In Salt Lake City’s pricey mayor’s race, candidates have raised nearly $1.5 million

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Sen. Luz Escamilla launches her official campaign for city mayor from the steps of the Salt Lake City and County building on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. As the city grows and becomes more diverse, Escamilla says she would represent a number of overlooked communities, including the Latino population and the city’s west side. If elected, she would likely be the first ethnic minority mayor of Salt Lake City and would be only the third woman to hold the position.

In what’s shaping up to be one of the most expensive primary races in Salt Lake City history, the eight candidates running for mayor have raised nearly $1.5 million collectively ahead of next week’s election, according to numbers released Tuesday.

The mayoral hopefuls have poured nearly that much into flyers, mailers and other campaign expenses, with $1.1 million spent so far as they seek a job that pays around $144,000 a year.

“It’s brutal,” state Sen. Luz Escamilla, one of the front-runners in the race, said Wednesday. “It’s a lot of money. I think a very crowded primary, obviously that increases the cost because you have everyone competing for the same universe of voters. And clearly we’re now seeing that when people have the ability to self fund, it shifts a little bit.”

Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who polls show leading in the race, cut himself a $20,000 check in this campaign finance reporting period, which started July 1. Businessman David Ibarra self-funded $25,000 and Rainer Huck, a retired electrical engineer, gave himself $5,000.

While Ibarra has to this point led the pack in fundraising, Escamilla surpassed him as the top earner this month, bringing in nearly $68,000 among 232 donors — nearly half of whom were small donors who made contributions of less than $100, she noted.

Still, she’s far from the highest-earning candidate overall, a distinction still held by Ibarra, who began his campaign months before she did. He brought in around $43,408 over the last month and has raised $414,987 in the race overall, spending much of his money on billboard and digital ads.

“From the very beginning, we knew that we would have to spend about $250,000 to $300,000 more than others because I’m not a professional politician, so I don’t have that name I.D.,” he said. “I have to go earn it.”

[Special coverage: Read more about the mayoral candidates and where they stand on five issues.]

Ibarra had, as of the last campaign finance deadline, raised one-third of his money through out-of-state donations, which he said is a reflection of his large out-of-state network created through his businesses and work with his brother’s nonprofit, the Latino Leaders Network.

With $171,037 on hand, Dabakis has the most money leftover ahead of the primary, meaning he’ll likely be in better financial shape than other candidates heading into the general election if he makes it through. That’s a deliberate strategy, he said.

“I may be a liberal on some issues, but when it comes to money, I am incredibly cheap,” he said. “It takes a lot to pry money out of my hands. So we’ve been deliberately holding on to our money and we’ll be spending a bunch between now and the Election Day. And we’ll probably end up with more money than anybody else after.”

David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, has the second most available cash and is the runner-up in a number of other categories — including total raised, spent and brought in since July. “Hopefully, we can keep that in the electoral results, too,” he quipped.

The $81,850 he has on hand, however, will almost all be spent ahead of the primary, he said, leaving him without much of a buffer if he’s one of two top vote-getters to move into the general election.

“Because I have such little name recognition and I struggle with that, we needed a lot of resources to get people to have any idea who I am, and so I’ve just been grateful that I’ve been able to get that support from friends and family, been able to get support from voters and residents who’ve liked my message and been willing to donate,” he said.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall has been rising in the polls but lags behind some of her competitors in overall fundraising and spending. She told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday, though, that she’s “exactly where we want to be” and believes she’s running a more targeted campaign than her competitors.

“I’ll tell you that you don’t buy votes; you earn them,” she said. “And that’s why we’ve got the momentum in this race and for me, this campaign is always going to be more about the community and hard work than how much money I could sink into billboards.”

She earned $28,544 during this campaign reporting period and has spent $96,380 of the $121,159 she’s raised overall.

Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold, who is polling at 5%, also said he’s being strategic in the final days of the campaign and is working to engage the large number of voters who are still undecided through targeted canvassing and other measures.

He has among the most money remaining, but he said he plans to spend most of that in coming days.

“We don’t expect to come out of Tuesday with extra cash on hand,” he said. “We’re not likely to hang on to that going into the primary. I really think after the primary, the general election is almost like a whole new campaign starting — so we’re not planning to save money for that.”

Among the interesting contributions in the race was a $2,000 donation from Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s Leadership Political Action Committee to Mendenhall, and a $500 donation that Huck, a candidate, gave to opponent Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist.