In a perfect world, Paul Mero muses, the Utah Legislature would do whatever the Sutherland Institute recommends. But even as this conservative think tank aspires to influence, Mero, as its president, knows that’s not going to happen.
Down the road, though, it’s a whole different picture. That’s because Sutherland takes the long view— educate and push the people from the bottom up until those in power see the light. “We believe in the power of culture,” Mero says.
Sutherland Institute has witnessed a few breakthroughs with its bottom-up strategy—one of them on the contentious immigration issue—but the institute turned away from another, almost certain, win this year after a stunning realization.
Sutherland Institute decided not to pursue its handcrafted legislation to scuttle Salt Lake City’s nondiscrimination ordinance. As the long view goes, Sutherland has an abiding interest in supporting so-called “traditional” families, and no, that doesn’t include gay, lesbian or transgender families.
But Sutherland isn’t interested in browbeating the LGBT community. “Conservatives think all we care about is homosexual rights, but a bigger threat to the family is no-fault divorce—not gay rights,” Mero says. That didn’t stop him from speechifying to a number of groups about “religious liberty” and how that might relate to, say, housing issues and those pesky nondiscrimination ordinances.
While Salt Lake City has already passed one, Park City and Salt Lake County are considering their own. “I used the Salt Lake City ordinances to talk about religious liberty,” Mero says. Since religious organizations are exempt from the effects of such an ordinance, he speculates, then shouldn’t a member of a religious organization be able to claim the same exemption?
“Our staff and scholars created a religious-liberty exemption for the state Legislature to adopt that would amend all of those ordinances,” he says. With nondiscrimination ordinances proliferating, Mero thinks the exemption would have passed unanimously. Hey, it’s an election year, too.
Then on Nov. 10, as the Salt Lake City Council was discussing the ordinance, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out in support. “You know, it surprised us,” says Mero.
But Sutherland had cause to think things over.
“Authentic conservatives aren’t anything if not prudent,” he says. It seemed prudent to back off when someone—Mero won’t say who—approached the institute, asking them not to push the bill. “It was a significant enough voice for us to listen,” he says.
The rationale was that the LDS Church wants to wait for the outcome of a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8. If Utah passed a law that would allow discrimination based on religion, it would validate the premise that Prop 8 was motivated by hate, not religious belief.
And besides, Mero says Sutherland doesn’t browbeat, remember? Sutherland’s civil rights war will be won from the ground up, he says.
Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, finds Mero’s logic ironic. “I don’t think there’s one religion that tells you it’s OK to discriminate,” she says.
Johnson and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, had forged an agreement calling for a moratorium on bills related to the LGBT community. “It sounds concocted and contrived by Paul Mero,” she says. Prop 8, she says, will rise or fall based on facts from the California effort, not the 2010 Legislature. And her moratorium agreement, ultimately with Senate President Michael Waddoups, may have been reason enough for Sutherland to give up this fight.
No matter what the truth, the Sutherland Institute did back off. While not exactly the proprietor of conservative thought in Utah, Mero does claim to be “authentic.” Conservatism is a distinct political philosophy that is sometimes at odds with those who claim its mantle, he says.
“Politics clouds conservatism,” Mero says. “The idea that if you’re a Republican, you’re a conservative— that’s just not true. Even conservative Republicans mess it up in the name of winning.”
Two years ago, Sutherland angered Republican legislators and other conservatives by telling them they messed up the immigration issue. Mero poked fun at the mantra, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” and called it something like superficial and inhumane.
Sutherland was unable to stop the now-infamous Senate Bill 81 in 2008, modeled after an Oklahoma bill to require verification of citizenship with employers and setting up enforcement parameters. But Sutherland has continued its “education” drive with papers and seminars, and now claims that the anti-immigration edges are fraying.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, sponsored a bill—House Bill 227—to require verification of legal status for all new business licenses, something Mero calls “rabidly anti-immigration.”
“This bill squeaks out of committee, comes to floor and gets killed,” Mero says. “It really kills undocumented immigrants who want to be productive, pay taxes … these guys only care about starving out undocumented immigrants.”
The bill, however, was reconsidered, failed again, was reconsidered again, and then barely passed a House vote before dying, finally, in the Senate. Mero considers that a victory for his long-term goals. Two years ago, SB81 sailed through the Legislature.
“You’d think there’d be a lot of political momentum, but here comes one of its spawn and it gets beat,” he says.
That’s about as close to a personal victory as Sutherland got this year. Its health-care initiative was almost invisible, ignored by a Legislature bent instead on wresting control of health care from the federal government.
Sutherland didn’t want control at all. It tried to get the Legislature to adopt “authentic charity care” as part of health policy—that means medical care at no cost, with no government reimbursements, provided totally by the private sector.
An example of such care would be the Shriners Hospital for Children.
“We are constantly concerned about the size and scope of government, and we also believe in political culture and the culture broadly, and so we focus on social issues,” he says.
Sutherland supported all the measures to get the federal government out of people’s lives, including the concurrent resolution on state sovereignty by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton that passed the Legislature. The iconic conservative institute also has long been in favor of private-school vouchers, although it disagreed with Parents for Choice in Education on its top-down strategy—and blames that strategy for losing the voucher fight in 2007.
Sutherland also opposed the tobacco tax this year, encouraging the Legislature to “cut, cut, cut” instead of raise taxes. The Legislature, however, eventually passed the $1 per pack tax increase.
Government plays a role in sustaining the prevailing culture, but Mero doesn’t think government should drive culture. He prefers the idea of “authentic” conservatives in the driver’s seat—just ambling along to the finish line. And that, of course, would be the Sutherland Institute.