background in nonprofit and community advocacy work — not banking or development or major corporation work — I’m really happy with the grass-roots support and community investment that I’ve received,” she said Monday.

While candidates with a large amount of cash on hand are generally able to put more money into their campaign and efforts to boost their name recognition and profile, a fuller bank account doesn’t necessarily translate into more votes.

Polling released last month by the Alliance for a Better Utah showed Dabakis as the clear front-runner with 27% support, while Escamilla came in second, at 10%. But more than one-third of the poll’s participants (34%) said they were still undecided ahead of the Aug. 13 primary.