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The Conservative Agenda

God-fearing, tech-savvy Republicans shake up the old guard and energize the base.




Like so many people now, Paul Mero is trying to figure out just what all this social networking means. You know, what it means personally, politically and, most importantly, culturally.

After all, if you’re about changing the culture of Utah, you’ll want to have all the tools it takes. And the Sutherland Institute, the iconic conservative think tank that Mero directs, does indeed want to change the culture. “Culture drives the law,” says Mero. So, if you want the laws to reflect conservative values, you have to make sure those values are embedded in the culture.

Utah’s far right hopes a new self-avowed conservative governor—Gary Herbert—will bring them back to basic values—the fundamentals of God, country and a fundamentalist morality.

But what the conservative agenda is and who gets to claim it is one of the big questions facing Utahns now. And even more important to conservatives—a brewing amalgam of factions, each hoping to bubble to the top—is whether the traditional Utah Republican agenda really reflects their values.

As if Utah Republicans need to worry. A Gallup Poll survey from 2008, released in January this year, ranked Utah as the most Republican state in the nation, with Democrats having a negative 23 point-advantage. Negative. No surprises here. Even in the year of Barack Obama.

“That means Democrats are in the hole from the getgo,” says Pat Jones, of public-opinion firm Dan Jones & Associates and Democratic state Senate Minority Leader.

“You have to get Republican votes to win.”

But even in the negative, Democrats and liberals have made some small strides in the cultural arena—specifically in urban areas. To an ideological conservative, those changes are a bit like a virus waiting to become a pandemic.

So, it’s no wonder that earlier this year, Mero took delight in turning the tables on a little group called Utahns for Marriage Equality, which tried to stifle a Sutherland effort to muddy the message from gay-rights group Equality Utah. If it sounds like a double-negative movement, it was indeed a movement against a movement against an initiative.

Equality Utah had launched what it called the Common Ground Initiative to address issues brought up by the LDS Church last year in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8. When some church leaders proclaimed they weren’t anti-gay and did not oppose civil unions, Common Ground emerged to talk about health care, fair housing and other legal hurdles for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community.

Sutherland Institute and the Eagle Forum decided to sponsor a counter-initiative called “Sacred Ground,” to kick off at Thanksgiving Point, in defense of what they believe is traditional marriage.

“Utahns for Marriage Equality wanted to step up to plate and make a response,” says Equality board member Michael Mueller. “We organized a group of people down there at the entrance, with signs and banners and had a rally protesting that event.”

Mueller created a Facebook group called “Protest and Infiltration of Sacred Ground Initiative Launch,” thinking he could stack the deck. “We were trying to take back the news coverage of our event,” Mueller says.

But Sutherland was a step ahead of them. The term “infiltrate” on Facebook got their attention. “Facebook helped us in dealing with the protesters,” says Mero. “All we did was sign up; we got all their names, and then turned them away at the door.

That was kind of an aha! moment for the Facebook crowd, but probably doesn’t signify too much for conservatives. They’ve long been exploring cyberspace, although Mero says they’re still not sure what it all means. The LDS Church, for example, lists 44 social networking sites on its Website, but few would say that the church’s clout rests in its virtual evangelism. REAL PEOPLE, REAL FAMILIES
Politicians, who normally spend huge amounts on advertising, are hoping that social networking means something big, mainly because it’s free. In a study of opposite effects, both Democratic President Barack Obama and Utah’s 3rd District Republican, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, used and benefited from social networking.

“We won because we had the right message and did a better job of communicating it,” says Chaffetz, a freshman congressman who manages to make headlines with his outsider style. Chaffetz says his success comes from standing up for principles and communicating them.

“Should Republicans be Democrat-light or should they go to so-called right?” he asks. “I think I did a much better job of using the tools of communication and engaging masses of people. Traditionally, it was big name plus big dollars equals big victory. We changed that equation.”

Yes, he did, and by winning he also transformed the dialogue around the immigration issue in Utah. Ousting Rep. Chris Cannon, who had been in favor of a guest-worker program, Chaffetz made waves advocating holding camps for illegal immigrants.

But neither position represents real conservative values, insists Mero, who lives in the tension between conservative intellectualism and conservative politics. He has experienced tension firsthand after being called on the carpet by legislative leadership last year. “I was called to the Hill several times and chastised for our position,” he says.

That was after Sutherland issued a formal statement—something they don’t do very often—on illegal immigration, and it wasn’t exactly what the GOP was expecting. Not by a long shot.

“We draw a distinction between the illegalities surrounding the broad experience of well-meaning and otherwise lawabiding people who have violated federal immigration laws and malicious criminals intent on harming our citizens,” the statement reads. “Violation of these laws is a public transgression, not a moral sin.” The statement says Utahns “should welcome all people of good will to our state, that Utah officials “should not serve as proxy law enforcement officials for the federal government,” and even that “we should encourage our neighbors in violation of federal immigration laws to become thoroughly assimilated, literate and productive members of our community.”

In other words, Sutherland emphasized the “real people, real families” side of the issue, calling for compassion and understanding. The institute also offered up a study in which they showed side-by-side how “non-citizen Hispanics” compared to “adult citizens.” Hispanics worked more hours for less money and more often in the construction industry than did “citizens.”

“Our legislators fell into the what-don’tyou-understand-about-the-word-illegal argument … and we tried to help them understand all the layers,” Mero says.

The traditional far right in Utah didn’t buy it. “Americans are losing their jobs, the economy is weak; why are we going out of our way to make jobs for people who aren’t citizens of the United States?” asks Don Guymon of Utah Grassroots. Grassroots, a kind of back-to-basics Republican watchdog group based in Bountiful, has been putting out a legislative report card since 1992, although its influence has been spotty.

Mero’s immigration report ran against the political tide and was not an easy sell, even to the members of Sutherland’s board. Mero spent months educating the board about the “correct” understanding of human nature and the “correct” view of human experience. “In politics, it starts to be a relative thing; not in philosophy,” he says.

For sure, Mero is not a gray-area kind of guy. While he’s a graduate of Brigham Young University, Mero wasn’t sure he wanted to actually live in Utah. It was that cultural relativism thing, apparently. The father of six children, he and his wife have home-schooled each one, not even allowing them to participate in church schooling. He gave in to let his boys play basketball at a local school, but he wasn’t particularly happy about that, either.

From 1987 to 1997, he worked for Congress serving, of course, conservative representatives. He co-authored The Natural Family: A Manifesto, a book that set him up as a key adversary to the gay marriage movement.