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Spotlight on Mormons as Flake, Cardon vie for Senate seat

It’s been known for months that Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, would seek the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl.

But when Mesa businessman Wil Cardon announced Friday that he will also run for Kyl’s seat, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suddenly had the two frontrunners in the race.

Is Arizona about to have its own “Mormon Moment”?

That term was stripped across the cover of Newsweek magazine for a June 4 story about the presence of Mormons in public life, including the Broadway hit, “The Book of Mormon,” and the bids of GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

But analysts wonder if Flake’s and Cardon’s faith will have any impact on the Arizona Senate race. And if there is a Mormon moment, they said, it is likely to have a uniquely Arizona spin.

Jennifer Steen, an assistant political science professor at Arizona State University, said religion may affect Romney and Huntsman on the national stage, but it isn’t that way in Arizona.

“It’s the West, it’s a place where Mormons are not as exotic,” Steen said. “If you’re not Mormon, they’re in your neighborhood, they go to school with your kids, you work with them. They’re not this strange breed.”

Indeed, one of the state’s highest-profile politicians, Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, is a Mormon, as is a challenger in his recall election, Jerry Lewis. Other Mormons in office included former Gov. Evan Mecham, former Arizona House Speaker Mark Killian, R-Mesa, and former state Rep. Jack Brown, D-St. John’s.

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About 388,000 Arizonans belong to the LDS Church, just over 6 percent of the state’s 6.3 million people.

That does not mean anti-Mormon politicking has not occurred. Former Rep. Matt Salmon — a Mormon now running for the House seat Flake is vacating — believes his 2002 gubernatorial bid was scuttled by claims he would not take on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Colorado City, Ariz., whose leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of child sexual assault last week. Others made signs reading, “Don’t vote Mormon.”

“It certainly had an impact,” said Salmon, who said 15,000 people who voted a straight Republican ticket did not vote in the governor’s race.

Romney’s faith was an issue in his failed 2008 presidential bid and scholars say that outside the Western U.S., being a Mormon can still be a political problem.

Terryl Givens, a University of Richmond professor of literature and religion, notes that Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, D-Mass., “publicly exploited the Mormon affiliation” of Romney in 1994. That same year, Rep. L.F. Payne, D-Va., asked voters whether challenger George Landrith’s Mormon faith raised “serious doubts, minor doubts or no doubts.”

Givens said much of the country still feels as Charles Dickens when he said: “What the Mormons do is excellent. What they say is absurd.”

“Americans have always been happy to be entertained by Mormons,” Givens said. “But when Mormon belief and theology intrudes into the public perception, then the resistance is still there. Bigotry is especially espoused in the Bible Belt.”

Can that happen in the Southwest today? Killian, now treasurer of the Arizona Board of Regents, thinks not. For one thing, it doesn’t make political sense to make faith an issue in a state like Arizona, he says.

“If someone tries to drag that out, (church) members could vote in a bloc,” Killian said. “We do have a tendency to circle the wagons at times.”

Barring that, Killian and others reject suggestions that Mormons might vote as a bloc in the Senate race. Killian said the “independent streak” in many Arizonans means Mormons are not as politically unified here as elsewhere.

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“The Mormons of this state are split politically…. You can find the most conservative Mormon and some liberal-leaning Mormons in the same ward,” Killian said.

Some say politics are likely to be more of an issue for Flake than his faith, pointing to his support for eased trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, his stance on immigration and his vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was one of a handful of Republicans who voted to repeal the military ban on openly gay members.

“Cardon running against Flake shows this” Mormon split on issues, Killian said. “Only on issues of abortion and gay marriage will you find some unanimity.”

But Mormons also agree on the importance of politic involvement. Givens said the church’s concern for the health of the nation is “unique among most Christian denominations.” While the church itself remains neutral, reverence for the Constitution is “woven into its theology” and is one reason why Mormons vote in high numbers, he said.

Flake said church teachings to be civically involved have directly affected his politics and that it ties Mormons from both sides of the aisle together.

“I’ve always felt that we’re encouraged as members to be involved, civically and politically,” he said. “You have Democrats and Republicans who are active Mormons that serve here. We’ve got (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid and others who are Democratic Mormons. It shows we don’t have to think the same way or vote the same way.”

Flake, one of 15 Mormons in Congress, notes that when business keeps lawmakers in Washington, he often finds himself in a congregation near the Capitol with Reid, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, both Utah Republicans, among others.

Back in Arizona, Flake teaches a Sunday School class to 13-year-olds and he has been seen at congregations around the Beltway. But while he takes his religion seriously, he said he would much rather do it behind the scenes and keep the focus on politics.

Cardon did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

Both men’s Mormon roots run deep. Cardon is a fifth-generation Arizonan descended from pioneers settling Mesa, while Flake’s family settled Snowflake, Ariz., in the 1880s. Both families were directed by Mormon prophet Brigham Young himself to settle their areas.

Salmon does not believe that voters will dwell on faith as much they did in 2002, but said he is distressed by what he sees as Mormon politicians — Flake, Romney and Huntsman included — selectively declaring their faith.

Flake disputes the notion that he chooses when to identify with his faith, and that Arizona voters will see past it.

“I never see a reason to run from who I am,” Flake said. “There may be places where at one time, it was not possible for a Mormon to be elected nationwide, but it’s not a disqualifier, certainly not in Arizona.”

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2 comments on this story

Aug 12, 2011, 10:24 am
-0 +3

Why do you think the LDS has been running all those “I’m a Mormon” TV ads - to grease the skids for Mitt Romney and these local folks.

Aug 11, 2011, 9:41 pm
-1 +2

Unfortunately its true, when your LDS you are encouraged to do business with other LDS members first, they help each other so to speak, nothing really wrong with that but my point is that LDS culture tends to be somewhat closed to there own people. They live there doctrine on a daily basis and in all of there daily activities, the church is #1, no matter what. So I ask how can this not affect your choices when your in public office? How can you objectively represent all people even the ones that are different then you or that may not be LDS and have different beliefs.

Remember this was a church that did not allow black people to hold church offices simply because of the color of there skin, this was not changed until the 1970’s. Church doctrine teaches that people of color are not as pure as white members of the church, that they are cursed from god and there for have darker skin. So if your brought sharing these beliefs in the LDS church how can this not affect your judgments in public office. 

In Las Vegas they have what they call the Mormon Mafia because many LDS members are in public office and tend to help other LDS members by awarding them lucrative public work contracts and things of that nature, Clark County County Commissioner Dario Herrera was convicted of corruption a few years ago.

Anyway my vote is gonna go to somebody more objective with all members of the community.

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Nick Newman/Cronkite News Service

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, is one of two Mormons running for Senate next year and said that, unlike national contests, he’s not worried about his faith becoming an issue in the election. His faith, he said, is part of the reason he serves.

Mormons in Congress

  • Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah
  • Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
  • Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
  • Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also serves as Senate majority leader
  • Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
  • Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah
  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah
  • Delegate Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa
  • Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
  • Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif.
  • Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
  • Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah
  • Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.
  • Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho
  • Source: LDS Church News