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The Harlem Mormon Voter

First in our series, “The Power of the Mormons in New York City”

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Harlem Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Malcolm X Boulevard & 128th Street. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions


GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney’s “47%” comments don’t sit well with some African American Mormons in Harlem. In fact the comments don’t reflect the candidate’s own practices as a Mormon leader.

On the third Sunday of August with nearly eleven weeks remaining until the presidential election, the women's group of Mormons (official name is The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints) in Harlem received a rare appearance during their meeting—a man. Not just any man, but Bishop Jay Salmon, their congregational leader.

Bishop Salmon, a tall and slender figure, didn't stay for the entire hour-long meeting. His presence lasted barely five minutes, but the topic of his message was noteworthy.

“Bishop came to speak to the sisters about the election,” said Polly Dickey, 68, a member who attended the meeting. “He said that members don't vote like they should, and he encourage us to go out and vote.”

Dickey, an African American Mormon residing in Harlem, reflects that it was the first time in her 23 years with the church that she has heard of any bishop reminding the congregation to vote. She noted that Bishop Salmon never suggested whom his congregation should vote for and suspected he encouraged the men's group as well.

Although the church maintains neutrality in all political races, the current match up in this year's presidential election is particularly exciting for Mormons. For the first time in American history, there is a chance that a Mormon will become the next President of the United States. Facing off against this possibility is the re-election of Barack Obama, the first African American president in American history.

Thus, the spotlight shines brightly on African American Mormons, who are forced to navigate between religious identity, race and political values.

2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Even in normal elections, Mormons are strongly Republican. In a political portrait of Mormons in the United States based on their 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 65% are Republican and 22% are Democrats. Mormons like the moral values and individual self-sufficiency that the Republicans emphasize.

The report acutely poised the African American Mormon dilemma: “Members of historically black churches are the only religious group in which there is more consensus in partisanship than Mormons, with 77% identifying as Democrats.”

The 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American President represented a momentous victory for African Americans. Exit polls showed that Obama received 95% of the African American vote in the 2008 election. Current polling figures indicate that African Americans will again give high support, 94%, in the 2012 election.

On most issues Mormons lean toward the Right. 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Elements of the Mormon faith and practice are congruent with Democratic policies. For example, the church takes a great deal of pride in maintaining storehouses of food and other supplies, even maintaining a farm for decades north of the city for this purpose, to provide for church members who are needy. The purpose is to help Mormons who have been thrown down by life to become self-sufficient again. Bishops, like Mitt Romney was in Massachusetts, are very active in making sure that help is available in a dignified way.

African Americans are a tiny fraction of America's six million Mormons. The LDS Church does not gather official statistics by race. However, according to data released in 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 3% of Mormons in the United States are African American. Across the country, there are thriving Mormon congregations in urban areas, including the Harlem church in New York City.

African Americans make up about 25% of the 300 Sunday morning attendance at Bishop Salmon's congregation. His congregation, called “Harlem First Ward” in Mormon parlance, is one of three congregations that meet in the church on 128th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. The other two congregations are a Spanish ward and a young adult and singles ward.


The a-political African American Mormons in Harlem

In Dickey's life, she voted for only two presidential candidates: Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford. Clinton, a Democrat, and Ford, a Republican, seem to have little in common. To this day, she's not exactly sure why she took the time to walk into the voting booth to mark her ballots for these men. She recalled that she thought Clinton would be a champion for youth, a group she feels tender towards as a mentor to young missionaries coming to New York City. As for Ford, Dickey is even more vague. “I heard that he can do this and can do that, I guess I went along with it,” she said.

The evening after Bishop Salmon's appearance in the women's meeting, Dickey discovered that Romney was a Mormon. “I was talking with the missionaries and found out that Mitt Romney was a member of the church. I didn't know that,” Dickey explained in a phone interview. “Now what do I do? Because I haven't heard too many good things about him.”

Dickey’s dilemma sums up the cross-cutting pressures that hit a voter when primal loyalties conflict. In the 2008 election most New York City African American leaders who had supported George W. Bush in 2000 completed their shift back to the Democrats that had started in 2004, according to surveys by the Value Research Institute.

On one hand, Dickey feels allegiance to Romney because they belong to the same church. But she is also worried about unemployment and the rising price of housing because of gentrification in Harlem. She laments, “I grew up here, but it's no longer Harlem anymore. It carries the name Harlem, but poor people cannot afford this place anymore. It's more for the middle and upper classes. It's not just about having money here, but having money to survive.”

Polly Dickey remembers every Mormon missionary whom she has hosted in Harlem. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Indeed, the Mormon activist has placed seven people in a three-bedroom apartment on 148th Street. Living space is so cramped that the apartment is no longer recognizable as a personal living space. “The house is to the point where I feel like it's not even a house anymore,” she said. A Democrat might think that Dickey would be a sure voter for Obama.

Yet, when I asked Dickey for whom she planned on casting her vote, she responded, “I still haven't made up my mind.” Her attitude is that politics is like the weather. “I have this attitude whatever's going to happen, happens. I know it's not a good attitude, but we need to go along with it anyway.” The presidential election is not a frequent topic of conversation in church, or among Dickey's circle of friends.

Another African American Mormon in the Harlem ward, Yurwildy Sealy, finds the presidential election unworthy of her attention. “Honestly honey, I'm not really interested (in politics). I don't vote,” Sealy said. “It's confusing so I don't bother to vote.”

Sealy expresses a general sentiment of “What-is-it-all-for?” mixed with a laundry list of complaints about national problems that can never be fixed.

“There are so many issues and people are backstabbing everybody. I want a candidate that will do what they're supposed to do,” Sealy stated. But she wonders if a good person can survive in today’s political arena. “They're usually walking into a hornet's nest.”

Sealy has socio-economic concerns even if she doesn’t translate them into politics. She feels that unemployment due to outsourcing is a huge problem for Harlem residents. “If they can't afford to pay the workers, the workers go to China and India. A lot of places around here are going out of business,” she said. The skyrocketing of rents due to gentrification is pushing out start-up businesses and community organizations. “People raise the rents, and they're gone.”

Like Dickey, Sealy rarely speaks to her fellow church-goers about politics, and she doesn't care much about the presidential election. While she missed Bishop Salmon's talk, acknowledgment of Bishop's encouragement to vote does not change her views on politics. “I'm still not voting. I don't get myself involved,” Sealy said. “I just go to work, come home, and go to church.”


Harlem Mormon leaders emphasize civic duty not partisan politics

Harlem First Ward leaders follow the church policy of political neutrality. However, the church believes that a member is morally obligated to be informed about civil issues and to be politically active according to his or her conscience.

“The LDS Church is neutral," Bishop Salmon told A Journey. “We encourage members to be politically active and do the necessary legwork to vote for a candidate they feel is within their integrity.”


The Mormon African American Democrats

Living within the two conflicting political social networks of Mormonism and race, some Mormon African Americans in Harlem opt for a cautious objectivity that in the end leans toward the Democrats. For these Mormons, how the candidates address specific concerns are more important than the candidate's religious affiliation or the tone of their skin.

“I see which issues are in my favor for me,” Alyce Leacraft-Purnell, 52, said. “I vote on issues, not on color.”

Leacraft-Purnell has been with the LDS church for four years and lives on 104th Street on the Upper West Side. While she doesn't consider herself politically active, she's a person on disability and that's what informs her voting decisions. “I'm very concerned with social security and healthcare,” Leacraft-Purnell said. “Romney scares me. What will I have when he's in office?”

She said that Romney's advocacy of a smaller government causes her to overlook their common religious values. She doesn’t hear the Mormon compassion in Romney’s speeches.

“To me, Romney is more presidential candidate than he is a Latter-day Saint,” Leacraft-Purnell observed. When she found out Romney is a member of the church, she didn’t change her mind about him. She said, “I never heard conviction in his voice.” She emphasized that a president is someone that its citizens can trust. From what she knows of Romney, he has not won over her trust. Yet, as of the end of August, Leacraft-Purell remained undecided because she doesn't completely agree with both candidates. Trust might be the deal breaker.

Trust based on previous experience remains a significant element in the voting decision process for African American Mormon Marvina Pinckney. "If he (Obama) gets re-elected, at least we know who we have," Pinckney, 50, said. "We don't know who else we're going to get [if Romney is elected]. It's best to go with someone we already know can do the job than someone new." She's been a Harlem resident for 30 years and a Mormon for six.

Soon after becoming a Mormon, Pinckney voted for Obama in the 2008 election. As she has matured in as a Mormon, her respect for Obama has also grown. She plans on voting for him again this year. Unlike Leacraft-Purnell, Pinckney believes that Obama is doing a terrific job as president. “When he (Obama) got elected, the house was messed up already,” Pinckney said. “Even though I'm a Mormon, I would definitely vote for Obama again. He's a strong man, he doesn't let up.”

Pinckney operates a children's daycare center out of her home and is a member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a union for public educators. The UFT endorsed the Obama/Biden campaign.

Pinckney expressed that right now is a “critical time” for health benefits, housing and unemployment with inflation. She's most concerned about cutbacks of the education system. “I would tell these politicians, don't cut back on the kids,” she said after criticizing Bloomberg’s decrease for funding for  daycare vouchers. “They're the future of tomorrow. Don't short change the children!”

When asked if she attended any rallies thus far, she answered, “Not yet, probably soon. UFT does different rallies.”

Kasey Strawbridge, age 21 and member of the Young and Singles Adult congregation at the Harlem church, was also concerned about education.

“I'm voting for Obama because I'm a student,” Strawbridge said, “I rely on student loans and I depend on that funding.”

Strawbridge is an African American who grew up in the Mormon church in St. Louis, Missouri and came to New York City to study at Columbia University, where she is currently a senior hoping to become a mathematics teacher. She was troubled by how little government money goes into education.

She emphasized that her vote is not based on religious considerations. “I'm not concerned with the idea of the president being a Mormon,” she said.


Mixed signals from the Harlem Mormons

Non-African American Mormons at the Harlem congregation offered similar views on race, religion and politics. Almost all said that votes should be casted based on the candidate qualifications and a member's moral compass, not on the candidate's religious affiliations. Still, American politics is distinctly moralistic. What is one to do when you like some of the moral stands of each candidate but really disagree with some. This dilemma affected both African Americans and non-African Americans.

Twenty-six year old Guyanese American Jason Johnson keeps politics and religion strictly separate. “People I work with ask me if I'll vote for Romney because we go to the same church,” Johnson recalled. “Definitely not the case!” He was also undecided about whom he will vote for.

Johnson works as a part-time nursing assistant and is enrolled in pre-pharmacy classes at CUNY City-Tech. As a fairly new convert (in February 2011), he attends the Young and Single Adult ward in the Union Square LDS Church.

Johnson remained undecided, but politically opinionated about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and health care. “For me, it’s a tough decision to make. I still don't fully know,” he pondered. “There are things I like about Obama and Romney.” And there are things that he doesn't like about the two candidates too.

He found it hard to fully understand Obamacare. That particularly bothered him since he works in the healthcare industry. Yet, he was apprehensive about whether or not Romney can relate to the average American. Romney’s “47%” remark didn’t encourage a voter like Johnson. With less than two months remaining, the clock is ticking for him to make a decision.

“What will persuade me is hearing the debates and to see who will make change,” Johnson said. “Every four years, election comes around and we're all excited. I just want to really see who has a solid plan.”

Some, like Karen Bryner, are Democrats who are carving out space for their politics in Mormonism. Bryner, a Caucasian Mormon from the Mormon holy land of Utah, has lived in Harlem for six years and is one of the few Democrat-leaning people in her family.

“I hope nobody will vote for Romney because of his religion,” Bryner remarked. “Just like I hope people don't vote on the basis of gender or skin color. Issues are more important than religion."

The GOP might also gain some minority Mormon voters by their emphasis on jobs and small business. These voters also don’t like to portray their electoral choice as a religious choice.

Former Bishop Ed Pabon, a Hispanic Mormon who lives in East Harlem, says economic recovery not religion will be the key to his voting decision. “I think my excitement is just for the country in general, whether the next president is Mormon or not. I'll be excited that we'll have a different track for America rather than the one we're on now. I look at Romney and I'm interested in him because of his business sense.”

Leacraft-Purnell, the African American Mormon who was still undecided, noted that her candidate selection needs to ring true in her heart first. “If I can't stand behind whoever it is I vote for, then I can't have the conscience of my conviction,” she said.


Next week, look for more of our series “The Power of the Mormons in New York City.”

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