Draw a line from South Mountain in Draper north on 1300 East to a point between the Sandy Library and Alta View Hospital, then east to the Wasatch Mountains. That line approximately encloses Legislative District 48, which has turned out to be key battleground not only between the Democrat incumbent and Republicans who want to unseat her, but also between Republican challengers and some ultraconservatives who think some of those candidates aren’t quite Republican enough.
The winner of the Republican nomination for the District 48 House of Representatives seat did it with the help of a bigoted anonymous letter sent to delegates just before the Salt Lake County Republican convention. But LaVar Christensen, who got the nomination, wasted no time denouncing the letter and trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and some of his supporters, who apparently play by their own set of rules.
Trisha Beck has represented District 48 in the Utah Legislature since 1997, when she was appointed to fill the term of Democrat Kurt Oscarson, who died in office. Before then, she wasn’t even sure she was a Democrat. She’d been a community activist and a PTA mom, working on issues of family violence and healthcare as well as a broader agenda that she thought was family-centered. Trisha has six children, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome. During her last pregnancy in 1991, when she was faced with the choice of abortion or possibly leaving her other five children motherless, she chose to have the baby, consistent with her Latter-day Saint upbringing and beliefs.
That didn’t stop her political opponents from attacking her with anonymous letters years later as she campaigned for election to the seat she’d been appointed to fill. Assuming that she supported abortion because she was a Democrat, the letter went on to say she was not a member of the LDS church and suggested she was having an extramarital love affair. In this case, the tactic failed. Beck was elected in 1998 and again in 2000. Last fall, she gave Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan a tough campaign in his race for re-election.
It was Tip O’Neill who said, “All politics are local.” It’s as true in Sandy as in Boston. The biggest sore spot for Republicans in a city that’s normally solidly in their camp is a stubborn little knot of independent voters centered around the White City Water Company. Back when Sandy included only a few blocks around 9000 South, the White City Water Company was formed to serve the neighborhoods along Sego Lily Drive at about 10000 South. The residents of White City have refused to be annexed into Sandy, and they remain in an unincorporated area of Salt Lake County, an island in the middle of Sandy City, that now stretches from about 7300 South to 11700 South. White City’s abundant water comes from deep wells and is coveted by Sandy as well as the Salt Lake Metropolitan Water District. The residents of White City have voted twice to keep things just the way they are. That issue has also kept them voting for Democrats like Kurt Oscarson and Trisha Beck, who’ve supported their independence.
But you don’t have to be a Democrat to back an independent White City water system. Art Haddow is the one Republican who shared that view with Beck, in part because he lives in a neighborhood served by White City water. But Haddow had a broader agenda. He’s a conservative guy who thinks state government ought to be very careful in the way it spends its money; that government needs to remember that the people are sovereign and can’t be told what to do with their guns. Don’t try to argue with him. He was a star of the debate team at BYU, and if you give him the slightest premise, he’ll nail you right into the corner with it.
After living in Utah and participating in Republican politics for 20 years, Haddow wanted to run for public office. He ran for the Utah Legislature in District 31 in Holladay in 1992, then again unsuccessfully against Sen. Steve Poulton in 1994. In 1998, he moved to Sandy, in part because he wanted to make things a little more convenient for a daughter who kept her horse in Draper.
The view on the White City water issue may be the only position he shares with Beck. He’s also not a Mormon; never has been and never claimed to be. For several years he belonged to the Sandy Republican Club, the conservative power center that has launched a number of careers in public office. In that group, he didn’t think his religion mattered much. Haddow ran for the Legislature again in 2000, losing the Republican nomination in what he calls a “gentlemanly” race to Dan Simon. He thought it was pretty clear to Republican leaders in Sandy that he was planning to run again.
Republicans looked at the southeastern corner of the Salt Lake Valley as they were drawing new lines for legislative districts and saw an opportunity to scratch one Democrat off the list. Instead of making White City the center of District 48, they combined it with what had been the eastern half of John Swallow’s District 51 and pushed it south into Draper. Swallow says he didn’t influence that decision, although it’s now a moot point for him because he’s running for Congress. Once the lines were drawn, he encouraged LaVar Christensen, a real estate developer and lawyer from Draper, to run for the seat. Christensen is a community pillar in Draper who’d been part of an LDS stake presidency and who, importantly, was separated by a considerable distance from the White City water issue.
Undaunted, Haddow went to work on his own campaign. He knew the neighborhood, knew many of the delegates, and by the time the convention approached, he thought he had 22 of the 60 delegates in District 48 lined up behind him—enough to force Christensen into a primary election. Then, the Monday before the convention, each of the delegates received this anonymous letter:
To All Sandy Delegates,
We in the new House District 48 want you to know that there is an evil person running to represent you at the State Legislature. His name is Art Haddow.
• He is slamming his opponents every day in his discussions with delegates. He is a lying deceitful person and should not be elected to the House of Representatives.
• Mr. and Mrs. Haddow need to be shown that their kind are not welcome in our neighborhood. They do not share our beliefs in any way. He is not a member of the Church, which he has inferred to people he is by saying he attended BYU. We know that his wife was a Democrat and an abortionist by supporting that platform. She may have even had an abortion herself. They have no respect for human life.
• The person that should represent us must be a holder of the Priesthood, which Mr. Haddow isn’t. He is a non-believer that does not belong to the Church. We need a person that holds the Melchizedek Priesthood so that he will have the influence of our Heavenly Father when making decisions on our behalf.
• Tell Mr. Haddow and his family that it is time to pack up and move back to Holladay. We know that our candidate will win this race against Trisha Beck because our district is now a Republican district. No matter what Mr. Haddow says about the White City people, they will not control this district any more. This district is now controlled by our people and not White City.
• Mr. Haddow cannot and does not understand the values of the people of our district. Vote no on Art Haddow.—Concerned Citizens of “Sandy’s” House District 48
The letter left most of its recipients standing with their mouths open, aghast at its audacity. At least that’s what they say publicly. If anyone knows who wrote the letter, they’re not saying. Some Republicans suggest Trisha Beck may have written it to take advantage of a backlash. Beck says she was as appalled as everyone else and had nothing to do with it. Others say it’s simply a freelance effort from someone who doesn’t think the candidate he or she supports is handling his own campaign well enough to do it without help. What seems clear from the context is that the person who wrote it was motivated as much by the White City water issue as by any religious concerns.
Republican leaders couldn’t run away from the searing letter fast enough. Former Utah House Speaker Craig Moody said, “It’s unbelievable. It sickens me.” John Swallow said he’d offer a reward to find out who did it, just as he offered a reward to find out who vandalized his opponents’ campaign signs in the 1998 legislative race. Embarrassingly, he says he really was only cleaning one of his opponent’s signs when a reporter and cameraman from KUTV 2 showed up, catching him in an unflattering posture.
Christensen responded immediately with a letter to Haddow that also was delivered to delegates’ mailboxes the very next day:
. . . I was shocked to learn today that someone mailed an anonymous letter to delegates that slanders you and your family. No one should have to experience that type of character assassination. I have met almost all of the delegates and I don’t know anyone who would do such a thing or feel such animosity towards you. I have been subjected to personal attacks in this campaign and they are hurtful to our families. Sadly, this type of attack is what keeps many good people from running for office.
Christensen is apparently concerned that somehow he might be linked to the attack on Haddow, although none of his opponents or supporters who spoke on the record believe he had anything to do with it. Christensen was particularly reluctant to be interviewed for this article. As he attacked the credibility of Salt Lake City Weekly in a brief telephone conversation, he said this would be “an unnecessary article,” just as the attack on Haddow was “completely uncalled for.” He promised that, “No personal attack in this campaign is going to come from LaVar Christensen.” He also promised to call back to discuss the District 48 race in depth. Christensen later refused to be interviewed further, criticizing City Weekly’s coverage of politics. But he did send this statement to City Weekly: “I talked to nearly all of the delegates and I am confident that the letter had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the convention.”
In spite of the denials and the protests and all the angry harrumphing though, this time the tactic apparently worked. At the Republican County Convention, Art Haddow’s share of the delegates dropped to only eight. A third Republican candidate, Lincoln Fillmore, got 10 votes. Christensen easily won the nomination.
Although the hateful unsigned letter was universally condemned, Art Haddow believes the strategy was effective. “Even though people are appalled by it—by the viciousness of the attack—I think deep down, it has a subtle feeling [in] their minds. They don’t think it does, but really, the connection is there because they feel that really, guidance does come from the Lord. Whether it’s a qualification or not is irrelevant; it’s just a subtle difference. They feel it’s the best thing to do.”
Haddow saves his venom for an issue he feels is much more important, saying nobody should spend $8,000 to win a convention race and then claim to be a conservative. Campaign finance disclosures show Christensen spent about $8,300.
The cultural bias toward deference to church leadership runs deep, says Beck, and may be part of the reason the letter worked. She cited the example of a local water board that included an LDS stake president, two past LDS bishops and two LDS stake patriarchs.
Speaking of her political opponents, she says, “We have a small fraction of people who have used that mindset to influence the voters. That’s because they understand how these people think, and how they’ll be receptive, especially if they use somebody who’s in an ecclesiastical position.”
She’s also quick to remind people that she’s an active Mormon herself and doesn’t mind a little kidding from the pulpit about being the only Democrat in her ward.
One thing local Mormon leaders do agree on is that it makes the church look bad and makes it much more difficult to reach out to non-Mormon neighbors. But what are they prepared to do about it? One bishop says if he knew who was responsible, he might call them in and ask them to stop. As far as church discipline, he says it’s not the kind of thing that would get someone excommunicated or “disfellowshipped,” even though this kind of political tactic is directly contrary to church teaching.
The LDS church Public Communications Department provided this statement: “We can’t comment on a letter that is unsigned or guess at the motives of whoever wrote it. But we can reiterate the fact that the First Presidency has stated time and time again that the church is politically neutral. President Hinckley for many years has also preached tolerance and goodwill in our neighborhoods and communities. Attempts to disparage others, from whatever place on the political spectrum, fly in the face of the letter and spirit of that counsel.”
So the stage is set now for a showdown in District 48 between Trisha Beck, an incumbent Democrat beloved by many of her constituents for backing their independent water company, and a developer with impeccable church credentials who also has the backing of the Republican establishment. Welcome or not, LaVar Christensen also has the support of at least one constituent who sees nothing wrong in a nasty, anonymous personal attack and an appeal to irrelevant criteria to flavor what might otherwise be a dull discussion of real issues. What’s worse, it appears that some of the Republican Party faithful in that district are ready to buy it.