It was one of the more touching events—and certainly the most unexpected—I’ve run across here in Charlotte. On Tuesday afternoon, Democrats from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints convened the first-ever national gathering of their LDS Democrats Caucus in a second-floor meeting room of the Holiday Inn in downtown Charlotte.
In an era when pretty much every group has a well-established caucus, it was almost quaint to be in the midst of folks just now groping their way into political daylight. Most of the speeches and much of the chatter around the room were peppered with anecdotes and quips about how strangely folks look at you when you’re a Mormon Democrat—even in a year when there’s not a fellow LDSer heading the GOP ticket. One gentleman noted that his family’s claim to fame was that his daughter had recently served as the highest-ranking Mormon in the White House—pause a beat—“as an unpaid intern.”
North Carolinians Grant and Heather Hardy were a perfect example of this exotic political species. She grew up in New York. He grew up in California. They met at BYU, got hitched, then wound up settling in Asheville when Grant got a job at the university there teaching Chinese history. (He did his missionary year in Taiwan.) Both grew up in Republican families. Both voted for Reagan. Both see the GOP as having moved frighteningly far to the right on issues ranging from taxation to health care to immigration.
As a result, both Hardys backed Obama last time around and are doing so again this election. The response from their church community and their families, they say, falls somewhere between shock and puzzlement, especially with Mitt Romney as the GOP standard bearer.
“People are always asking me, ‘So why aren’t you voting for him?’” says Heather with a sly smile. “They assume there must be something wrong with him that I know about.”
To the contrary, says Grant. “I’d be happy for him to be my stake president,” a leadership position in the LDS church. But Romney’s policy views, in the view of the Hardys, do not line up with their faith.
To be clear: the Hardys are not lapsed Mormons. Grant is a church leader in his area. That just makes it all the more vital, he says, to be clear about his political views.
“There’s kind of this unspoken sense that, ‘OK, we’re all for [Romney],’” he tells me. “So I think it’s important to say, ‘Actually, we’re not.’”
Last election, the Hardys knocked on doors for the Obama campaign and may do so again this fall. And Grant notes that the “Mormons for Obama” bumper sticker on their car “definitely leads to some conversations.” “It manages to offend everyone,” says Heather.
The event’s featured speakers were definitely aiming for the sweet spot of people like the Hardys, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In his ultra low-key speech, Reid urged those assembled: “Be proud of who you are. Don’t back down. Don’t be concerned about what your neighbors think.”
Reid told a story about when, shortly after his family moved to Washington 30 years ago, his then-high-school-aged son was told by a classmate, “I didn’t know Mormons could be Democrats.”
Reid said he’d been trying to change that perception for the past three decades.
Perhaps no one more than the members of this fledgling caucus know how far the leader still has to go.