Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Judicial Candidate and the Book of Mormon - Case Study in How to Not Raise Campaign Funds

This lesson in political fund-raising is about what NOT to do when trying to raise funds is not about the Mormons. It's not about this conservative and godly judicial candidate who's not a Mormon.  Instead, this lesson's about what can happen when you accidentally - or, worse, intentionally - mix religion and politics. It's also at least tangentially what else can happen when you're too proud to admit a mistake and dig yourself out of a hole.

This lesson is about the disaster that can occur when you mix piety and precincts, faith and fund-raising.  Even more important, this lesson is about how IMAGE trumps REALITY ... every time.

In fact, if there's one lesson every political candidate should have tattooed onto the inside of his eyelids (so he can't help but see it), it's this: in politics, perception IS reality. If voters believe that something is the case, the "truth" is no defense.

It never has been, and it never will be.

And this political fact-of-life goes all the way back.  When Pontius Pilate decided to execute Jesus, he saw standing before him a man with no fault within him. That was a fact, and Pilate even commented on it.   But he also saw the Jerusalem mob, and the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin.  He could see the impact a riot would have on his governorship and his career - maybe even his life.  He could also see the impact of even a complaint from "peaceful" religious leaders - if that complaint claimed that Pilate supported a heretic and a traitor.  Pilate saw the perception official Rome would have - in the face of that perception, the truth about Jesus was irrelevant.  Jesus the innocent man was also irrelevant, when pitted against the likely perception of the Emperor and his Empire.

Though Pilate knew him to be innocent, Jesus never stood a chance.  Perception became reality.

Of course, I just mixed religion and politics - which I'm warning against in this blog - but then again, I'm not running for anything.  This is an object lesson, not a fund-raising campaign. Considering the subject matter, I could think of no better example to make my point about perception and reality.

Here's the reality.  Note that no names are mentioned here, because this isn't about names, or people, but instead it's about bad choices made with good intentions, then clung to in the face of Cassandra-like warnings from experts - and not just me.

A conservative candidate for Judge in Clark County Nevada – a good man (and not a Mormon) has made a potentially election-killing decision.  He’s tied a major campaign fund-raiser to the Book of Mormon, widely known as the premiere sacred text of the group known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

More on that in a minute.

But this isn't really about Mormons, members of that faith - and the perception about them - is indeed front-and-center in this issue.

There are more Mormons in Clark County Nevada (home to Las Vegas) than you can shake a stick at.  For a century and more, local casino owners have been glad to hire Mormons and Jack Mormons as dealers – they’re honest with their employers, and (the word is) they have no compunction about cheating the heathens.  That may be apocryphal or real - but it's the perception that matters.  The perception is that casinos are Mormon-friendly employers.

However, even without casinos, Clark County would be Mormon Central. Located just down I-15 from Utah, Clark County was first settled (other than by the native Paiutes) by Mormon settlers who built the Old Mormon Fort.  It still stands today, not a half-mile from what is now Las Vegas’s Fremont Street Experience.

However, for every Mormon in Clark County, you’ll find at least one non-Mormon who’s all but fed up with some aspect of that faith.  Some resent their door-to-door evangelism – not to mention the arrogance of mere children who actually seem to believe that they can teach their elders something about life - a life they have not yet begun to live. 

Some honestly live in fear of Mormon bosses – one of my closest friends has a Mormon boss, and he lives in fear of - he's the only executive in his department who isn’t at least nominally a Mormon.  Harassment isn’t too strong a word, and while I doubt if this is “official” LDS policy, it happens.

Some have experienced - as I have done - “shunning.” This is what can happen to non-Mormons  in heavily-Mormon communities.  As I said, that I can speak to from personal experience, from my time living in Southern Utah.

But that’s not really the point.  In fact, the Mormon faith isn’t even the point.

The point is that politics and religion don’t mix – they never have. 

This unhappy mixture only gets worse when the religion is controversial.

Any religious faith, if pushed hard in a political campaign, can become polarizing.  Even a fairly neutral belief -  such as conservative or reformed Judaism, or mainstream protestant Christianity - can become polarizing in a political campaign.  Add in a controversial faith – be it the late Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” or pretty much anything having to do with Islam, the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses (to name a few), and you’re going to seriously polarize at least one segment of the political electorate.

Polarizing the political electorate means driving potential voters away – and driving them away for reasons having nothing to do with the qualification of the candidate.   

  • Jack Kennedy lost votes because he was a public and believing Catholic. 
  • Mitt Romney lost votes because he was so closely identified with his Mormon faith.   
  • Joe Lieberman, a great and good man (for a liberal), lost votes because he was well-known to be a faithful Orthodox Jew.  In an election that close, his faith might have been the difference between President Bush and President Gore.

Is any of that right?  Of course not.  Even, “Hell, no!” 

But it is very much an aspect of human nature, which is why every savvy politician who wants to win tries to avoid “taking sides” in a religious debate. They recognize that any such debate will only hurt them, at least with some voters. 

Of course, if it’s the candidate’s own faith, most candidates actually do better by embracing their faith than to being seen running from it.  Integrity does matter, at least some of the time.

But when a candidate makes religion an issue – and especially when the faith at issue isn’t his own – that’s just a bad political choice.

Now, let's consider what's going on, right now, right here in Clark County Nevada.

And for this morality tale, enter a strong conservative candidate for judge, a good man who’s not even a Mormon.

Today (April 30, 2014) he posted on a Clark County politics Facebook discussion group the following fund-raising promotion.  It reads:

“Donate to ____ 4 Judge between now and May 15, 2014, and WIN 2 BOX SEAT TICKETS FOR THE PRIMARY ELECTION NIGHT SHOWING OF THE BOOK OF MORMON.  Support ____4Judge and win a chance to see the most popular show of the year with him on Primary Election night.”

Ignoring the poor grammar and punctuation - then also ignore the implied promise that every donor wins - and here’s the kicker.  Apparently, THE BOOK OF MORMON this candidate is referring to is not a religious tract. No, it's a Broadway stage show, and a touring company of the play will be in Las Vegas on primary election night.   

Not being a fan of Broadway shows, this was all news to me, and I never even considered it when I saw the fund-raising pitch on the Facebook group's page.  But if I’d known that it was a play and not a religious tract, that mere fact wouldn’t change my negative reaction to this.  My perception had already been formed, and truth wasn't about to change it.

Not just me, but everybody who saw or sees this promotion is likely to come away with a perception at odds with this judicial candidate's hope.  Some will see it as I did, and turn away in disgust or frustration or just disbelief. 

Others, Mormons for instance, who then gave to this candidate thinking they're supporting a fellow Mormon - they will be outraged to find that, instead of a religious book, they'd be getting seats to a play that apparently mocks their faith.  With the play being written by the creators of South Park, could it be anything else?  Were I a Mormon who won these seats and attended the play, not knowing what was coming, I'd be furious.

Then there are those who believe that The Book of Mormon is a play written by liberals to make it harder for Mitt Romney to win in 2012.  A conservative candidate for office here in Nevada saw the same Facebook group link I did, and immediately (and publicly) drew that conclusion.

The only people who might be happy to win are unlikely to give, because they're not conservatives. Liberals - who don't routinely donate to conservative candidates - would love to attend a play that mocks both religion and the Republican's Presidential candidate.

However, when I first saw this, all I knew was when I saw the promotion on the website. There, I saw title: THE BOOK OF MORMON along with a photo of one of the Mormon teen-boy missionaries. You could tell what he was - he had the nametag, the short-sleeved white shirt, white socks and black tie – book in hand. All that was missing was the bicycle and the other Mormon teen-aged boy.  They always come in pairs.  

That was what I saw. That was the perception that became my reality.  Of course, not caring about getting a copy of The Book of Mormon for my very own, I didn’t read the fine print about it actually being a Broadway show, not a book.

When I saw this message, my reaction was immediate and visceral. Seeing the promotion but not really reading it (yet), the “incentive” offered nothing to me - but it did turn me off as being bone-deep stupid.

 I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what a non-Mormon and otherwise reasonable and conservative candidate for judge was doing pushing a minority and clearly controversial faith – let alone doing so in the midst of a purely secular election.

So I asked him.  Very civilly, he explained that THIS Book of Mormon was a popular Broadway show, and - in his mind - a good fund-raising incentive.   

But this good and decent man is a political novice, and frankly, I wasn’t buying his explanation or justification.

Then, as noted above, another conservative climbed into the conversation, noting that (quote) “this big hit Broadway play was prepared by liberal play producers in anticipation of Mitt Romney’s presidential run in 2012 – I’m surprised that you are not sensitive to the derogatory impact …” 

I know know that the creators of South Park came up with this play - but as for their real reason don’t know if that’s true.  But the perception of a liberal elite media mogul creating a put-down of Mormons as a take-down for Romney is at least plausible. 

Imagine – liberals wanting to mock a Republican presidential candidate – hard to believe, isn’t it? 

However, whatever the play is supposed to do or say or be, I do know this.  If two conservatives – well-known local activists who both were prepared to support this candidate’s run for judge reacted this badly, and for completely different reasons – then this has to be a bad idea.

But for you, who may have never been to Las Vegas nor heard of the play The Book of Mormon, there is still a lesson to be learned.  Some controversy is good.  For instance, taking on John Kerry for calling Israel an apartheid state is "good controversy," even if it drags religions (two of them) into a political debate.

But dragging Mormons into a campaign because of the name of a play - or for any non-political reason - that's just a bad idea.

If you're running for office, planning on running for office, or helping someone who's running for office, beware.