Utah campaign tactics often take leap of faith
LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, far right, attended the dedication of the Huntsman Cancer Institute Hospital in Salt Lake City the day before Republican voters went to the primary polls to choose between Jon Huntsman Jr. and Nolan Karras as their gubernatorial candidate. While some questioned the implications of Hinckley's appearance, others marveled at the brilliance of Huntsmans' timing. (Leah Hogsten/Tribune file photo)
By Rebecca Walsh
The Salt Lake Tribune
Political success and religion often intersect in Utah elections.
And the 2004 Republican primary provided numerous examples of religious innuendo, one blatant attack and claims a candidate used his influential position as a Mormon bishop to recruit campaign volunteers.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is officially neutral in political matters. But in a state where about 60 percent of residents are active Mormons, religion often seeps into politicking, sometimes accidentally, other times, when a candidate figures it may offer an advantage.
"When you get into campaigns, you tend to use all the tools in your tool kit," said Joe Cannon, state GOP chairman. "Sometimes, there are local LDS leaders who don't resist the temptation."
Kelly Patterson, BYU Political Science Department chairman, says candidates' melding of politics and religion in Utah is little different from tactics Southern Baptists use in Texas or Catholics in Boston. And in many ways, Utah candidates are more restrained.
"Candidates will use a variety of means to show they connect with the values of voters," Patterson said. "The more homogeneous your constituency, the better that tactic works. The more heterogeneous, the more risky the tactic. People are more sensitive to it here because [the LDS population] is such a large majority. The minority feels quite aggrieved."
Every election year, the church's First Presidency issues a nonpartisan statement in the LDS Church News and bishops read the letter from the pulpit. The statement encourages LDS members to be politically active, to vote, and to run for office. In October of 2002, the church warned: "The Church does not endorse any political party, political platform, or candidate, nor should Church facilities, directories, or mailing lists be used for political purposes."
Still, to greater and lesser degrees, some candidates repeatedly ignored the spirit of that policy in the weeks leading up to the primary election on June 22.
Gary Herbert, Republican lieutenant governor nominee and running mate of Jon Huntsman Jr., slipped up on election night, referring to the Mormon practice of family members all staying home on Monday nights when he said, "We're going to have family home evening right here." He apparently meant to evoke a high level of ideological harmony in the room, akin to campaign workers sitting in a campfire circle singing "Koombaya." Herbert was unapologetic about using the Mormon vernacular.
"There's too much us vs. them, Mormon vs. non-Mormon," he said by way of explanation. "We ought to be looking at each other as Utahns. We're going to eliminate barriers, bring people together."
Many candidates routinely noted going to school at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University or serving stints as LDS missionaries -- arguably necessary biographical information that also implicitly telegraphs religious faith to voters. Others were more direct: both 3rd District congressional candidates, U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon and challenger Matt Throckmorton, mentioned their religion on their Web sites.
Gubernatorial candidate Fred Lampropoulous unabashedly told delegates to the State Republican Convention of his conversion to the LDS religion and his goals of serving two terms as governor, going on a mission and then dying.
Second District congressional candidate Tim Bridgewater's campaign reported calls from Sandy residents complaining that John Swallow, bishop of the LDS Londonderry Ward for young adults in that city, had recruited volunteers from its ranks to walk the district's neighborhoods the weekend before the primary.
Swallow rejects the assertion.
"Not true at all," he said in an interview. Swallow acknowledged a few members of the ward worked on his campaign -- but not because he asked them to.
"I've been overly careful about that. I've never crossed the line between church and politics. I don't even talk politics at church. I often wonder if the members even know I'm running for Congress."
But then, Swallow made a point of mentioning that he limits campaign activities on Monday night -- traditionally Mormon "family home evening."
"The night before the primary, I spent time with my family. I was not out campaigning," Swallow said. "It was refreshing."
LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley was present at the dedication of the Huntsman Cancer Institute Hospital in Salt Lake City the day before Republican voters went to the polls. While the church leader might have been expected to attend the high-profile event, Hinckley was seated near the gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., son of the hospital's founder and primary benefactor, during widely televised ceremonies marking the Huntsman family's donation of tens of millions of dollars for the facility.
Church Media Relations Manager Coke Newell did not respond to specific questions about Hinckley's appearance, except to say, "As individuals, church members are urged to be full participants in civil affairs. They are encouraged to fulfill civic duty by supporting measures that strengthen society morally, economically and culturally."
Gubernatorial hopeful Nolan Karras complained about the proximity of the ceremony to the primary. But, quietly, other campaign managers marveled at the brilliance of the Huntsmans' timing.
In the case of Utah County Rep. Mike Thompson religion was used to help sink his candidacy. A set of five of Thompson's own letters, heavy with religious references -- including one 30-year-old piece of correspondence from then LDS General Authority Ezra Taft Benson -- were mailed out to Utah County voters last weekend. The letters apparently were circulated in order to paint Thompson as a religious zealot.
Thompson called the tactic "inappropriate and cruel."
Beyond the letters Thompson believes LDS leaders in his neighborhood worked in sync to back his opponent, Lorie Fowlke, who denies sending the letters.
Now, Thompson is questioning his own Mormon faith as a result of the tactics used in his race.
"It looks strange when all the bishops and stake presidents in a particular neighborhood all have your opponent's signs in their yard," said Thompson. "I'm just wondering if I want to be associated with the type of people that do this to each other."
Utah Democrats are unlikely to complain. While minority party members often grouse about the blurring of church-state lines in Utah politics, they embrace it when they believe it can work to their advantage.
Two years ago, 1st District congressional candidate Dave Thomas, an LDS bishop, was held up as the perfect example of what has come to be known as the "Magleby profile," developed by BYU political scientist David Magleby.
"It's possible to be a Democrat and be an active member of the LDS Church," said Donald Dunn, Democratic Party chairman.
Thomas still lost.
Tribune reporters Dan Harrie and Heather May contributed to this story.