Robert Gehrke: Erin Mendenhall’s mailer shows Latter-day Saint voters in Salt Lake City hold sway, even if they are the minority

Robert Gehrke

A number of voters in Salt Lake City got an interesting letter from Erin Mendenhall’s mayoral campaign recently.

The letter was signed by 37 political activists, city council members and business leaders. The thing they all had in common is their faith. They are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — they said so right at the top — and they all support Mendenhall for mayor.

“We know Erin will represent all of us,” they wrote. “She will work with everyone, including LDS Church officials, in a productive manner that ensures the best outcomes for Salt Lake City.”

(Courtesy photo) Several Salt Lake City residents received this letter from the Erin Mendenhall campaign. Mendenhall is a candidate for Salt Lake City mayor. The letter supports her and is signed by several political activists, city council members and business leaders.

It was perhaps the most overt courtship of Latter-day Saint voters we’ve seen in the campaign and perhaps unexpected in that it was sent by the candidate who is not a member of the faith — although Mendenhall says she experimented with the church in her teens and into her early 20s.

You’ll remember a few weeks back when Luz Escamilla’s LDS faith became a major issue in the campaign, after former Mayor Rocky Anderson said, in Escamilla the city is “threatened with the prospect of a Mormon mayor … who seems willing to do the bidding of the church.”

After initially ignoring Anderson’s alarms, Escamilla responded weeks later — an indication that perhaps the criticism struck a nerve — calling Anderson’s attacks “insulting.”

“To claim I would do the bidding of the LDS Church is offensive to me not only as a member of that faith, but as a woman,” she wrote. “I have my own brain capable of making my own decisions, my own conscience capable of determining my own positions, and my own voice to speak my mind.”

The Mendenhall mailer makes specific reference to Anderson bringing up “unfair questions regarding the personal beliefs of the mayoral candidates.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Downtown Alliance hosts a Salt Lake City mayoral debate between Erin Mendenhall, left, and Luz Escamilla at the Regent Street Black Box at Eccles Theater on Wednesday, October 9, 2019.

Politically, here’s what I think is happening: According to a recent poll by Utah Policy and Y2 Analytics, active LDS voters are pretty evenly split between Escamilla and Mendenhall, 41% to 36% respectively. But nearly a quarter of those voters say they are undecided.

Before the primary, there was also a large percentage of undecided LDS voters and I wrote that indications were that they would break to Mendenhall and Escamilla. I don’t have exit polling on this point, but it stands to reason that they were among those who pushed these two candidates through the primary.

The polling so far shows Mendenhall leading the election, but what could sink her is if undecided voters all broke to Escamilla in the final week, hence the LDS bulwark.

But beyond that, I think both instances demonstrate the chasm in Salt Lake City between Latter-day Saint residents and everyone else — politically and culturally. It can be utilized as a wedge, as Anderson did, but, since members still make up about a third of the city’s population, they remain an important voting bloc.

Former state Sen. Stuart Reid, a former church lobbyist who ran for mayor and lost to Anderson, told me early in the current campaign that he believes Salt Lake City will never elect another LDS mayor — the last was Ted Wilson, who left office in 1985.

It’s been a minute.

During the final debate between the two candidates on Wednesday, I asked about the role of the church in the campaign and the city.

Escamilla said she learned of an anti-LDS whisper campaign against her back in August and there has been campaigning on the issue since, though there is no indication it is coming from Mendenhall or her camp.

Still, Escamilla said Wednesday, “I’m not going to apologize” for my faith.

She also — correctly, in my mind — pointed to her record where she has supported things like medical cannabis and LGBTQ issues that go well beyond the church’s policies.

“For me, Salt Lake City residents are better than that and bigotry is not something that represents Salt Lake City residents in 2019,” she said. “So I am very hopeful and I have faith that residents will not discriminate based on my religion, my national origin, my race, my ethnicity or my gender.”

Mendenhall focused on the church as a partner, a “major stakeholder to the tune of billions of dollars, but also a lot of shared values of wanting Salt Lake City to be successful economically, welcoming to families, functional and a place that creates services that people need.”

She pointed to the church offering the city its former Deseret Industries building for a homeless resource center as an example of that partnership.

But she also noted that 90% of the Legislature is Latter-day Saint, it’s not just about having positions that differ from the church, “but being able to speak out sometimes, when those differences are harmful to our community and need to be mentioned by our mayor.”

The church IS a player in the city by the fact that it is the largest landowner and, in several instances, a partner.

It is also a player because the city is often at the mercy of the whims of the state Legislature, where the church can exert its influence on things like alcohol policy and LGBTQ rights.

Some, like my fellow columnist Michelle Quist, suggest religion shouldn’t matter — that it would be wrong to not vote for a Muslim mayor or Jewish mayor just because of their faith.

It might be different, I would argue, if those faiths had dominated politics in the state since its inception and continued to do so today.

The inherent tension between Mormons and non-Mormons in Salt Lake City will continue, no matter who wins the election next week. It’s up to voters to decide who is most capable of navigating those waters, but it is an issue valid to consider and impossible to ignore.

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