AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A small town mayor in Utah is trying to make congressional history. Mia Love wants to become the first black Republican woman in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she's vowing to bring conservative principles to the Congressional Black Caucus. Love faces a six-term Democratic incumbent, but she's energized Republicans in Utah and across the country.
From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Terry Gildea has her story.
TERRY GILDEA, BYLINE: Last month, when Utah Republicans gathered to choose their candidates for statewide office, Mia Love, the 37-year-old mayor of Saratoga Springs, stepped up to the podium to make her case for the nomination.
MAYOR MIA LOVE: The government is not your salvation. The government is not your road to prosperity. Hard work, education will take you far beyond what any government program can ever promise.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
GILDEA: Love's speech electrified the crowd. She won the nomination that day with 70 percent of the vote, defeating one of the most powerful Republican politicians in the state.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Mia Love was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Connecticut. She gives credit to her parents for making the necessary sacrifices so she could attend college.
LOVE: Growing up, I had a front row seat to seeing two people work really hard. My dad scrubbed toilets at a private Catholic school for a while and that was to help me get through school.
GILDEA: Mia Love was raised Catholic, but after meeting a Mormon serving a mission in Connecticut, she came to Utah, married him and converted to the Mormon faith. When her family moved to the suburban community of Saratoga Springs, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, she was elected to the city council and then became mayor. She has no experience in government beyond managing a city of 17,000, but Love says she can get the votes to win in a state that is more than 80 percent white and 60 percent Mormon.
LOVE: I understand people and I think that my life and my history, and what I represent can relate to a lot of the women, the independents, the moderate voters.
GILDEA: Love also feels she will appeal to Utah's majority Mormon population. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a checkered history with people of African descent. Black men were banned from full membership in the faith and civil rights groups were outraged. In 1978, he ban was lifted by what Mormons describe as a revelation from God. The Church has embraced Mia Love as an example of its ethnic diversity. She even participated in a national I'm Mormon ad campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN AD)
GILDEA: I'm a wife. I'm a mother. I am a mayor. My name is Mia Love and I am Mormon.
Love's opponent is Jim Matheson, a fellow Mormon, a six-term Democrat, and the son of one of the most popular governors in the state's history. The only Democrat in the Utah delegation has defeated Republican challengers successfully in the past, but this year he's running in a brand new district with new boundaries, because of the congressional redistricting process.
TIM CHAMBLESS: Now he's chosen to run in the Fourth Congressional District, a district that really has only about 25 percent of his former constituents. And so he has to re-introduce himself to about three quarters of the district.
GILDEA: Tim Chambless is an associate professor with The Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. He says Republicans believe Mia Love is the right person to knockoff the state's only congressional Democrat.
CHAMBLESS: She can be quite informative and she can be convincing. She would be a new member, elected age younger than 40. So, she would potentially have a great future in the House if she were to serve for many years.
GILDEA: In January, Love told a Salt Lake newspaper that she wants to join the Congressional Black Caucus, which she accused of igniting racism. She added that she wanted to take the CBC apart from the inside out. The CBC didn't respond to requests for comment. But in an interview with NPR, Love didn't back down from her previous remarks.
LOVE: The influence I would hope to have is to create an environment where we're not singling Americans out; that we are creating opportunities for all Americans, not saying I'm going to funnel money into your city so that you're completely dependent on government.
GILDEA: After generations of white male lawmakers, Utah Republicans are putting their faith in a new kind of candidate, one they hope will change the way the rest of America sees the state.
For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea in Salt Lake City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.