Walsh: Guv, church play gay politics

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Timing is all a matter of motivation. Luck happens to you. Strategy takes planning.

And in politics, the line is deliberately blurred.

So, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. comes out this week in favor of civil unions. And three months after Election Day, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes out with a report acknowledging -it spent nearly $200,000 to amend California's constitution to ban gay marriage.

Both Utah's governor and Utah's church insist there was no political calculation to the timing.

I don't believe it.

Huntsman has been working himself up to this moment for four years. As a frothing Sutherland Institute spokesman put it, the then-gubernatorial candidate had to be "dragged to the altar of Amendment 3," which banned gay marriage in Utah.

At the same time, he supported legislation to grant some partner benefits the next year. Legislators already think he's a communist. Now, with an 80-plus approval rating and re-election under his belt, he has nothing to lose.

Except Utah.

"It's clear that he is not running again in Utah," Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, told the Deseret News . "He's moving to a national agenda."

So much for speculation he wants to run for Senate.

Even nationally, Huntman's stand could be problematic.

But he knows a little something about timing. After his spokeswoman's low-key response to a Tribune reporter's question, Utah's moderate governor will be one of few nationally prominent Republicans open to civil unions for gay couples. Simultaneously, the governor becomes more palatable to a Democratic president who touts bipartisanship. And if that doesn't work, Huntsman is positioned at the forefront of a Republican Party that's getting a makeover in time for the 2012 elections.

"It immediately hurts him with core Republican voters. But long term, he has at least four years for this to play out," says Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "Gov. Huntsman feels the calling to be a leader of the rethinking and reshaping of the Republican Party. He's concerned about the future."

Of course, such tactics had nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, the Mormon church disclosed on Jan. 30 -- three months after the fact -- new Proposition 8 donations for staff, travel and video production costs.

"Late, late, late," says Fred Karger, founder of Californians Against Hate.

Starting Aug. 6, California law required $1,000 in-kind and cash donations to be reported within 48 hours. And LDS spokesmen acknowledge church employees worked throughout the summer and fall. But they claim their time and expenses were only definitively tallied after Election Day. After reporting only $55,000 in church donations, ProtectMarriage.com amended its reports last week to match the church's new report, apparently trying to nullify any missed deadline problems.

Karger figures the church was gaming the system, holding back information California voters deserved to have before they went to the polls, perhaps in hopes of avoiding an election-busting backlash. He believes there are more expenses church attorneys have not reported -- for phone banks and transportation -- and has established a toll-free phone number and Web site, Mormongate.com, for tips.

"I can't understand how a sophisticated organization like the LDS Church would be sloppy," Karger says. "I think it was intentional. The point is to hide it and, hopefully in February when it all comes out, people won't pay attention."

He plans to file another complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission in the next week.

Church spokesman Scott Trotter says the Jan. 30 filing was "neither late nor part of a cover-up, but was in fact filed a day ahead of the deadline. Mr. Karger's accusations are wrong. He is entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts."

Rebecca Walsh is a columnist. Reach her at walsh@sltrib.com.