Mike Lee keeps eye on Senate seat

2010-06-16T14:00:00Z 2010-07-15T02:19:22Z Mike Lee keeps eye on Senate seatJoe Pyrah - Daily Herald Daily Herald
June 16, 2010 2:00 pm  • 

U.S. solicitor general and legal lecturer Rex E. Lee would often walk around his home, law book in hand, preparing for cases.

His children would tease him about what book he was reading lately, only to have the tables turned on them and be dragged into legal debates. Among the children was Lee's son Mike, who quickly adapted to topics of conversation such as the powers of state and federal governments.

"He didn't know that other families didn't talk like this," said his oldest sister, Diana Allred. "My dad from a very young age treated us all like adults."

His brother and sisters joked about Mike Lee's curiosity when he started asking follow-up questions at age 5.

The family would have conversations around the dinner table about such weighty issues as where the nation's political power lies. When Lee says he was worried about state's rights at age 10, he's not joking.

"By the time he was 16, he was talking about running for the Senate," Diana said.

Now, at age 39, Lee is facing fellow Republican Tim Bridgewater in the June 22 primary. The winner will move on to the general election in November to determine who will replace outgoing Sen. Bob Bennett in the most exclusive club in the world.


The dinnertime discussions were bolstered by Lee tagging along with his father when he lectured in the St. Francis Catholic school building that was used for BYU law classes. He'd go along in part because of the orange Fanta his father would buy him on the way. (Lee would often get skipped when older siblings passed around soda.)

At the lectures, he'd sit in the back sipping Fanta and soaking up speeches.

A few short years later -- between the ages of 10 and 14 -- Lee was in the Supreme Court listening to his father argue cases as solicitor general and occasionally watching justices doze off. Strict protocols don't allow for slouching among the audience, so young Lee was required to sit upright for hours. The recollection of the red velvet curtain and his father in a gray morning coat and striped pants still brings a smile to his face. Did he feel like an oddball?

"Yeah, a little bit," says Lee. "But there were no other kids in the room anyway so I just tried to blend in with everybody else."

"He didn't necessarily understand every aspect of the case, but he did understand the protocol and aspects of the court," says Sharon, his wife of 17 years who has known him since high school. As with his time in those Supreme Court pews, if Lee gets elected to the Senate, he'll likely be the youngest person in the room at 39 years old.

The race

Lee's youth and focused upbringing have led to the accusation that he's arrogant. It's an accusation that chafes his sister.

"He speaks with confidence on the things he feels confident about," she said. (His brother Tom calls him the "aptly named Mike," as in "mic," for his tendency to get louder when speaking about those things.)

It's not only Lee who has been accused of arrogance, but his campaign in general, chasing away people who might want to help. Staffers and supporters have exuded a degree of destiny -- turning off a number of potential supporters like popular conservative blogger Holly Richardson.

"Who do they surround themselves with? How do the staff act toward others [paid or not]? How do the volunteer supporters treat others, including other campaigns? How are staff and volunteers treated by the candidate? Is there a lot of turnover, and if so, why? How are delegates treated?" she wrote on her blog.

None of those questions have good answers, she says.

Videos have even cropped up on YouTube showing Lee morphing into LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, as well as the much-parodied clip from "Downfall" that includes a jab of Hitler-as-Lee belting out "The SENATE is my DIVINE DESTINY!"

His wife, Sharon, waxes more philosophical. Her husband, she says, is simply the right man in the right place at the right time.

"There's a difference between things that chose you and things you chose," she said.


His early focus on Constitutional matters makes almost every conversation with him lead back to that document. Even when hot-button issues are at the fore -- be it immigration, national security or social services like Medicaid -- he always brings it back around to the Constitution, "the instruction manual for Congress."

"It's not supposed to be all things to all people. It's not supposed to be everyone's rich uncle or best friend. It's not supposed to be our health care provider of first or last resort. Bad things happen when we try to pretend otherwise," he said during a recent debate.

His constitutional philosophy is originalist --what one might expect from a conservative. That is to say that the text can only mean what people understood it to mean when it was ratified, says Fredrick Gedicks, a BYU law professor who taught Lee in two classes. Nevertheless, Lee came ready to learn.

"He was open-minded and willing to engage. Many students don't want to engage," said Gedicks, who considers himself a liberal Democrat.

Ready to engage doesn't necessarily translate to ready for change. Gedicks says that originalists like Lee feel "that they're doing real law and everyone else is making it up." But they've got their own influences that shape how they read the Constitution, he said.

"Mike had his own views. He was Rex Lee's son. He grew up in a conservative household."


Lee's conservative views are reflected in his stance on immigration and citizenship.

He wants to eliminate birthright citizenship, calling children born to illegal immigrants "anchor babies," though he has recently backed down from that exact language. He believes that the Constitution doesn't explicitly allow citizenship for those born on American soil -- based on his reading of the 14th Amendment that illegal immigrants aren't "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States.

Another concern over "anchor babies" is that parents who shouldn't be in the country in the first place have now burdened numerous public systems with a child who is a citizen. Though the Supreme Court has confirmed that you're a citizen if you're born here, Lee says legislation can "clarify the original intent" of the amendment to disallow it.

While he talks incessantly about returning to the core principles of the Constitution, there are plenty of changes he'd like to make to the nation's founding document. First up is an amendment that would require a balanced budget and cap spending at 15 percent of gross domestic product. (That's about $2.2 trillion. The federal budget is currently at $3.5 trillion.) Next is a term limits amendment that would cap service in each house of Congress to 12 years.

Lee, the father of three, says that if he can't get such an amendment passed, he won't limit himself to two Senate terms. He'd also like to see the 17th Amendment repealed. That amendment made it so the public voted for their senators instead of state legislators.

Life and everything

Lee received an undergraduate degree from BYU while his father was president there. The younger Lee ran successfully for student body president after future Provo Councilman Steve Turley was told he didn't qualify -- though he was never told why.

After graduating, Lee struggled with where to go to law school. His downwinder father was exposed to drifting radiation from nuclear testing in Nevada years prior and was sick. Lee didn't want to be far from him, said his wife, so he stayed at BYU though his father died before he got his law degree.

"There was an emptiness," Sharon Lee said.

The 13 years since have been anything but empty. Lee has bounced from job to job, rarely spending as much as two years in the same place:

• In 1997, he clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson.

• In 1998, he clerked for Samuel Alito, who was then a U.S. Court of Appeals judge.

• In 1999, he was then hired as an attorney for law firm Sidley & Austin.

• He came back to Utah to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2002.

• He was chosen as general counsel for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in 2005.

• After leaving the Huntsman administration in 2006, he clerked again for Alito, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

• Since 2007, he has been an attorney for Howrey LLP, handling clients such as radioactive waste disposal giant EnergySolutions.

It's that latest stop that has drawn fire from Tim Bridgewater. As Huntsman's counsel, Lee argued against allowing nuclear waste into the state. As a private attorney, he's arguing that the state doesn't have the right to keep EnergySolutions from importing radioactive waste from Italy.

"My opponent has been on all sides of this issue," Bridgewater said.

Lee counters that he's opposed to the highly dangerous nuclear waste that the Goshute Indian tribe was trying to bring in. But the state has already granted EnergySolutions the right to store Class A radioactive waste -- from medical equipment, for example -- and that bringing it in from Italy is a federal decision.

Again he falls back to the Constitution and the federal government's right to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. He was paid $614,000 over 15 months with Howrey while serving as counsel for EnergySolutions and others. He lists next to no financial assets on disclosure forms, though his Alpine home is valued at $1.24 million, according to Utah County records.

The man

Nearly everyone agrees that Lee is "sharp," "technical" and "smart." But his relative youth -- if he wins he'll likely be the country's youngest senator -- and short employment time spans have not left much of a trail.

It's Bridgewater's personality and experience that pulled DeLaina Tonks away from the Lee campaign. All the way into March, Tonks was a Lee supporter. She knew him as a freshman at BYU where the two went to the same LDS Church ward.

"He was a smart guy who always knew where he was going," Tonks said.

But after hearing Bridgewater at a Republican women's meeting, she did a double take. She cites Bridgewater's volunteer track record, a year helping the state on education matters, and charisma as strong points.

"He is authentic in my estimation," she said of Bridgewater. And Lee? "It was an awkward phone conversation to have with him. ... But there wasn't any bitterness,"

Unlike Bridgewater's easy-going demeanor, Lee's personality rarely shows up publicly.

For the record, Lee's well-known for corny jokes around friends and family and knows his way around a U2 album. He once broke into a version of the band's song "40" in the office after someone sent out an e-mail that contained that song's lyrics.

He also prompted a few smiles when he quoted "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice" from Rush's "Freewill" in a room with Huntsman and legislative leaders when they were deep into debating tax reform in 2005.

Most of all he likes to hang out with his wife and three kids -- watching movies or eating ice cream -- a homebody who's confident about his place in the world and view of government. The question now becomes whether Utahns see him as arrogant or confident, an ideologue or extremist. What happens next will be pivotal for the Lee family and for Utah.

"I sense people are watching. But they're watching [from] everywhere," said Sharon Lee. "The nation is watching."

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