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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended June 25, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 30Jun00

Summarized by Michael Nielsen

Influx of Mormons Hit Pocatello Democrats Hard
Boise ID Statesman 19Jun00 D4
By Gregory Hahn: The Idaho Statesman

POCATELLO, IDAHO -- Chronicling the rise of the republican party in Idaho, Idaho Statesman writer Gregory Hahn notes the significant impact that the LDS church has had in changing Pocatello from the last Democratic stronghold to a city where "It's OK to be Republican."

Pocatello, a long-time union town, is hosting the state Republican convention. Democrats have been a perennial force in this university town, with many even refusing to drink Idaho's Ste. Chappelle wine because of its past connection with a prominent and conservative Republican family. Nevertheless, the Republican Party convention is a visible reminder that the times have changed.

Three factors contributed to the Democrats' demise in Idaho: the decreased influence of unions, the strength of religious organizations, and a reinvigorated Republican organization. Pocatello has been one of the few Idaho cities to offer genuine two-party debates, but blue-collar defections, an influx of conservative Mormons, and enhanced Republican organizational and financial support have changed the balance of power in the city.

In the early days of Pocatello's history, stagecoach robberies, bars and brothels gave the town a rough reputation that contrasted sharply with the reputation of the Mormon communities elsewhere in Eastern Idaho. The result was a "Babylon in the middle of Mormon country", and many years passed before that image began to change. By about 1900, Pocatello residents had big dreams for the city, and sought to use natural resources, the railroad and other commercial strengths to create the most important city in the state.

In most of Idaho, as New Deal Democrats began to age the Democratic party lost strength. But in Pocatello, they retained their preeminence, with only one Republican winning a significant county office until the 1990s.

This began to change with the weakening of union power, and as the LDS Church gained influence. The passage of the 1985 Right to Work Act, combined with the fact that public works projects no longer must pay the prevailing wage, resulted in many union members leaving the state for higher wages, thus decreasing the influence of unions in local politics.

The impact of the LDS Church stems from the changed relationship of Ricks College and Idaho State University. For many years, Mormons viewed ISU as a place where their kids went to lose their religion. But efforts to change this reputation have been effective, and have been combined with simpler transfer procedures for students seeking to further their education beyond the associate's degree offered by Ricks. Now, more than 60% of ISU students are Mormon.

Many of the new students come from rural eastern Idaho, and bring with them their conservative politics. This has led one local politician, LDS Church member Evan Frasure, to spend more advertising dollars in the ISU student newspaper than in Pocatello's daily newspaper.

Demographic changes such as this have played a role in the changing political preferences, but there are deeper issues. In-fighting among Democrats combined with President Clinton's moral indiscretions and his pro-environment policies to leave many party members disaffected. They turned to the Republicans.

In addition, prominent Idaho Mormon Democrats found themselves with no constituency when running for statewide office. Although they could find support in the Pocatello area, they have struggled elsewhere. With their former leaders, such as Cecil Andrus and Frank Church, no longer active in the political scene, the Democrats found themselves out-recruited by the Republicans.

Frasure understands the frustration that the Democrats are feeling. For nearly 10 years, Frasure tried to be win election in Pocatello as a Republican. He campaigned tirelessly, eventually defeating Democrat Sen. Patricia McDermott. At about the same time, ISU LDS leader Ed Brown and attorney Randy Smith announced that they were Republican. "That was the break in the dam of the Democratic stronghold here," Frasure said. "Once you get an elected Republican, if you're credible, it attracts other credible people."

Although some Democrats remain hopeful that the party will make a comeback, many political observers expect the state to continue shifting toward the political right. The main obstacle appears to be differences in social agendas and religious beliefs among the Republican faithful. As the party gains strength, the moderate and conservative elements in the party will conflict periodically. New residents to the state, most of whom are conservative, are expected to help maintain the Republican momentum.


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