Charlotte, N.C. • Dawn Miller feels a bit like an outcast in her Georgia community. She's a Mormon and a Democrat at a time when Mitt Romney, possibly the world's most famous Mormon, is the Republican presidential candidate.
That may explain why Miller and her friend Dana Cork drove three hours to Charlotte on Tuesday for the chance to mingle with like-minded Mormons and hear Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
They just couldn't pass up the first national gathering of LDS Democrats, an event organized by the Utah Democratic Party timed right before the official beginning of the party's national convention.
What Miller heard from Reid, D-Nev., is that he's a Mormon because of his faith and not in spite of it and that people like Miller should "be proud of who they are" and not "be afraid of what your neighbors think."
He spoke in a crowded hotel room before a bank of television cameras, reporters and Mormons from the North Carolina area and those who are delegates to the convention. He told them Romney isn't the first Mormon to run for president, though he might be the most conservative and he said LDS beliefs about caring of the poor and protecting the environment fall in line with his votes in the Senate.
"As far as I'm concerned," Reid said, "every member of the church should be an environmentalist."
After his speech reporters asked him about Utah. "The only message I have for Utah," he said, "is to get a little more moderate. It is a little too right wing."
Meant as a recruiting tool for the Democratic Party in Utah and in western states with large Mormon populations, the event began with a prayer and even included the LDS hymn "Have I Done Any Good in the World Today," led by Crystal Young-Otterstrom at Reid's insistence.
Scott Howell, the Democratic Senate candidate from Utah, also spoke, calling the gathering "a dream come true" and he told the gathering of a conversation he had with the late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley. Howell, a former Utah Senate Minority Leader, told Hinckley of an offer to lead the appropriations committee if he would switch parties. According to Howell, Hinckley said: "Young man, you will not join that Republican Party. We need good men and women in both parties. We are not a Republican church."
Many of the LDS Democrats defended their political choice by arguing that Democrats take better care of the poor than Republicans.
That's how Jackson Olsen, from Raleigh, N.C., feels and he isn't about to vote for Romney just because they share a faith.
"I'm not voting for a prophet. I'm voting for a president and Romney doesn't represent what I think is best for America," said Olsen, who grew up in Logan.
But Chad Sorensen, a registered Republican from Charlotte, is leaning toward Romney in part because of his business experience but also because he's a Mormon.
"I know where he comes from. I know what values he has," said Sorensen. "I know I can trust him basically."
That said, Sorensen can see parts of the LDS faith that would lead someone to join either party. The Mormon emphasis on individual accountability and consequences would attract conservatives, he said, while the strong church welfare system and ethos of taking care of neighbors fits a liberal mind set.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is in Charlotte to counter the Democratic message, but he said he "would applaud" the Utah Democratic Party's outreach to Mormons and said "We need good people involved in both parties," though he would take issue with those who claim that Democrats care more about the poor.
"Democrats have no corner on compassion," he said. "I just believe we need to help teach people how to fish, not just hand out fish to everybody," he said.
Chaffetz is one of 15 members of Congress who are Mormon, a group that includes all of the federal lawmakers from Utah. Reid is one of four who are Democrats. The others are Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega of America Samoa.
The Utah Democratic Party wants to expand that list with the help of Mormons, but in the short term the goal is to win more local elections in the Republican-dominated Beehive State. That's why the state Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis and other party leaders formed the LDS Democrats caucus last October.
Polls show that about 7 percent to 8 percent of Mormons in Utah consider themselves Democrats, while nationally it is 14 percent to 17 percent. Dabakis says if the state party could close that gap, it would greatly increase their chances of winning in places like Salt Lake County and surrounding areas.
LDS Democrats caucus
The group now has 2,000 members, including many of the delegates attending the Democratic National Convention, though not all of them are Mormon.
Noor Ul-Hasan, an activist in Salt Lake City who is Muslim, and Utah Rep. Patrice Arent, who is Jewish, were among the non-Mormon Utahns who attended Tuesday's kickoff of the national effort in order to support the state party.