Though Jerry Lewis was cautious about saying exactly how important the Mormon church was to his campaign, the political newcomer’s upset win over Senate President Russell Pearce largely relied on a quiet, grassroots effort among Mesa’s faithful.
As the final results of the Nov. 8 recall election became clear, Tyler Montague, an integral campaign insider for Lewis, revealed how vital early support was among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Yes. I can finally say it. From the beginning, we went to stake presidents and bishops to get their support,” Montague said of high-ranking Mormon members.
“I heard someone call it the ‘Mormon Fall,’ and I think that totally fits,” he said, comparing the recall election to the mass protests in North Africa and the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring.”
Their approach: Offer a simple choice to the most influential Mormons in Mesa.
“We said, ‘Here’s what the Mormon Church says about immigration, and here’s what Russell Pearce says about it. Where do you come down?’” Montague said.
That stance on illegal immigration, which was at the center of their effort to persuade Mormons to support Lewis, was most strongly underscored in a June statement from the highest levels of the Mormon church.
The official church position calls for a more humane solution in dealing with illegal immigration and discourages enforcement-only measures by states.
That contrasts with Pearce’s approach to the issue. An LDS member himself, Pearce is the architect of some of the most stringent state-level immigration laws in the country, including SB1070, known for sparking a wave of enforcement measures across the country.
The church further rejected the idea that the recent policy statement only applies to Utah or that it was only a public affairs thrust, despite Pearce’s arguments to that effect.
Daryl M. Williams, a member of the Paradise Valley Stake High Council and a trial attorney, said he could see the way the Mormon community responded to the church’s stance, and that he believes it played heavily in Lewis’ success.
“It was more than just a useful tool. It was a critical turning point in Mr. Lewis’ campaign,” Williams said.
Although Williams wasn’t officially part of the Lewis campaign, he said he developed the view that Pearce was damaging for the church and that he couldn’t back away from getting involved himself.
So Williams organized meetings where he tried to explain to everyday Mormon voters what the church’s stance meant.
“I held what’s called in the Mormon world a ‘fireside’ in Russell Pearce’s district. There were a lot of Mormons there,” Williams said. “I was not campaigning for Lewis, as much as I was campaigning for what is right and moral.”
Williams said Lewis attended one of the meetings where Williams spoke, and that Lewis took him aside afterward to express his agreement and encourage Williams’ message.
Springing from those initial conversations, the Lewis campaign felt it could build an alliance with the influential members in Mesa’s Mormon community.
“It’s a small community and we knew we needed to target opinion-makers at a neighborhood level,” Montague said.
Lewis said he knew early on that getting the support from leaders in the church and in the community more broadly would be a key to his success. That would happen, Lewis said, by approaching those leaders early in the campaign and on an individual basis.
For Mormons who take their cues from the church leadership, just getting Lewis campaign signs posted on the lawns of those leaders had a significant impact on the race, Montague explained.
As the campaign wore on, Lewis said that same one-on-one approach was deployed more broadly. In the final days before the recall election, Lewis said he put in several hours each day talking with Mesans.
“I knew this would be a campaign we would win with 10,000 individual conversations. I don’t know if we hit that number, but it was a lot,” Lewis said.