I think we stand on our own two feet here. (Reid has shown the country) you can be a good Latter-day Saint and a good Democrat at the same time, and serve your country faithfully. – Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon
SALT LAKE CITY — The first time Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, saw Congress up close was as a Boy Scout on a tour given by one of the leaders of his Washington, D.C.-area troop, Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who later headed the Senate.
Lee said the current Senate minority leader, who announced Friday he won't seek re-election after what will be 36 years in Congress, brought members of the troop sponsored by their LDS Church ward onto the floor of the U.S. House.
"He took our Scout troop down there while we were working on our 'Citizenship and the Nation' merit badge. He showed us around. I remember being very impressed by that," recalled Lee, whose family lived in Washington during his childhood.
During that time, Reid influenced Lee as both his LDS home teacher and the first Democrat he'd ever met. Despite their political differences, Lee said he considers Reid a good friend.
Right after Lee was sworn in as a senator, he said the then-Senate majority leader pulled him aside on the Senate floor to whisper a joke about how he finally had more hair than Lee.
"He's always had a good sense of humor," Lee said. "We have a nice relationship."
A Salt Lake-based leader of the LDS Democrats of America, Crystal Young-Otterstrom, offered a lengthy tribute to Reid on MormonPress.com as "proof that we can be who we are as Mormon Democrats."
Her post describes how Reid prompted the group to sing the LDS hymn "Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?" at their first-ever meeting, held during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Reid's announcement that he's not running again in 2016 is "a bittersweet moment for Mormon Democrats like myself," Young-Otterstrom said. "He's been essentially the top Mormon Democrat in government. He's been inspirational to us."
She said the 30,000 LDS Democrats nationwide take strength from a statement Reid made that he is a Democrat because of his Mormon beliefs, not in spite of them.
"It answers the question we're tired of answering," Young-Otterstrom said.
Also tiring, she said, is how Reid is "demonized" by some politically conservative Mormons despite "representing our religion so well on an international stage" by advocating for issues such as health care and the environment.
Last summer, Southern Utah University removed Reid's name from a campus center amid complaints about the recognition. Campus officials have said Reid, who attended the Cedar City school, will have a future building named after him.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said Reid has represented Democrats well on the national stage, but his departure won't have a big impact on state party members.
"I think we stand on our own two feet here," Corroon said. Reid has shown the country "you can be a good Latter-day Saint and a good Democrat at the same time, and serve your country faithfully."
It's not clear, however, whether that message has traveled very far.
"Most Americans could not tell you who Harry Reid is," said Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics.
Wilson said even fewer would know that Reid is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Unlike Mitt Romney, for example, his religion is not a major part of how media outlets talk about him," Wilson said. Reid "did not make a very big public issue out of his faith."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank also said Reid's religion may have been a mystery to most.
"Even though political insiders were well aware that Harry Reid was a Mormon, I don't think that was ever anything that was broadly known," Burbank said. "I don't think people identified him with his religion in a strong way."
Lee said he sees Reid as "certainly a powerful illustration of the fact that people within the church come from a variety of points along the political ideological spectrum."
He said he intends to stay in touch with Reid after the Nevada senator leaves office.
Other members of Utah's congressional delegation offered good wishes to Reid as he ends his career in Congress.
"While we may have disagreed on most policy issues, I believe Harry is a good person and I've long considered him a friend," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "His legacy will be one of working tirelessly on behalf of his party and his colleagues."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, recognized Reid for his years in both the House and the Senate.
"Sen. Reid was elected by the people of Nevada time after time, and I believe he served them with vigor," Bishop said, noting Reid's retirement will give him time to heal from his recent injuries.
Bishop cited Reid's statement that he was leaving now because he doesn't "want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter," calling the sports analogy "wise."
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