Religion angles in recall elections

I haven't really followed much of the news from election day, but one of the more intriguing stories was the first recall election ever mounted against a state legislator in Arizona. What's more is that it was successful. Here's the Christian Science Monitor:

A powerful Republican state Senate leader who championed Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants lost his office on Tuesday in a historic recall election, returns showed. Russell Pearce's defeat is a message to the GOP, say some analysts, that jobs and the economy should be a higher priority than illegal immigrants.

The only mention we get of religion in this story about the race in the conservative Phoenix suburb of Mesa is:

"I intend to spend a little time with my God, my wife and my family and reassess where we need to go," he added. Later, a Pearce campaign spokesman confirmed that this was his concession speech.

Now, had I not read anything else about this race, I'd think the analysis that Pearce's defeat is a message to the GOP is fine. But I happened to read a story in The Economist a few days ago that put things in a very different light.

Pearce, it turns out, is Mormon and in a heavily Mormon area. And it sounds like some Mormon constituents didn't think he was putting the best image forth. His opponent, Jerry Lewis, is also a Mormon and they don't even disagree that much on the issues. The entire article explains what really happened in this race, which is as much or more a story about religion as a national message to the GOP. The story is from a few days ago but here's a good chunk of it:

It has become a bizarre contest. Like Mr Pearce, Mr Lewis is a Mormon and a conservative Republican. “This is a Mormon family feud,” says Dave Richins, a Mesa councilman (and also Mormon and Republican, like most local leaders). What makes it odd is that “I don’t disagree with Pearce on much,” Mr Lewis insists. They both want small government and low taxes, and the rest of it. With so much agreement, a debate between the two candidates was unbearably boring. ...

Mesa’s Mormon elders become very discreet when explaining what is really going on. With two Mormons running for president of the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, much distrusted by mainstream Christians, is currently taking great pains to prove that it stays out of politics. But its theology values families (and thus frowns on the separation, through deportation or incarceration, of illegal family members). Its image is inclusive and global. Mr Pearce and SB1070 have “damaged missionary work” in Latin America, says one Mormon.

So tone and style have become substance in this race, as arguably in national politics. And what a contrast emerges there. Next to Mr Pearce’s aggression, Mr Lewis embodies niceness and politeness. Aged 55 and fit, he seems to have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He used to be a Boy Scout leader and a missionary in Hong Kong (he proudly vocalises the eight tones of Cantonese), as well as a baseball coach. His manner of speaking is strange because he is always smiling. His seventh grandchild is due next month, there are Halloween pumpkins all over his modest house, and he displays endless patience in explaining the stark Mormon iconography of the paintings on his walls.

This, then, is Mr Lewis’s message: he is for civility, good listening and compromise. Mr Pearce’s proxies, by contrast, have sent other signals. After the padlock incident, a fake Twitter account was online for a while, in which Mr Lewis appeared as some sort of pervert. Most brazenly, a third candidate entered the race. Also Mormon but an immigrant from Mexico, Olivia Cortes ostensibly ran against Mr Pearce. But it became clear that she had been placed on the ballot by Mr Pearce’s supporters, including his nieces and a local tea-party boss. A judge ruled that “Pearce supporters recruited Cortes, a political neophyte, to run in the recall election to siphon Hispanic votes from Lewis to advance Pearce’s recall election bid.” Ms Cortes withdrew, but her name remains on the ballots, which may confuse some voters.

Who says politics isn't fun?

There is a lesson in this for everyone. For one thing, we should remember just how local local elections are. National political reporters want to turn every vote into a big message. It's not bad to glean messages from local votes, but we should always do so humbly. But if this story isn't a great example of how "getting religion" improves reporting, I don't know what is.

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