While former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow were arrested and charged with multiple felonies Tuesday, another event not nearly as sensational and with far less public attention took place 40 miles north of the Salt Lake County Jail.
The comparison of the two events, though, evokes a symbol in Utah politics that can’t go without mention.
Reed Richards, the Democrat whom Shurtleff defeated in 2000 to become the state’s attorney general, was made a member of the presidency of the newly revamped Ogden LDS Temple in a sacred ceremony Mormons refer to as "setting apart."
Richards’ new position ranks among the most revered callings in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That his ascent to that role came at essentially the same time Shurtleff was getting fingerprinted and posing for his mug shot provides an irony unique to Utah politics.
The assumption that GOP aligns more closely with LDS values than the Democratic Party hangs like a Grim Reaper over the heads of just about every donkey-bearing candidate in just about every Utah election.
There are places where being openly Democratic and a churchgoing Mormon is viewed as apostasy. Several LDS Democrats have told me they have been publicly challenged at church about their faith by fellow congregants because of their party ties.
That’s why the Shurtleff/Richards comparison is poignant.
It’s fair to say that Mormons would consider being set apart as a temple leader makes for a better template of one’s religious adherence than being booked on felony corruption charges.
Yet Shurtleff, who defeated Richards 57 percent to 40 percent to win his first of three terms as Utah attorney general, overwhelmingly captured the Mormon vote. He was considered the better Latter-day Saint because he was the Republican.
Same goes for Swallow. A former LDS bishop, he was seen as a better Mormon than his Democratic opponent, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith, simply because of his GOP bona fides. In 2012, Swallow trounced Smith, racking up 65 percent of the vote.
Smith was a well-respected prosecutor with an impeccable record as an attorney. Swallow’s legal career was little more than that of a political fixer and fundraiser.
The same could be said of Richards and Shurtleff when the two faced off in 2000. Richards had been the Weber County attorney before serving as deputy attorney general under Jan Graham, the last Utah Democrat to win a statewide election.
Shurtleff had been, for a short time, a Salt Lake County commissioner with not a long résumé as an attorney.
Yet voters saw Shurtleff as the better candidate because he was a Republican. That also made him a better Mormon, which helped the future accused criminal defeat the future member of a temple presidency by 136,000 votes.
In fact, in 2000, the Democratic Party deliberately recruited Mormons to run for elective office in an attempt to dissuade voters of the notion that being a Republican automatically made you a better Latter-day Saint.
Besides Richards for attorney general that year, the Democrats ran Bill Orton for governor, Scott Howell for the U.S. Senate and Kathleen McConkie Collinwood for the 1st Congressional District — all devout Mormons.
And what did recruiting strict adherents to Utah’s predominant faith accomplish the Dems?
They all got creamed by their Republican — hence better Mormon — rivals.
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