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'Religion card' not in play in Salt Lake mayor's race

Toward the end of each of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson's elections, in 1999 and 2003, Anderson played what some have called the "LDS card."

Anderson strongly hinted that his final election opponent would not stand up to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and would bend to any pressure by LDS Church leaders on any number of non-religious, civic issues — while he would not.

While Anderson, who was raised in the LDS Church but is not a practicing Mormon, was leading in public opinion polls in both those elections, his "playing the LDS card" seemed to solidify his political base, and he easily won. Numerous polls of those elections showed that Anderson by far got the non-Mormon, Democratic and independent vote, while his challenger got most of the GOP LDS vote.

But both mayoral candidates this year — Ralph Becker and Dave Buhler — say they will not play the religion card. And both men say it would be wrong and politically divisive to do so.

"I would not expect this of Ralph, and he personally has not done so," said Buhler, who is a member of the LDS Church. "But certainly some of his supporters have already done so — and you can see that ugly (religious) undercurrent in some of the comments that have been posted on (mayoral) stories on the Web sites of The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Morning News."

Not being a member of the LDS Church, the religion tactic would likely fall to Becker, who holds a double-digit lead over Buhler in the latest Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll.

However, the candidates' religion "has not been discussed by anyone in my campaign, not by me," said Becker. "And you certainly won't see that from me. It is not something that I would ever do."

Buhler said Anderson has accused him personally of being beholden to the LDS Church a number of times. Anderson "is still hitting me with that in this campaign," said Buhler, although it has never been the case during his time on the City Council and would not be true should he win the mayorship. Anderson is now endorsing Becker for mayor.

"I would hope that Ralph would do whatever he can to stop this rumor — that I am a tool of the LDS Church," said Buhler, who added that while the tactic may have worked for Anderson before, "it is very divisive in the community, and not fair to any of us."

Becker said he's not sure that Anderson's tactics did really work for him. "I can't say why people chose to vote one way or the other." And bringing religion into a political campaign may hurt more than it helps. But that's not a concern of his, said Becker, since he would never try to use someone's religion in any case.

In his first election in 1999, Anderson was opposed by a faithful LDS Church member. In 2003, his final opponent, fellow Democrat Frank Pignanelli, was actually a faithful Catholic. Yet, ironically, Anderson picked up not only most of the non-Mormon vote, he actually got most of the Catholic vote, as well.

And while some said Anderson was splitting Salt Lake City residents along religious lines — faithful Mormons against Anderson, non-Mormons for him — Anderson coasted to election victories both times.

Bringing religion into a political race can be a two-edged sword. And while it appears to have worked for Anderson, it may not for someone else. Still, the power and influence of the LDS Church in civic matters has often been an unspoken issue in Utah politics.

A classic example of an LDS issue is a skybridge over Main. The church is spending more than $500 million to redevelop the downtown mall blocks. Part of that development calls for the skybridge. The city has a policy against skybridges and church planners will need a zoning variance for it.

Both Becker and Buhler say they support the church's skybridge, although Becker, an urban planner by profession, says by-and-large he opposes skybridges.

Support or opposition to the skybridge breaks out along religious lines, a mid-July poll by Dan Jones & Associates found — of active LDS members, 84 percent support the skybridge; of non-Mormons, more than 45 percent oppose the bridge, while around 35 percent support it.

Most Mormons vote Republican, and while there are fewer Republicans in Salt Lake City than in most other areas of the state, that trend continues in the state's capital as well.

Jones found in a poll earlier this month that Buhler gets most of his support from GOP Mormons. Sixty-two percent of Mormon registered voters in the city favor Buhler. Becker gets just 22 percent of the LDS vote, Jones found.

In his most recent poll, Jones found that 37 percent of registered voters said they are "active" Mormons. Twenty-five percent said they have no religion; 26 percent mentioned some other religion.

Thus, if the electorate were to split out along religious lines — as it did in both of Anderson's elections — the candidate carrying the non-Mormon vote would most likely succeed.

Even more, said Jones, when the mayoral candidates break out along partisan and religious lines, active Mormons tend to stay home and not vote — since they don't often like even the "Mormon" candidate, who historically has been more liberal than many LDS voters.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com