SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon Democrats announced a new national organization Thursday with chapters in eight states joining the Utah State Democratic Party's year-old LDS Dems Caucus.
The Florida-based head of LDS Democrats of America, Robert Taber, said the organization is intended to counter the perception that "there's only one way to be involved in political life as a good Mormon and that's as a Republican."
The LDS Church itself has a long-standing policy of political neutrality.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics,” church spokesman Scott Trotter said.
Taber, who also leads the organization's Florida chapter, said during a conference call to make the announcement that there is a "long and rich tradition" of Mormons participating in the Democratic Party.
But Taber, the former head of Mormons for Obama, the LDS group that backed President Barack Obama's re-election, said it's become harder over the past four decades for Mormons to be Democrats.
"Something we found is that among many Latter-day Saints, a Democrat is a four-letter word, and Republican is just the way things are," Taber said, describing LDS Democrats as suffering from "feelings of isolation."
He said the national organization, as well as the chapters in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Ohio, Texas and Washington, D.C., is a place for their "coming out and saying, 'We're Latter-day Saints, and we're Democrats.'"
Taber said it's "important to identify with that national party as a way to say, 'I see things a little bit differently than the people around me.' We're saying, 'Here's a home for you where you can do that.'"
Crystal Young-Otterstrom, vice chairwoman of the LDS Democrats of America and head of the LDS Dems caucus in Utah, said Mormon Democrats will have a larger impact in states like Utah, where a majority of the population belongs to the LDS Church.
But, Young-Otterstrom said, Mormon Democrats can also make a difference in other states in a close election. She cited Florida, a swing state where GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a member of the LDS Church, lost to the president.
"LDS Democrats may not be as large in numbers in other states, but they make a difference in every election they're involved in," Young-Otterstrom said. "This will really make a difference."
Over the past year, the number of LDS voters who identify as Democrats has increased to about 8 percent, she said. Young-Otterstrom hopes to double that percentage, to equal the number of LDS voters nationally who call themselves Democrats.
Over the past year, the LDS Dems Caucus has grown to about 2,200 members, including some who live out of state, she said, making it the Utah Democratic Party's largest caucus.
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the caucus is a result of the party acknowledging it needs Mormons, who make up about 72 percent of voters in a state where most elected offices are held by Republicans.
"It seemed peculiar to me that we're the party of the big tent and it was a big tent recognizing and embracing everyone except Mormons," said Dabakis, who became chairman in 2011. "It was wrong philosophically, and it was dumb politically."
He said the national effort to bring Mormons into the Democratic Party will help.
"As people in Utah begin to see that LDS Dems is not a quaint movement in the Salt Lake Valley, that will help us here get the message across to Utahns that you don't have to pick between your party and your church," Dabakis said.
The caucus gained publicity outside Utah for hosting an event featuring the nation's best-known Mormon Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, at September's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Craig Janis, a founding member and outreach chairman of the caucus, said he's been contacted by Mormons from around the country eager to be a part of the effort.
"It's been really exciting to see how LDS Dems has grown," Janis said. "It's wonderful to know that I'm part of a whole nationwide community of Latter-day Saints who share both my love for the gospel and my approach to politics."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said it's that kind of affirmation that will boost interest in the Democratic Party among Utah members of the LDS Church.
"To the extent that you can get some support and link this to a national movement, I think that would certainly help with what Democrats are trying to do locally," Burbank said. "That's why the national part of this matters."
Burbank said Mormons are socialized in Utah to turn away from the Democratic Party.
"What you get in Utah is this very strong sense that if you're a good member of the LDS Church, of course you're Republican," he said. "That part is really more of a cultural effect."
Also announced Thursday were plans for a political action committee, LDS Dems Action Fund, to support Democratic candidates deemed "honest, wise and good" whether or not they're members of the LDS Church.
Burbank said it will take some time for Democratic Mormons to have any measurable influence.
"You have to look at this effort in the long term. In the short term, they're not likely to have a big impact on the next election in Utah or the next national election," he said. "Realistically, it's a long-term undertaking."
Contributing: Mary Mellor
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