ST. GEORGE Three of the five St. George City Council seats are up for grabs this year, and the choice could be as simple as choosing between "us and them," if voters are to believe some of the campaign rhetoric.
On one side are Benjamin Nickle, Ed Baca and Steve Swann, all of whom are supported by the Dixie Republican Forum, Citizens Council on Illegal Immigration, Mothers Against Identity Destruction, Defend Dixie Political Action Committee, and the Association of PUDs and Condominiums.
On the other side are Jon Pike, Gloria Shakespeare and Gil Almquist, who are supported by members of the St. George City Council, the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, Washington County Board of Realtors, and many other government and community leaders.
According to the candidates, the difference between the two sides is stark.
"I want to open up this process to people who moved here in the last few years," said Baca, a retired police officer from California, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in the past two elections. "Some think that this is a closed franchise."
Swann, who touts his experience in the information technology sector, said he would like to see the city "move out of its homespun roots and be more open to a greater diversity of opinion on the council and perspectives that are global."
But Pike, who works for Intermountain Healthcare and oversaw construction of the new Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, said the city's future depends on a council united.
"If certain candidates here were to sit on the council, I worry about how effective they could be," said Pike, who has lived in St. George for 12 years. "They have alienated so many people."
Pike was referring to Nickle, a 26-year-old youth counselor who grew up in St. George, and Baca, who has attended nearly every City Council meeting for the past four years. Pike's comment came during a recent candidate debate held at Dixie State College that attracted fewer than 50 interested residents.
Nickle, who received the most votes during the primary, said he is "disappointed when other candidates say I'm a destructive force."
"Two years ago, I was the only one talking about illegal immigration," said Nickle, who is trying for the third time to win a seat on the council. "I was called crazy. This is a cause I have championed, and now everyone is talking about it."
Indeed, illegal immigration has been a hot topic of discussion in various candidate forums held around the city, in numerous letters to the editor and on local talk radio.
To gain backing from Defend Dixie, both publicly and financially, candidates Nickle, Baca and Swann signed a pledge that commits them to support several potential city ordinances.
Those ordinances, if enacted, would require businesses licensed by St. George to certify they are not hiring illegal aliens; support training for local police to enforce immigration laws; deny city benefits to illegal aliens; and make English the official language of the city.
Current St. George Councilman Rod Orton, who lost in the primary, is certain the issue of illegal immigration helped doom his return to the council.
"There is no question it had an impact," Orton said. "It frightens me to see a group of men sitting around making promises and signing a pledge like that."
Councilman Larry Gardner, who chose not to seek re-election, also sent a personal letter to various voters seeking their support for Shakespeare, Almquist and Pike.
Voting for those three, wrote Gardner, would provide stability, while a vote for Baca, Nickle and Swann could mean division and disruption during a time when the City Council needs to be united in the face of unprecedented growth.According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, Washington County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. St. George, the county seat, saw a whopping 44 percent population increase between 2000 and 2006 to 68,000 residents.