Members increasingly influential in Washington scene
WASHINGTON – Last month, 800 Mormons packed a ballroom in the Georgetown Marriott for a meeting of the Brigham Young University Management Society. They sipped fruit juice and dined on filet mignon while chatting about baptisms, weddings, missions – and running the country.
This is D.C. table talk – Mormon style. And its echoes can be heard in the halls of Congress.
Though their numbers are still relatively small, legions of Latter-day Saints are tucked into every corner of the nation’s capital. And we’re not just talking about Orrin Hatch, Bob Bennett, Harry Reid and Mike Leavitt.
Mormons are key figures in the Peace Corps, the Bureau of Land Management and the Treasury Department. They oversee the White House law office. They advise Congress on international affairs, religious freedom, Social Security, housing, land use, education reform and matters of war.
Condoleezza Rice’s newest assistant at the State Department? Mormon. The lawyer who wrote the famed “torture memo”? Mormon. The CIA analyst who provided the agency’s estimate – faulty, as it turned out – about weapons of mass destruction? You guessed it.
The Salt Lake Tribune talked to nearly 40 Mormons in the D.C. area, power brokers who quietly serve the interests of their country and of their church. Their presence is a boon to the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which maintains a public affairs office just down the street from the White House and has a high-powered advisory committee to vet national and international issues that affect the church’s vital interests.
And yet, Utah church officials would rather not talk about it. They refused to allow their D.C. counterparts to be interviewed, saying the church wants to maintain “a low profile.”
That could change very soon. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is considering a run for the U.S. presidency in 2008. Already, Mormons are rallying around him, raising money, even as journalists speculate on how the “Mormon network” might help or hurt his candidacy.
It’s quite a turnaround for a church and a government that, just a century ago, seemed incompatible. And it didn’t happen by accident.
The art of networking
Kay Atkinson King spends her days discussing the arms embargo on China, reading about Libyan weapons or examining European/American antagonisms. She’s a senior staff analyst to Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat whose wife also happens to be Mormon. King is smart, sophisticated, indispensable.
She’s also quintessentially Mormon – a devoted grandmother who sings in the choir and is the first woman to be president of the BYU Management Society in its 21 years.
King grew up in Salt Lake City, graduated from the University of Utah and earned a doctorate in linguistics at UCLA. While working in an MIT research lab, she met her future husband, Bob King, who was studying international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.
The couple moved to D.C. in 1983, just as LDS visibility hit its apex during the Reagan-Bush era. You had White House domestic affairs adviser Roger Porter, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, National Institute of Health Director James Mason, U.S. Solicitor General Rex Lee, Education Secretary Terrel Bell, pollster and political adviser Richard Wirthlin. Dick Richards was chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Today, the Mormon influence of people like the Kings is less obvious, but broader.
The LDS population in greater Washington has swelled to 50,000, with about 20 congregations, including four singles wards. There are 10 times that many Catholics in D.C., and many more Protestants than Mormons in Congress. But what makes Mormonism unique is its ethos of helping fellow believers, a practice that goes back to Brigham Young’s cooperative societies.
Any Mormon who moves to Washington has an instant group of friends at church, where members talk freely about their jobs and lives. There are dinner groups, book clubs, political cliques and even Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.
Each ward and stake (like a diocese) has an “employment specialist” who shares computer lists, phone numbers and job openings. Mormon convert Angela Bay Buchanan, the former U.S. Treasurer, sister of Pat Buchanan and conservative activist, held this position in her Virginia stake for years.
“Our assignment was not only to find people jobs but to help them connect,” says Carolyn White, an Air Force attorney who has lived in D.C. since 1987.
BYU is another pipeline. In addition to the management society, it also sponsors the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, which helps place Mormon lawyers. Last year, Justin Harding, a staffer in Utah Rep. Rob Bishop’s office, founded the Latter-day Saint Congressional Staff Organization. It has more than 90 registered members.
Greg Prince’s biotechnology company created an internship with Dixie College. Omar Kader, a government contractor who helps small businesses in the Middle East, looks for returned missionaries at Weber State, the University of Utah and Utah State University; now 14 percent of his work force is LDS.
Of course, there are the Marriotts.
Since 1927 when J. Willard and Alice Marriott set up their first A&W Root Beer stand near downtown Washington, the hospitality company has been a magnet for LDS workers. The company’s ethical reputation has helped every Mormon who came later.
Mormons are disproportionately represented in the Central Intelligence Agency, which has long sought out Latter-day Saints with language skills.
This link started with LDS Apostle Neal A. Maxwell, a former CIA employee who set the example for future Mormon agents. It was an easy fit, says a Mormon who recently retired as a senior official in the agency. Mormons are patriotic in the extreme, accustomed to respecting authority and not too likely to have secrets or embarrassments in their history.
Plus, the official says, they can pass the polygraph and drug tests.
Mormon lobbyists also use the network to promote their causes. At church, Hatch and Bennett are sometimes approached by members eager to get a hearing, an appointment or at least a nod from a powerful senator.
And it goes both ways. When a lobbyist told Bennett he couldn’t reach a federal bureaucrat who was blocking a terrorism insurance bill the senator was pushing, Bennett replied, “I’ll just talk to him at church.”
There’s nothing conspiratorial about such connections. It’s how everyone in D.C. does it.
“My work now intersects with Congressman [Jeff] Flake from Arizona, who happens to have studied in my same program at BYU,” says Kathleen Moody, senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. “He’s on my African subcommittee. His legislative assistant happens to be my [LDS] home teacher.”
Church is church and work is work, Moody says, and such links are not a big deal.
Not all Mormons use the network, though.
“I don’t look for anyone’s religion and I don’t depend on a religious network to accomplish my work,” says Cynthia Hilton, of the Institute of Makers of Explosives. “I think it’s almost an abuse to use a religious association to advance a political agenda.”
Serving the church
For some, it is natural – and legitimate – to try to help their church.
“You have a desire to give your time, talent and energy to building the kingdom,” lobbyist Bill Nixon says. “It doesn’t end at the chapel door or the office door. It’s part of your life.”
Mormons throughout the government have resolved tax problems, property issues, visa denials, religious discrimination and the like.
Randal Quarles, assistant secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, discussed discrimination against the LDS Church with the government in Ecuador. Kader used his Middle East contacts to get the church a toehold in Jordan. Nixon smoothed the way for LDS humanitarian efforts in places like Afghanistan by linking it up with some of his clients.
But their church is extra sensitive about asking for official help from members, they say. They often have to find out its needs from other sources.
“It doesn’t want to be seen as using its influence with church members,” Bob King says.
In 1997, the Russian Parliament passed a law that would have severely restricted the activities of some foreign faiths, including the LDS Church. Bennett went there representing all those that would have been disenfranchised. Fellow Mormon Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon introduced legislation requiring Russia to be fair in how it implemented the law before it could get U.S. aid.
When Bennett was first elected, he met with Apostle Maxwell, who told him: “We won’t bother you very much. We don’t have many issues that involve the federal government. But when we do, we would appreciate it if you were responsive.”
Since then, Bennett says, the LDS Church has “never, ever come to me and said, ‘I hope you vote this way on a particular bill.’ “
Except once: Martin’s Cove.
LDS officials gathered Bennett, Hatch, Reid, Smith and Mike Crapo of Idaho and laid out the church’s desire to lease federal land in Wyoming where 200 Mormon pioneers perished in a blizzard. Each senator promised his support; Congress granted the lease.
Orders from Salt Lake are rare, but the very possibility worries critics.
In 1998, when Ernest Istook, a Mormon convert of 30 years, was running for re-election in his Oklahoma district, his opponent questioned the congressman’s vote for an appropriations bill that included money for Salt Lake City’s light-rail system. His opponent claimed he was beholden to Utah because of his church membership.
“It succeeded in offending a lot of people,” Istook said. “But it wasn’t much of a factor.”
/Parties at church
Like most Mormons, D.C. Saints lean to the right politically. Scot and Maurine Proctor, editors of the online Mormon magazine Meridian, are exploring the possibility of organizing Mormons to push family values legislation. Charles Carriker owns an international fund-raising and advertising agency specializing in pro-life and anti-pornography issues.
Attorney Lew Cramer helped the Republican National Committee recruit 1,000 Utah students, mostly Mormon, for President Bush’s re-election campaign in “battlefront states.” Then he called “Jeopardy” phenom Ken Jennings.
One problem. Jennings is a Democrat.
That puts him in good company. House Minority Leader Harry Reid, the most senior Mormon elected official, is also a Democrat. Reid joined the church while attending USU in Logan, but rose to prominence as Nevada’s gaming commissioner. Knowing his church’s opposition to gambling, he dutifully sought his bishop’s advice before taking the job.
“The bishop said, ‘if you don’t take it, I will,’ ” Reid recalls fondly.
He knows that some Mormons question his religious commitment because he’s a Democrat, saying sarcastically, “Yeah, after work I go out drinking and carousing with women.” Not so. He has always been worthy to enter a temple, his stake president says, and regularly attends General Conference in Salt Lake City.
Reid has organized the Mormon Democrats in Congress with all of four members. They take their Mormon beliefs to build a case for defending the uninsured, protecting social services and fighting for human rights abroad. One ward features “a hotbed of anti-war, anti-Bush, even pro-choice members,” with a high councilman who “puts out e-mails on a daily basis taking the president to task for being a war monger and liar.”
Democrats are the subject of good-natured ribbing, but political antagonism rarely emerges in D.C. wards. There’s more tension between Cougar and Ute fans in the metropolitan wards, quips Scot Proctor.
That could be because Mormons don’t have any kind of political hegemony. They feel and act like a tribe – with internal loyalty that crosses party lines, a common lifestyle and language that binds them.
“Harry Reid is one of the most genuine, good individuals in the U.S. Senate,” says Nixon, a lobbyist on the other side of most issues. “He is an invaluable and gifted leader. Such diversity is extremely healthy for the church.”
From the outside
Still, Mormons in D.C. find their faith misunderstood, or even, demonized. Most politicians know about polygamy (abandoned in 1890), the Osmonds and the Olympics, but very little else.
That’s among the reasons for the church’s public affairs arm in D.C. – to increase its visibility and burst stereotypes. At its invitation, Jim Towey, White House director of the faith-based initiatives, attended the BYU dinner, for example.
Ann Santini, wife of former Congressman James Santini of Nevada, helps organize lectures and exhibits at the temple, which has become a D.C. landmark. She hosts 50 to 60 ambassadors at the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony there and at an autumn party at the Marriotts’ luxurious ranch in Virginia.
It’s slow, but worth the effort, says Bill Marriott. “I just got off the phone with an Arab ambassador who was at the Christmas lighting. He now has a better, more favorable image of the church.”
Sometimes, the LDS prohibition against coffee, alcohol and tobacco sets Mormons outside the often well-lubricated social flow.
Mormon convert Paul A. Yost Jr. spent nearly four decades in the U.S. Coast Guard, eventually rising to the very top as commandant. While serving as an admiral, Yost invited Eddy Hebert, chairman of House Armed Forces Committee, to a reception at his home. Hebert asked for a bourbon and water, but got only fruit punch.
“Admiral doesn’t serve alcohol in quarters, sir,” his timid aide explained.
Standing in the midst of a hundred guests, Hebert bellowed, “How the hell’d he make admiral then?”
There is, though, a subtler challenge coming from Evangelical Christians.
In caucuses, committees and Congress, Mormons and Evangelicals have united to oppose gambling, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. But the two part company over theology. Evangelicals define Mormonism, with its extra scriptures and alternative view of God, as non-Christian. That view proscribes close social ties between the two, says political scientist John Green of the University of Akron.
At a White House gathering of religious leaders in the aftermath of Sept. 11, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was not invited to join a smaller group meeting with Bush. Apostle Dallin Oaks pointed out the exclusion to Bush adviser Karl Rove, assuring him that the LDS Church could be a strong ally if treated well.
And the 2004 National Day of Prayer organizer, Shirley Dobson of Focus on the Family, refused to let a Mormon offer a prayer.
“A lot of Evangelicals in Congress participate in Bible study, prayer groups and other worship activities,” Green says. “It might be difficult to include a Mormon.”
That’s simplistic, says David Gribbin, a top aide to Dick Cheney during his days in Congress, the Defense Department and Halliburton. Gribbin was trained as a Methodist minister and had been invited to lead a weekly Bible study on Capitol Hill when he decided to join the LDS Church. Gribbin called the Senate chaplain, thinking the invitation might be rescinded, but was told to go ahead so long as he focused only on the Bible.
Kyle Sampson, deputy chief of staff in the Justice Department, speaks fondly of his interaction with former Attorney General John Ashcroft, perhaps the highest-profile Evangelical in government. Sampson says he and Ashcroft had long talks about God, mercy and justice.
“We’re building bridges and making progress with the Evangelicals,” Mormon attorney Cramer says. “But we have a ways to go.”
– Editor’s note: Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack is the niece of Sen. Bob Bennett.
Mormons in D.C.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith seeks redress of LDS grievances from President Martin Van Buren, who reportedly responds: “Your cause is just but I can do nothing for you.”
Smith runs for president to challenge federal policies hostile to Mormons. In June, he is killed by a mob.
President James Buchanan sends 2,500 soldiers to Utah to replace Territorial Governor Brigham Young, believing that Mormons were disloyal to the country.
Church President Wilford Woodruff issues a “Manifesto” discontinuing polygamy. Six years later Utah becomes the 45th state.
B. H. Roberts, an LDS general authority and convicted polygamist, is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives but it refuses to seat him because of polygamy.
LDS Apostle (and monogamist) Reed Smoot is elected to the Senate but is seated provisionally while hearings scrutinize the church, its doctrines, temple practices and loyalty to the country. He served five terms before being being defeated by Mormon Democrat Elbert D. Thomas.
First LDS branch is organized in D.C. J. Willard and Alice Marriott set up an A&W Root Beer downtown. That would come the multinational, multibillion-dollar Marriott Corp., and a Mormon chapel modeled after the Salt Lake Temple is completed.
LDS Apostle Ezra Taft Benson serves as secretary of Agriculture for Dwight Eisenhower. From 1961 to 1969 Stewart Udall serves as secretary of Interior for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings at Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration and will sing at the inaugurations of five presidents.
Michigan Gov. George Romney, father of now-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, makes a run at the U.S. presidency but falters in the primary with a comment about being brainwashed by generals on Vietnam.
J. Willard Marriott organizes Richard Nixon’s inauguration; David M. Kennedy is named Nixon’s secretary of the Treasury and George Romney is named secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Washington, D.C., temple in Kensington, Md., is dedicated, first U.S. temple east of Utah. Within a few years, the church launches its annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at the temple as a way to raise the church’s profile, especially among ambassadors.
Sonia Johnson denounces the LDS Church efforts against the Equal Rights Amendment before the Senate’s Constitutional Rights Subcommittee. In December 1979, Johnson is excommunicated from the church for allegedly “preaching false doctrine, undermining authority of church leaders and hurting the church’s missionary effort.”
Gordon B. Hinckley receives the Medal of Honor in the White House.