Erin Mendenhall emerges as top campaign fundraiser ahead of next week’s election for Salt Lake City mayor

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall makes a point during a debate with Luz Escamilla on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.

After raising less than most of her contenders in the primary election this summer, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall has emerged as a behemoth fundraiser ahead of next week’s general election for city mayor.

The candidate has raked in $301,347 in donations since the last campaign finance deadline in August — handily outraising her opponent, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, who reported $189,081 in contributions, according to new numbers released Tuesday.

“This feels like another sign that the momentum we started building in the primary is still growing,” Mendenhall said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “It’s humbling, but energizing. You don’t buy votes, you earn them, which is why I am walking our neighborhoods and knocking on voters’ doors just about every day at this point to engage voters directly and earn their support.”

Overall, the two candidates have raised a cumulative $818,000 and spent $756,139 in what’s become one of the most expensive races in Salt Lake City mayoral history. Mendenhall has $39,892 in cash on hand moving into next week’s election, while Escamilla has $28,946.

In a news release, Escamilla’s campaign acknowledged that she had been outraised but pointed out that she outpaced her opponent in the number of donations overall, with 1,284 contributions compared to Mendenhall’s 800. In this cycle, the candidates were fairly matched, with 528 donors for Mendenhall and 522 for Escamilla.

The campaign also noted that Escamilla had more low-dollar contributions of less than $100 overall, which make up nearly 70% of the total amount she’s raised.

“The position we’re in financially isn’t that different than we were in going into the primary,” said Richard Jaramillo, Escamilla’s field director, in an interview Tuesday night with The Salt Lake Tribune. “We were the underdog then in terms of fundraising. We’re the underdog now and we’ll just keep pushing through.”


• Brent Beesley, chairman and CEO of Heritage Bank in St. George, and his wife, Bonnie Beesley

• Eli Madrigal, CEO of Rancho Markets

• Kem Gardner, twice individually under different addresses and once through his Family Partnership LTD

• Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank

• Utah Metal Works, Inc.

In its news release, the Escamilla campaign criticized Mendenhall’s campaign for “dumping dollars” on mail, television, and online ads and for taking money from PACs — including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s.

Mendenhall received $2,000 from his Leadership Political Action Committee in July and picked up an additional $1,500 this week. Campaign disclosures show Escamilla also received a contribution from that committee, hers in the amount of $2,000, but returned the donation earlier this month.

“We largely have not taken much PAC money at all, and given the situation surrounding the inland port, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to take the governor’s PAC money, so we returned that,” Jaramillo said.

The comment underscores another issue Escamilla’s campaign has attempted to highlight ahead of the general election: Mendenhall’s record on the inland port. The state senator has criticized the City Council’s role in creating the framework for the project — a large and unpopular distribution hub planned for the city’s west side — even as Mendenhall has pushed back, calling the characterization “revisionist history.”

On Tuesday, Mendenhall responded to Escamilla’s condemnation of her PAC funding by noting that the donations in question are largely from firefighters “and other organizations representing Salt Lake City’s working families.”

Throughout the campaign, Mendenhall has received the endorsement of the Salt Lake City Firefighters Local 81, the Utah American Federation of Teachers and the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 111. In this campaign cycle, the city councilwoman disclosed contributions from the Professional Firefighters of Utah PAC Fund and a number of national labor unions.

“Attacking them to distract from the significant and undisclosed amount spent by the billboard company’s PAC in support of my opponent is unfortunate,” Mendenhall said in her statement.


• Boulder Ventures Development

• Dell Loy Hansen, owner of Real Salt Lake

• Kirk Bengtzen, owner of Tooele Automall

• Operating Engineers

• Utah AFL-CIO/Utah Labor Legislative Committee

Escamilla has been the beneficiary of several billboards from a political action committee linked to Reagan Outdoor Advertising, which Mendenhall criticized as “two and a half months of free advertising.”

The candidate disclosed $13,600 in campaign expenditures for billboard space before the primary; her spending report released Tuesday revealed no spending for billboards but money spent for digital advertisements. Her campaign is not required to report the advertising support from the billboard companies because it does not directly receive or coordinate the donations and because of the opacity of the PAC’s disclosures, so it’s unclear how much Escamilla has benefited.

Jaramillo noted Tuesday that the campaign has “no control” over the billboards featuring Escamilla’s face and doesn’t have the ability to ask the company to take them down.

“All the billboards that are out there have been put together and paid for by a third party political action committee,” he said. “And the unfortunate thing is the way that campaign finance laws work, we’re not able to coordinate with them. So there’s nothing we can do in terms of telling them to take it down, telling them what to put on it.”

Mendenhall has said her campaign has deliberately stayed away from billboards because she intends to negotiate with the industry to reduce visual clutter blocking skyline views in the gateway to the city. Escamilla has been a bit more subdued in her comments but has also expressed interest in having that conversation.

Another sign of possible strain on the city’s campaign finance rules are donations made earlier in the cycle by Kem Gardner, a prominent developer and donor to the University of Utah, who appears to have overstepped the limits on an individual’s contributions of $3,560.

Three donations to Escamilla, all listed under different addresses, appear under his name on May 15 — one from Kem C. Gardner, a second from Kem C. Gardner Family Partnership LTD and a third from Kem Gardner, with no middle initial.

Salt Lake City Assistant City Recorder Nicole Smedley said Tuesday that the city doesn’t have enough information to determine whether that’s a campaign violation, noting that it’s unclear whether the two donations Gardner appears to have made as an individual, not under a business, came from the same person.

“We’ll look into the situation,” she said.

Among the interesting campaign contributions in this cycle include a $2,000 donation to Escamilla from former mayoral candidate Rainer Huck, who drew less than 2% of the vote in the primary election, and a $3,540 donation from Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who recently endorsed the state senator in the race.

Mendenhall received a $3,560 contribution from former mayoral rival David Ibarra, who was consistently among the prolific fundraisers in the primary election and who recently endorsed her in the race. Her support from national union organizations included the Ironworkers Political Action League and the International Firefighters Association, both based in New York.