Religion re-enters Salt Lake mayoral race

Pollster Jones says it regained dominant role

Deseret Morning News/October 31, 2003
By Bob Bernick Jr.

Salt Lake City politics in the early 1900s had an ugly twist: Candidates and officeholders were judged by whether they were Mormons or "gentiles."

In time, however, the political issue of one's religion melted away into discussions of economic development, zoning, water, parks and traffic.

But the old days have returned, to an extent, says pollster Dan Jones, in this year's Salt Lake mayor race between incumbent Mayor Rocky Anderson and challenger Frank Pignanelli - although neither candidate is Mormon.

"Religion is playing a dominant role in this (the 2003 Salt Lake City mayor's) race. Whether we like it or not, it has," says Jones, who has polled in Utah for 30 years. "My polling shows religion is more prominent in this race than in any other contest I've seen in Utah."

To illustrate how much the city's political climate has changed, former Mayor Palmer DePaulis recalls how when he was elected in 1985 little mention if any was made that he was the city's first Catholic mayor.

And religion wasn't a factor in issues at City Hall as it is now.

"Absolutely, I feel religious tensions in the city," said DePaulis, who lives near Liberty Park. "It's very unfortunate. It's not healthy."

The resurgence of a Mormon/non-Mormon split was first recognized in the 1999 election, says Jones, who is also a political science professor at the University of Utah.

Exit polls conducted for KSL-TV in 1999 showed that then-candidate Anderson, who belongs to no organized religion, got only 28 percent of the LDS vote. His challenger, Stuart Reid, an active Mormon, received 72 percent of the Mormon vote.

Two years after his election, Anderson's job performance polls showed he had turned half of his LDS detractors into supporters.

But when Anderson took a stand to keep a free-speech easement on the LDS Church-owned Main Street Plaza, the religious split surfaced again. Then Anderson wondered aloud if City Council members who were active in the LDS Church could make an unbiased decision on the plaza.

The religion question softened some after the council adopted the compromise brokered by Anderson and the Alliance for Unity, a group of civic, business and religious leaders the mayor co-founded.

But two weeks ago, after the City Council voted not to let the Nordstrom department store move from Crossroads Mall to a westside development, Anderson said some of the council members likely voted against the move because of their religion (all are LDS); especially in light of the fact that the LDS Church was the new owners of Crossroads Mall.

"I'm just speaking the truth," Anderson said when criticized for putting religion into the council's vote.

"He's walking down a dangerous road," says Pignanelli, Anderson's ballot opponent next Tuesday. "By putting religion into these decisions, what's he saying? Can Mormons even serve on the City Council? Do we need an affirmative action plan to get non-Mormons on the council?

"It is very destructive to the political fabric of our community," said Pignanelli, a practicing Catholic. "And it makes no sense politically, to bring religion into the debate over Nordstrom or the Main Street Plaza. That is what frustrates city residents. Why put us through this?"

Anderson acknowledges there has been "a backlash" to some of his actions and statements.

Part of the backlash, he says, is misunderstanding. Another part is that his administration "has made this community more inclusive for everyone." And some people may not like that inclusiveness - seeing it as a threat to their own positions in society, he said.

"Part of the backlash is also a result of my willingness to open a public dialogue about why some not of the (LDS) faith feel resentful and without a voice in Utah politics," said Anderson. "This is a situation that's existed for many years here. And in order to bridge any divisions, we must speak candidly about these matters."

One reason, he said, the Alliance for Unity was created "was to speak openly and honestly about those things that divide us, especially along religious lines."

Jones' polling results illustrate the underlying religious dynamic being played out in Salt Lake City politics:

" An August survey by Jones for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV shows that only 14 percent of LDS city residents planned to vote for Anderson in the Oct. 7 primary. A large 70 percent of LDS residents had an unfavorable opinion of Anderson.

" An early October poll of registered voters found only 19 percent planned to vote for Anderson in the primary election (which he won by 15 percentage points over Pignanelli, who finished second). Two-thirds of LDS voters had an unfavorable opinion of the mayor.

Those same surveys show that Anderson is well-liked among non-Mormons. Up to three-fourths of non-Mormons said they planned on voting for Anderson, Jones found in the August survey.

In early October, some 80 percent of non-Mormons had a favorable opinion of the mayor, Jones found.

In the same October poll, 60 percent of LDS voters had a favorable opinion of Pignanelli; only 8 percent of Mormons had an unfavorable opinion of Anderson's challenger.

The difference is night and day between the two candidates' support among LDS and non-LDS Salt Lakers, says Jones.

The religious split also shows up in tracking over time the question of whether the Nordstrom should move to The Gateway retail center, a new retail/housing development on 400 West.

Before the church bought Crossroads Plaza this spring, Jones' polls showed no real religious split on the Nordstrom move.

But after the church's purchase of Crossroads - and the church's public opposition to the move - an October Jones survey found more LDS Church members now oppose Nordstrom's move than approve the move, a switch from a December 2002 survey.

Anderson at first opposed the move, then later changed his position and says Nordstrom should move if no way can be found to accommodate the store at Crossroads Plaza.

So the LDS Church and Anderson end up on opposite sides of an issue, and all of a sudden a zoning issue plays out along religious lines, Jones' polling shows.

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