Sen. Mike Lee: A political insider refashions himself as tea party revolutionary

By Philip Rucker
Saturday, February 5, 2011

Mike Lee is connected - by blood and by chance - to more senators than any other member of the exclusive club of 100. Think about it: Three of his cousins have been elected senators. (Okay, they were second cousins.) A middle-school classmate was one of Strom Thurmond's daughters. Robert C. Byrd, who served longer in the Senate than anyone ever has, lived three doors down from Lee's childhood home.

And then there's his Mormon "home teacher," a godfather-like figure who taught young Mike principles of their faith, chaperoned him at the swimming pool and, once, as a prank, locked the boy in his garage. That mentor was Harry Reid, now the Senate majority leader. And major nemesis to Lee's newly reinvigorated GOP caucus.

You might call Lee, the just-sworn-in Republican senator from Utah, an insider's insider - scion of a Western political dynasty, son of Ronald Reagan's solicitor general, and law clerk at the Supreme Court.

Except that Lee is fashioning himself as the ultimate revolutionary.

On the campaign trail back in Utah, Lee's brazen and staunch politics made him an early vanguard of the grass-roots tea party movement. These are not tactics that he's leaving at the door of the Senate. In his first month in office, he co-founded the Senate Tea Party Caucus, introduced a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, threatened to filibuster attempts to raise the federal debt ceiling, and cycled in and out of television studios across town arguing his case for a more bare-bones government.

Asked what kind of senator he wants to be, Lee, who at 39 is the youngest senator on the Hill, said pleasantly but bluntly: "A good one."

"I want to be one that is willing to do things that are not easy but that need to be done. . . . When you have a country that's been accustomed to government spending at a certain level, it is really hard to ratchet it back. Even though it's what the voters want, it's also something that's going to be gut-wrenching."

Perched in his cramped and sparse transitional office, Lee worked behind a wooden desk that was empty except for his big, sleek, flat-screen Apple monitor, and his wireless keyboard and mouse. The senator asserted that he is "a tea party man," but he does not consider himself a leader of a movement that he calls "leaderless" by design.

Lee, a Brigham Young University alum (undergrad and law), was largely overlooked last fall as tea party stars in more competitive general election races, such as Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), attracted hype and money.

Yet to tea party enthusiasts in Utah and far beyond the state's borders, Lee is turning out to be their absolutely unofficial go-to patron in Washington. An uncompromising constitutional conservative, Lee was the first federal candidate to sign the tea party's "Contract From America" and claimed the tea party's first scalp, in effect, by defeating longtime senator Robert Bennett last May at Utah's unique Republican Convention.

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