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SLC mayoral primary is no indicator of fundraising prowess

David Garbett, Abi Goddey, sitting in for Rainer Huck, David Ibarra, Jim Dabakis, Richard Goldberger, Stan Penfold, Erin Mendenhall and Luz Escamilla take part in a Salt Lake City Mayoral debate at the Salt Lake City Library on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

With just about 710 votes separating the leader from third place in the contest to become the next mayor of Salt Lake City, you might think the biggest fundraiser would be the leading vote-getter. But you’d be wrong.

At the time of writing, there is a 600 vote difference between current frontrunner Erin Mendenhall and second-place candidate Jim Dabakis, and only 109 votes that separate him from current third place holder, Luz Escamilla.

In the municipal primary election in Salt Lake City, mayoral candidates are non-partisan. Regardless of party affiliation, the top two vote-getters move on to the general election.

Winning the money race

None of the top three vote-getters was leading when it came to their ability to raise money.

David Ibarra outraised all of the other candidates, bringing in $437,000 as of the week before the primary, with much of that money coming in from out of state. He is currently in 5th place.

Dabakis raised $253,000 and is in second place. Escamilla raised $138,000 and sits in third at the time of writing. David Garbett raised $243,000 and is in fourth place.

The self-declared winner of the primary vote, Mendenhall, raised $92,000.

Why more counting must be done

Escamilla, currently in third place, did not concede, with too many votes still left to count to clinch the general election ballot. Mendenhall will likely be on it regardless, but whether she faces Dabakis or Mendenhall requires more counting.

“It’s still up in the air, especially in that number two spot where there are only a few hundred votes that separate Jim Dabakis and Luz Escamilla,” Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson, the host of Inside Sources, told Dave & Dujanovic Wednesday. “I think that one is going to be a nail biter, and could certainly flip back and forth.”

Sherri Swenson, the Salt Lake County clerk, said there were lots of ballots that were dropped off late last night and there are still thousands to count.

“This race isn’t about money, it’s about this community,” Mendenhall told Dave and Dujanovic.

“You can’t buy votes,” she said. “You have to earn them. I knew I could work as hard or harder than any other candidates. I think really it was able to be about issues and the policies we wanted to talk about.”

There was also a large pool of candidates that voters had before them. Escamilla thinks that may have been an issue because most people don’t live in the world of politics.

“Most people might have been confused… it takes time to do the research and I’m glad that people went to the websites and attended the forums and watched the televised debates. But out of the 90,000 registered voters, only about 35% of that showed up to vote and I think that we need more people in Salt Lake City to be engaged,” Escamilla said.

Who’s doing the fundraising?

Dabakis believes another issue that made the race as close as it is is that there is a lot of dark money, or money spent by non-profit organizations that are not required to disclose donor information, in the race. Typically, those organizations are able to receive donations from corporations, people and even labor unions, making it difficult for voters to see who gave to a specific campaign beyond the name of the non-profit.

“There [are] hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars that aren’t in the books that have come in from PACS and nobody knows who they are or who’s behind them,” Dabakis asserted. “When you look at that [money] you have to ask who’s behind it, they’re giving all of this money anonymously to candidates and I wasn’t very kind to them when they approached me.”

KSL was unable to verify Dabakis’s claim. Several candidates had contributions from groups like Dabakis described, but only one of those candidates, Ibarra, out-fundraised Dabakis.