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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Romney's quasi-official Mormon outreach initiative.

The front page of today's Boston Globe carefully lays out the sequence of events that led the dean and associate dean of the business school at the Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University to send an official invitation to alumni soliciting their support for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. A Mormon apostle and former president of BYU, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, had encouraged using the business school alumni organization to recruit LDS supporters, although a church spokesman says Holland met with Romney campaign representatives to remind them of the church's political neutrality.

Did the business school email, sent to 50 members of the alumni association and 100 members of the school's National Advisory Council, violate that pesky IRS limitation on political endorsements or electioneering by nonprofit organizations? The associate dean, W. Steve Albrecht, when asked about the email by Globe reporters, said, "It wasn't something BYU did, it wasn't something I probably should have done, and it was bad judgment," (Translation: Whoops! I wish I'd taken the alumni email list home and sent it from my AOL account!)

Also intriguing: Don Stirling, Romney's Utah-based campaign consultant, says the Mutual Values and Priorities (MVP) initiative is intended to engage religious leaders from diverse traditions — but he acknowledged that the campaign has only met with LDS leaders. (Among the recruits so far: the chief executive of the church's book publishing division and the president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.) More intriguing, Stephen Zwick, the head of Romney's PAC, told the Globe that MVP had been abandoned and distanced the PAC from the effort — even though the MVP leaders were actively recruiting people earlier this week.

Final thought: Like any politician, Romney is going to work every set of contacts he has — and the Mormon community is his obvious personal base. But the media does its job well when it monitors how well campaigns are abiding by the law. The Globe headline may imply misbehavior by Mormon Church leaders, an implication that the story doesn't firmly establish, but the email from BYU officials does look like a violation of IRS regulations.

("Romney camp consulted with Mormon leaders: Eyes nationwide network to aid White House bid," Scott Helman and Michael Levenson, Boston Globe 10.19.06, reg req'd; "IRS officials stepping up enforcement," Michael Levenson and Scott Helman, Boston Globe 10.19.06, reg req'd)

Update 10.23.06: See the Salt Lake Tribune's coverage of the response by the LDS Church and by Kem Gardner, the Utah businessman who says, "I'm to blame for this whole mess." ("Romney pal takes blame for dust-up: LDS Church denies claim it backs Romney," Thomas Burr, Joe Baird, and Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune 10.23.06)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 19 October 2006 at 8:42 AM

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October 22, 2006 08:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Globe is really hammering away at this story. The front page of the Sunday paper quotes an email — from Romney's Utah-based political consultant Don Stirling to Sheri Dew, the head of the Church's book publisher — that says that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland "has been designated/assumed the role of coordinating these matters. Elder Holland surfaced the idea of using BYU Management Society and its locally based organizations as a starting point to rally and organize the troops on a grass-roots level. Elder Holland subsequently surfaced the idea with Presidents Hinckley and Faust, who voiced no objections."

The Globe interprets this to mean that Holland, one of the LDS Church's apostles, is coordinating official church support for Romney. On the one hand, this strikes me as rather unlikely. A meeting in which a church leader suggests nothing more than that Romney's campaign reach out to alumni chapters of BYU's management school doesn't look like, say, the church's direct involvement in fighting the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. It's quite indirect and still doesn't seem to conflict with IRS restrictions on nonprofit groups.

On the other hand, there is real news in the final three paragraphs:

But e-mails from Stirling show that another major institution run by the church, Deseret Book, was also exploring ways to help Romney politically.

"Would you feel comfortable in joining us for that meeting with Elder Holland?" Stirling wrote in the Sept 8 e-mail to Dew, formerly one of the top female officials in the church. "If you don't, I would like to at least be able to reference that we have been also exploring ways that Deseret Book might be able to help (database/events/ )."

In the Sept. 17 e-mail to Dew, Stirling wrote, "Boston remains thrilled and excited that you are on the team."

If Stirling hadn't raised the possibility of getting access to Deseret Book's database, I'd say he was merely reaching out to a powerful executive. But getting access to the mailing lists of Deseret Book, a for-profit subsidiary of the Deseret Management Company — which invests the church's money in business ventures — is a brilliant political move. The database would include a huge percentage of religiously-engaged Mormons because Deseret Book is the largest LDS publisher and LDS book retailer. As a for-profit corporation, however, it isn't bound by 501c3 restrictions. If Dew agreed, Romney would have something like a membership database of active Mormons without (technically) violating the church's political neutrality.

Of course, it also looks very much like church support for his campaign, and might anger church members and Deseret Book's customers, which poses a p.r. problem for the church.

("Consultants e-mails show Mormon plan for Romney," Scott Helman and Michael Levenson, Boston Globe 10.22.06, reg req'd)


October 23, 2006 12:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Salt Lake Tribune today challenges key elements of the Globe's Sunday story. The Tribune interviews the Utah businessman, Kem Gardner, who set up the meetings with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, the LDS Church apostle:

Gardner said he never conveyed that Holland had been appointed by the church to the Romney effort.

"This is so far beyond what actually happened that Elder Holland didn't know what hit him. I'm terribly embarrassed by it," he said.

Church spokesman Dale Bills on Sunday said the church stood by its comments and "we can state unequivocally that Elder Holland has never discussed with the First Presidency the matters asserted in the Don Stirling e-mail."

In addition, the Tribune also reports on Deseret Book's reaction to the invitation from Romney's political consultant to make its database available to the campaign:

Dew, in a one-line statement distributed by the church, said, "Deseret Book has done nothing to support this effort, and will do nothing to support it."

("Romney pal takes blame for dust-up: LDS Church denies claim it backs Mitt," Thomas Burr, Joe Baird, and Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune 10.23.06)


October 24, 2006 07:34 AM | Permalink for this comment

Today's Globe offers a front-page followup largely to report on the Tribune's story about Romney supporter Kem Gardner's mea culpa. See "Romney backer says he's at fault for uproar: Calls Mormon effort overstated" (Scott Helman, Boston Globe 10.24.06, reg req'd)

Seth R.:

October 24, 2006 02:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

There's a Mormon blog post blasting the Globe's coverage of this story with a bit of discussion, if you're interested, here:

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