This is part of a series of guest posts by Bob King.
Part IV – House of Representatives: Mormons in the Mountain West: Tough Reelection Race in Nevada; No Problem in Arizona; New Mexico to Lose its Mormon Congressman
Nevada, a state that is home to legalized gambling and other adult entertainment that is not generally associated with Latter-day Saints, has had a surprisingly strong and consistent Mormon political presence. Mormons number 170,000 in the state and make up just over 7% of the population. Yet three Church members have represented Nevada in the U.S. Senate – all of them Democrats. Nevada has also had four Latter-day Saints elected to the House of Representatives – two Democrats and two Republicans.
Mormon Senators and Congressman from Nevada
The first Mormon U.S. senator or representative ever to represent a state other than Utah was Berkeley Lloyd Bunker (D-Nevada) a gas station operator, state legislator, and bishop of the Las Vegas Ward, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate (1940-1942). He lost his campaign to be elected to the full Senate term, but he was subsequently elected to the House of Representatives (1945-1947). (Official Biography of Berkeley Lloyd Bunker.) The second LDS senator from Nevada and the second from a state other than Utah was Howard Walter Cannon (D-Nevada), who served 24 years (1959-1983). Cannon was born near St. George, Utah, but spent all of his adult life in Nevada. (Official Biography of Howard Walter Cannon.) The third Nevada senator is Harry Reid (D-Nevada) who has served in the Senate since 1987 and who has been the leader of the Senate since 2007.
The four Nevada Mormons who have served in the House of Representatives include two who served in the Senate: Berkeley Bunker (Senate: 1940-1942; House: 1945-1947) and Harry Reid (House: 1983-1987; Senate: 1987-present).
Is Governor Jim Gibbons a Mormon?
The third LDS House member is James A. Gibbons (R-Nevada 2nd District) who served in Congress from 1997 to 2006 when he was elected Nevada’s governor. (Official Biography of James A. Gibbons). Gibbons Church membership has been somewhat controversial. His official biography for his two terms as a member of the Nevada state Assembly (1989-1993) listed him as “Protestant.” The standard reference biographies on members of Congress, updated every two years – Politics in America and the Almanac of American Politics – both listed his religious affiliation as “Protestant” in the 1998, 2000, and 2002 editions. Standard practice for such biographies is that the member of Congress provides information on religious affiliation and other personal data that is reported. After being listed as “Protestant” in 5 editions of these biographical reference volumes, Gibbons’ office informed the editors of Politics in America and the Almanac of American Politics that Gibbons was Mormon in 2003.
The change in Gibbons religious identification was sufficiently noteworthy that a major Las Vegas daily newspaper published a lengthy article discussing it (“Inaccuracy fixed: Gibbons mystified by incorrect listing: Books identified him as Protestant rather than Mormon” Las Vegas Review Journal, July 19, 2006). According to the newspaper, Gibbons said it was a mystery to him how he came to be listed as a Protestant and how the error remained part of his biography for so long. Gibbons was quoted as saying, “I’ve gone to a lot of different churches in my life, from Baptist to Episcopal to Presbyterian to LDS, but I have always considered myself LDS. . . I am not the most active individual in church, but I still hold my beliefs and I still believe in the doctrines and principles.” The newspaper article noted “At the time Gibbons’ religious affiliation was amended in the guidebooks in 2003, he was reportedly considering running for governor or for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, another Mormon.”
When determining what political figures are Church members, there is no standard listing of all Church members to check, because membership records are not public. When LDS statisticians come up with total membership numbers for the Church, they use the standard Church definition – someone who has been baptized and whose name has not been removed from the membership rolls at their request or because of disciplinary action. There is no effort to establish whether they have a temple recommend or whether they attend Church.
In establishing whether a public figure is Mormon, the only reasonable standard that applies is whether the individual is baptized and considers himself or herself a member. The definition of membership used by the Church would pick up at least one and perhaps other Members of Congress – individuals whose family were Church members, who were baptized when they were young and even ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood as teens, but who drifted away when they were older.
Dean Heller’s Reelection Battle
The fourth Nevada House member and the most recently elected Mormon from the state is Dean Heller (R-Nevada 2nd District). He was elected in 2006 to the Congressional seat vacated by Jim Gibbons, who did not seek reelection in order to run for governor. Nevada’s 2nd congressional district includes the entire state of Nevada with the exception of the city of Las Vegas and some of its immediate suburbs, which form the other two congressional districts in the state.
Heller served in the Nevada state Assembly (1991-1995) and was Nevada’s Secretary of State for 12 years (1995-2007). Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, he was raised in Carson City, Nevada, and attended the University of Southern California. He was a stock broker before beginning full-time public service, and he is a convert to the Church. (Dean Heller: Wikipedia.)
Heller’s race to fill Gibbons congressional seat involved a heated three-candidate Republican primary with Gibbons wife, Dawn, who was a member of the Nevada state Assembly (1999-2003), and Sharron Angle, also a member of the Nevada state Assembly (1999-2005). Heller squeaked through the primary with 35.9% of the vote to Angle’s 35.3%. The margin of victory was 421 votes. The general election was likewise a close contest. Heller’s Democratic opponent was Jill Derby, an educator with a Ph.D. in anthropology who served 18 years on the Board of Regents of Nevada’s state higher education system and was also a former state chair of the Nevada Democratic Party. Heller received 50.3% of the vote to Derby’s 44.9%.
The most vulnerable time for any member of Congress is the first reelection contest. The representative has not had much time to establish his or her reputation, and the individual is still not that well known by constituents. Heller is a freshman congressman in that vulnerable position. He is facing the same strong Democratic candidate who made a good showing against him in 2006. Jill Derby is running against Heller again in 2008, and it promises to be a tough contest.
Heller does have a number of advantages. Derby made a late decision to engage in the rematch, the district has been reliably Republican (Bush won 57% of the vote in 2000 and in 2004) and Jim Gibbons most recent electoral victories in the 2nd Congressional District were strong (57.2% in 2004 and 74.3% in 2002). Congressional Quarterly rates the race “Republican favored” (Congressional Quarterly 2008 Election Guide – Nevada 2nd District) and The Cook Political Report calls it “likely Republican,” (Cook Political Report – Nevada 2nd District), nevertheless, this is a contest to watch.
Arizona: Mormon Congressman Likely to be Reelected
Mormons established a permanent presence in the State of Arizona when Church settlements were established beginning in the 1870s. The Mormon presence continued to expand from natural growth of the settlements and families moving from Utah for economic opportunities. Recent Church statistics report over 355,000 Mormons in Arizona or 6.0% of the population. Latter-day Saints have been prominent in Arizona’s political life. Four Mormons have been elected to the House of Representatives from the state: Stewart Lee Udall (D-Arizona) served in Congress 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed Secretary of Interior by President John F. Kennedy (Congressional Biography of Stewart Lee Udall); his brother, Morris King Udall (D-Arizona) succeeded him and served 1961 to 1991 (Congressional Biography of Morris King Udall); Matt Salmon (R-Arizona) who served 1995 to 2001 and subsequently ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor of Arizona (Congressional Biography of Matthew James Salmon); and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona 6th District) who replaced Salmon in 2001 and is running for reelection again this year.
Flake’s district includes most of the eastern suburbs of Phoenix, including the towns of Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler. The area includes a significant portion of the Latter-day Saints living in Arizona. Wikipedia remarks on Arizona’s 6th District: “A heavy Mormon population in Mesa and Gilbert and its suburban nature give this seat an unmistakable GOP flavor” (“Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District,” Wikipedia). Since the proportion of Mormon voters in the Republican primary is high, a Mormon candidate has an important edge in this congressional district.
Flake’s Arizona Mormon credentials are unassailable. He was born in Snowflake Arizona, one of the earliest Mormon settlements in the state which was named after Apostle Erastus Snow and Flake’s second great grandfather William Flake. He and his family live in Mesa, an early Mormon colony and site of the first temple in Arizona.
In Washington, Flake has earned a reputation as one of the most implacable foes of “earmarks,” pork barrel spending, and fiscal irresponsibility by Congress. He was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment on his crusade (See video excerpts on Flake’s campaign web site: http://www.jeffflake.com/). He also has the reputation of being an independent voice. Almost alone among his colleagues, he called for Republican Leader Tom Delay to step down because of his ethical problems in early 2006.
But Flake has been more moderate in the immigration issue, supporting fellow Arizonan, Senator John McCain’s immigration proposal, which most Republicans (and now McCain as well) have rejected (OpEd by Congressman Flake, The Hill, April 25, 2007). Although Flake may not be popular with some of his colleagues in Congress and although he pledged to serve only three terms in Congress and is running for the fifth time, he seems to be doing fine with his Arizona constituents. He is expected to win handily in November.
No Mormon Replacement for New Mexico Mormon Congressman Seeking Senate Seat
New Mexico has had only one Mormon member of congress – Tom Udall, who has been a Member of the House of Representatives since 1999. He is giving up his seat to seek the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Pete Domenici. (Udall’s personal and family background and his Senate race is discussed in Part II of this series.) As far as I have been able to determine none of the candidates for the open seats for New Mexico’s three congressional seats are Latter-day Saints. The bottom line – this will reduce by one the number of Mormons in the House of Representatives after the November 2008 election.