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Quietly excited about Romney

Times Staff Writer

There’s not much chitchat about the presidential campaign inside the Mormon church in Aliso Viejo, even though fellow Mormon Mitt Romney is in the hunt for the Republican nomination.

At church functions, even a hint of political favoritism is strictly forbidden. At neighborhood potlucks, soccer games and business lunches, however, it’s a different story.

“His membership in the church is what gets a lot of Mormons interested,” said Don Sedgwick, a small-business owner and member of the south Orange County church. “And if they believe in him, they’re getting engaged in the campaign and telling their friends. . . . That includes a lot of people who weren’t very interested in politics before.”

Earlier this year, Sedgwick hosted an impromptu Romney fundraiser at his house, whipping together a short video presentation from clips he’d pulled off the Internet. Naturally, many of those who attended were close friends from church. The event raised more than $40,000.

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Tapping into the intricate network of friends, neighbors and business alliances joined by their common faith, California’s tight-knit Mormon community is quietly raising money and rallying support for the Romney campaign.

It’s been a delicate marriage. The former Massachusetts governor needs to take advantage of the Mormon connections in California, a critical primary state where he lacks a natural political base, without being marginalized as a “Mormon candidate.” Church members covet the acceptance that would come with a Mormon’s winning the presidential nomination but fear the attacks on their faith that could accompany it.

“We realize that we’re under scrutiny and that Mitt Romney is really being measured by our activity in the community,” said Sonja Eddings Brown, a media consultant from Northridge and a vice chairwoman of Women for Mitt.

“The majority welcomed the interest in the church. But there are some that have been nervous about it, as any person would feel about their faith . . . in a situation like this. They don’t appreciate seeing it torn apart in 1 1/2 minutes on the TV news.”

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Though hard to boil down into campaign dollars or potential votes, the effect of the Mormon support for Romney is significant. California is home to more Mormons than any state other than Utah -- more than 750,000 -- and the Golden State has been Romney’s richest source of campaign contributions -- more than $6.5 million.

Romney currently is running second in California with 15% support among likely GOP primary voters, trailing front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani’s 24%, according to last week’s poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The Romney campaign says he intends to succeed in California with a broad appeal to all voters and has not made any effort to target Mormons in California or elsewhere.

Most of the biggest players in Romney’s California campaign have no connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman and Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso.

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But many prominent Mormons have played major roles, including a slew of financial executives and members of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, an organization of mostly Mormon attorneys.

Money also has streamed in from Mormons such as Naomi Gillam of Tehachapi, who has six children and a full-time teaching job. Gillam doesn’t have a lot of spare change to hand over to politicians or the time to hobnob at catered fundraisers, but she was so impressed by Romney that she sent him $500 earlier this year.

Gillam said she admires not only his abilities as a leader but the family values born from his faith and his devotion to the church.

“That’s what got my attention,” said Gillam, who teaches first grade. “You don’t become a Mormon because you want to be popular. You do it because you believe it.”

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Gillam and other church members are careful to say that they don’t support Romney just because of his religion. That may have caught their eye at first, they say, but ultimately they were won over by his accomplishments as governor of Massachusetts and as a business leader, and by his role in rescuing the bribery-tainted 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

“I’m not voting for him because he is Mormon. I think he’s the best-qualified person for the job,” said Jack Wheatley, a former Palo Alto mayor and longtime Republican donor who is Mormon. “Our country needs a turnaround. With Massachusetts, he did a good job there. With the Olympics, he did a good job there. With his business, helping improve companies, he did a great job. Who else has come close to that?”

Federal law prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from endorsing candidates or using church resources to promote candidates.

The Utah leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has reinforced the ban, extending it to alumni chapters of church-run Brigham Young University.

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“Every election, at least since I’ve been kind of aware, there’s a letter that comes out from the first president of the church that emphasizes political neutrality,” said Northern California venture capitalist Kendall Cooper, a lay church leader in Pleasanton. “They are pretty emphatic.”

Cooper avoids talking politics with his Mormon friends because he doesn’t want them to be swayed by his position in the church.

But he has donated to Romney’s campaign.

The Mormon church has previously thrust itself into bruising political fights, most notably California’s anti-gay marriage initiative that voters approved in 2000.

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Churches are permitted to participate in ballot measures, and Mormon leaders sent letters to 740,000 members encouraging them to support the measure, Proposition 22.

Proponents used the church’s meticulously organized membership records to promote Proposition 22, which also was backed by the Roman Catholic Church and the California Southern Baptist Convention.

“The [Mormon] church is known for its family values and has the firm belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman,” said Joseph Bentley, a retired Newport Beach attorney who has been actively involved in church affairs throughout Southern California. Political involvement by the church is rare, he said, and Mormon leaders from Salt Lake City on down have been careful to avoid any connection to the 2008 presidential race.

At the same time, church members must now deal with the glaring spotlight on Mormonism since Romney’s religious beliefs became grist for the GOP campaign. The latest example came last week when GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, wondered aloud if “Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers.” (Mormons say that is a gross misinterpretation of their beliefs.)

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Huckabee later apologized for the remark, which he made during an interview with New York Times Magazine. But the incident kept alive the interest generated the week before by Romney’s “Faith in America” speech, in which he tried to dispel concerns about his religion, especially among Christian conservatives.

“He was carrying 13 million Mormons on his shoulders when he gave that address. That was the first time anyone stood up in that way,” said Brown, from Women for Mitt.

U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) said he’s confident that Romney will win over doubters concerned about his faith, just as McKeon did when his Mormon beliefs were attacked during his first run for Congress in 1992.

“I don’t think people go for that,” said McKeon, who has endorsed Romney. “People want someone who has values, and someone who has strong Christian values. They look at him and see that he fits that mold.”

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McKeon and other prominent church members said that although many Mormons are conservative, it would be a mistake to view them as a monolithic bloc of Republicans or Romney supporters.

“It’s nothing like that,” said Greg Robinson, an entrepreneur and film producer from Northern California. Robinson is Romney’s nephew and one of his key fundraisers in the state.

“My Mormon friends are looking at everybody . . . even Hillary Clinton,” Robinson said. “I have a lot of friends who say, ‘Hey, Greg, I’m a Democrat. Lots of luck.’ ”

The Romney clan, which is plentiful is California, is doing its best to win over those doubters, he said.

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One of Romney’s sons, a sister and his brother-in-law’s family all live in California. And the former Massachusetts governor has close to a dozen nephews and nieces scattered throughout the state.

“We’re all on board,” Robinson said.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

California Mormons

As of the end of 2006, there were:

More than 750,000 members in the state

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7 temples

1,206 congregations (called wards), each headed by a bishop

176 branches (smaller congregations)

161 stakes (a group of wards, like a diocese), each headed by a president

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Source: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


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