SALT LAKE CITY — In the mid-1800s, newly converted families from across the United States and Europe gathered in the growing Mormon town of Nauvoo, Ill., to help their prophet, Joseph Smith, build a New Jerusalem. Soon driven out by anti-Mormon neighbors who killed Smith and his brother Hyrum, they trekked westward by foot and on horseback, chased by Indians, cholera and even U.S. troops before settling together safely in Utah.
Now, more than 150 years later, descendants of those first families of Mormonism are joining together in a new effort: delivering the White House to Mitt Romney, whose great-great-grandfather Miles Romney settled alongside many of their ancestors in Nauvoo in 1841 and joined their torturous migration.
These families — Marriotts, Rollinses and Gardners, to name a few — have formed a critical financial bulwark and network of support for Romney at every important point in his political career. Starting with his 1994 Senate race, moving into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics effort that became his political springboard and continuing through his first foray into presidential politics, they have been there to open doors, provide seed money and rally support.
Romney’s candidacy has produced great pride among many Mormons, known officially as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But for this core group of the religion’s most prominent families, the ties to Romney go deeper. They share with him not only a faith, but also a dramatic history in which they have scaled the ladder of American society, starting as vilified outsiders and, after helping to settle the American West, rising to the heights of wealth and success within four generations.
Millions in donations
To take one concrete measure of their support, records show that roughly two dozen Mormon families provided nearly $8 million of the financing for the super PAC working to elect Romney, Restore Our Future, putting them in league with its Wall Street, real estate and energy donors. Prominent Mormons including the JetBlue founder David Neeleman and the Credit Suisse banking division’s chief executive Eric Varvel are on his finance team.
Many of Romney’s major Mormon backers are tied to businesses with robust agendas in Washington — lobbying on tax, aviation and tourism policy, according to federal filings — and have something to gain by having a friend in the White House.
But several of these donors say that their giving has nothing to do with their business interests. And while that is a common refrain among major financial supporters of both parties, in this case the candidacy they are backing represents something bigger.
“I think for Mormons, particularly for prominent ones who already feel widely accepted and admired individually, this feels like a chance to also see their church, which they love, accepted and admired institutionally," said Richard Eyre, a Mormon and a best-selling author who lives in Utah and is close to the Romney family.
It is no small thing to Mormons that not one but two of their number were considered appealing contenders for the presidency this year: Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. But Huntsman, less involved in the church, was unable to tap into the Mormon network as Romney has.
And Romney’s base of support is broadening steadily. As his national finance director Spencer Zwick, who is Mormon, said, “We are now beginning our Catholics coalition for Romney; we have a Jewish fundraising director — the only way that a campaign turns into a cause is if you have outreach to many different groups."
In interviews, several of Romney’s supporters expressed their concerns that attention to the financial support he has received from other early families of the religion would raise old prejudices and accusations of clannishness that followed their forebears. For many, their support is born of their personal admiration for Romney, as well as of their shared values and experiences with him, whether in business, at Brigham Young University or as high-level lay officials of the church.
“Obviously, there’s a Mormon tie there," said Kevin Rollins, a former Bain & Company management consultant and one-time CEO of Dell computers, who has donated $375,000 to Restore Our Future. “But it’s much more in his competency as a manager and an administrator." You don’t keep winning positions of leadership if you mess them up, he said.
Bill Marriott, who donated $1 million to Restore Our Future, said he did so out of friendship. Romney is named after Marriott’s father, John Willard Marriott, who was good friends with Romney’s father, George Romney. (Mitt Romney’s first name is Willard.)
The elder Romney and elder Marriott shared a connection to Utah, where their families settled after journeys across the American frontier with Brigham Young, the Mormon prophet likened by adherents to Moses. “We want the world to know about our religion," said Marriott, who recently stepped down as his company’s CEO. “We really feel like we’re coming out of obscurity."