SALT LAKE CITY — As the race for mayor of Utah's capital city continues to heat up, campaign finance reports show there's already plenty of money pouring into the competition.
And while some candidates are just barely launching their campaigns, others are already hundreds of thousands of dollars in — even though the candidate deadline isn't until June and the primary in August.
In total, early bird candidates have already raised more than $473,000 combined, according to the most recent reports filed with Salt Lake City. But as more campaigns get off the ground, that amount will inevitably grow — perhaps into what could become Salt Lake City's most expensive race yet.
The front-runner, at least as far as dollars go, is businessman David Ibarra, with over $234,000 and counting. That's more than double what other campaigns have raised early on.
"I am incredibly enthusiastic as to where we stand today as opposed to where we started," Ibarra told the Deseret News on Tuesday.
Ibarra — who is well known in Democratic circles but otherwise unknown to the overall voter collective — said he started out with a name recognition disadvantage that his campaign estimates will cost him $300,000 to combat.
Already his campaign has spent about $130,000 on digital ads and canvassing — efforts he said are paying off.
"Our name recognition has changed dramatically," Ibarra said.
The most recent campaign finance reports were filed in February, with the next deadline not due until July 1. Ibarra declined to disclose more recent totals, but said his campaign contributions "are growing and will continue to grow, and we're delighted with our campaign efforts."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said it is somewhat surprising to see Ibarra take an early lead in fundraising because he struggles with name recognition, "but on the other hand" it's not surprising because of Ibarra's business background.
Still, Burbank said Ibarra isn't necessarily a "leading candidate" — at least not yet — because he's up against opponents with much better name recognition, including former state Sen. Jim Dabakis and Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.
Money isn't everything in this race, Burbank said, though he added that Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's withdrawal from the race "really opens things up" and could mean more players will be willing to pump money into the race now that more candidates appear to have a shot at the seat with no incumbent.
"Those are all factors that make it harder to figure out exactly what's going to happen," Burbank said.
Behind Ibarra, David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, has raised more than $111,000. Dabakis has raised more than $100,000. Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold has raised over $26,000.
Those figures have likely grown since the February filing, along with fundraising for candidates who announced campaigns after the most recent contribution report deadline.
Campaigns for Escamilla, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall and former Downtown Community Council Chairman Christian Harrison haven't yet reported campaign fundraising efforts.
Harrison sent a prepared statement saying he looks forward to releasing his disclosures in July and that he's "well on my way to funding an efficient, competitive and exciting campaign."
"I'm committed to running my campaign for mayor the same way I will run this city: with the kind of leadership that gets all of us involved — not just the well-heeled and well-connected," Harrison said. "Publicly funded campaigns are the only way to amplify the very voices we need so desperately to hear and to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics."
Rudy Miera, Escamilla's campaign manager, also declined to disclose campaign finance totals ahead of the July deadline, but said, "We are very excited about the level of excitement that our campaign has received, and we're looking forward to this being an exciting race."
Patrick Costigan, campaign manager for Mendenhall's campaign, said, "We've had a large amount of enthusiasm since announcing" the councilwoman's campaign.
"I'm confident we'll be competitive when we file our first report in July," he said.
Candidates including Aaron Johnson, a veteran; Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist; and former Salt Lake City Council candidate Carol Rogozinski have opened personal campaign committees but haven't reported any campaign donations at this point.
Goldberger told the Deseret News he hasn't raised any money yet, but he's "a guy with tremendous ideas" and he's a "different kind of candidate."
Rogozinski said she also doesn't have much to report because she hasn't been actively trying to raise money — and she's considering dropping out because she's now "more interested" in running for the Salt Lake City School Board in 2020.
Johnson didn't return a request for comment Tuesday.
For Ibarra, a big chunk of cash has come from his own pockets: $50,000. His campaign is also largely funded by businesses, with several donating the maximum allowed under Salt Lake City's mayoral race donation limit of $3,560.
Big-dollar donations to Ibarra also include contributions from car dealerships across the state, including at least $21,000 from Murdock dealerships.
As an owner of multiple businesses in consulting, insurance and technology, Ibarra said they're all in some way "related" to the automotive industry, "so if somebody needs help, I'm often the person they go to." In turn, those businesses want to support his campaign, he said.
"If you look at my donor list, my money is coming from folks that know me, who believe (in me)," Ibarra said. "I'm very thankful to the folks that I've served all over this country that are wanting to be supportive in my effort to be mayor of Salt Lake City."
Ibarra said those companies wouldn't be treated differently in the mayor's office if he won the election. "How could they get any special treatment?" he said. "They're not developers."
For Dabakis, an art dealer, much of his campaign is also self-funded. He's cut several checks totaling about $58,000 to his own campaign. That's because, the former lawmaker said, he's "snooty about who I'll take money from."
"Look, my whole life I have said, 'I hate pay-to-play.' I just hate it," Dabakis said, adding that he's at times returned donations because "I don't want money from people that are going to expect favors back."
"But on the other hand, it costs money to run a campaign," Dabakis added, so he said he funds his campaign so he can stay competitive and still focus on ground-level campaigning.
Garbett, whose family owns the home building company Garbett Homes, has received at least eight maximum donations from his own family members, totaling about $28,000.
"They're enthused about my campaign. I would hope my family would believe in me," Garbett said, laughing. He said he started with reaching out to family and friends for support before branching out to other donors.
Garbett said his initial fundraising "far exceeded my expectations" and put his campaign on "good footing" toward its goal to raise between $300,000 and $400,000. "I think we are about halfway to where we want to be," he said.3 comments on this story
Penfold, on the other hand, has taken in funds from the biggest number of donors, though the donations have been smaller, and none have approached the maximum amount allowed, according to financial reports.
In a campaign email circulated at the close of the first financial quarter, Penfold thanked supporters for help reaching their first fundraising goal.
"This campaign will not be won or lost by which candidate raises the most money, but by the ability to show broad, grassroots support in our community," Penfold wrote. "We accomplished that today."