Salt Lake City voters and mayoral candidates alike have disavowed tactics by a new political action committee (PAC) which targeted some candidates over the weekend. But according to one political scientist, the controversial mailers and messages could move the needle in a close municipal primary.
Some Salt Lake City voters opened their mailboxes late last week to find fliers attacking three mayoral candidates: Erin Mendenhall, Luz Escamilla and David Ibarra.
The mailer depicts the candidates as cartoon sheep and accuses them of being favored by Republicans including Gov. Gary Herbert — who’s also depicted on the mailer as a sheep with fangs.
During a June news conference, Herbert said that while he would not endorse a specific candidate, he favored Ibarra, Escamilla and Mendenhall — the three candidates depicted on the controversial mailer.
A PAC called People4SaltLakeCity was behind that and another flier which praised David Garbett for his work on homelessness. It included a photo of him with current mayor Jackie Biskupski, who later clarified that she has not endorsed a specific candidate in the primary.
I have been informed that a mailer sent by People4SaltLakeCity PAC in support of David Garbett includes an image of us together at a City function that could be construed as an endorsement. I do not endorse David nor have I formally endorsed any candidate. #utpol
— Mayor Jackie Biskupski (@jackiebiskupski) August 11, 2019
Text messages from the group which accused Escamilla and Mendenhall of taking money from “inland port developers and far-right GOP legislators” also circulated over the weekend.
Though the tactics of the mysterious PAC have been condemned, Brigham Young University Associate Political Science Professor Adam Brown said they could make a difference in local elections.
Brown said voters typically don’t know as much about the candidates on a municipal ballot, and some voters look for “information shortcuts.”
“Given how little the typical voter is going to know going into the polls, if that information sticks, it can be very persuasive,” Brown said. “The less visible the race — and municipal is bottom of the barrel on that — the more people are looking to lean on shortcuts.”
That’s especially true for nonpartisan elections like Utah’s municipal races, where people can’t just rely on political affiliation when choosing a candidate, Brown said.
“This kind of thing would do nothing in a presidential race,” he said. “But in this race, a lot of voters aren’t going to hear a whole lot” about the candidates. (Read more about the candidates running for mayor of Salt Lake City and their ideas.)
The two candidates condemned the tactics on social media, which Escamilla described as mud-slinging.
“We’re a grassroots campaign and receive funds from many different types of donors because we are not self-funded. It’s worth noting that our campaign has the most low-dollar contributions, too,” Escamilla wrote on her campaign Facebook page.
“As angry as I am to see these disgusting Trump-style politics infecting Salt Lake City, I think I’m more sad and disappointed about what it means for our community,” Mendenhnall wrote on her own Facebook page Saturday. “Cowards hiding behind anonymous committees to spread lies and disinformation should be beneath us.”
Mendenhall’s campaign received a donation from Gov. Gary Herbert’s leadership PAC,according to the latest campaign finance disclosures. She and Escamilla also received donations from state Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who sponsored the 2018 legislation which created the inland port.
Garbett distanced himself from the tactics, writing on Twitter that he has no control over the PAC’s actions but that he has asked it to stop.
(3/4) I understand why these are upsetting to people and why it appears my campaign has influenced these. To be clear, they were not from me or my campaign and we do not support them. I have reached out to the affected candidates personally to speak with them about this.
— David Garbett (@GarbettforMayor) August 11, 2019
Organizers of People4SaltLakeCity did not return requests for comment Monday.
Eight candidates are running to be the next mayor for Salt Lake City. The two garnering the most support in Tuesday’s primary will advance to the general election on Nov. 5.