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

By Philip Rucker
Saturday, February 5, 2011; C01

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.

In Washington, the city where he spent so much of his late childhood, Lee confronts the same dilemma that high-profile freshman senators have always faced. Option 1: Keep your head down, study the Senate, quietly build coalitions and strenuously avoid the limelight, as Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) did when she arrived at the Senate in 2001 and as Rubio is trying to do now. Another option: Pound the drums from the outside and leverage the populist forces that got you elected, all to pressure your new colleagues to adopt your ideals.

Lee has chosen the latter.

"I don't think we've turned down a media request," said Spencer Stokes, Lee's chief of staff, noting how the senator is in demand on the cable news circuit. (Lee did his first national Sunday talk show three days before he took the oath.) Explaining the senator's sudden media familiarity, Stokes emphasized that the senator is sticking close to those who sent him and will in no way distance himself from the tea party.

"The same people that were involved in the original tea party, that threw the crates overboard, some of those people had to come and govern," Stokes said. "And I don't think back then they ran from their friends that were on the ship with them, throwing the tea into the harbor."

In a clubby institution where senators take measure of one another and where pragmatism and compromise triumph over doctrine and ideology, "this is not the way to become an influential force," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional historian at the Brookings Institution.

"Lee sees himself so much as the representative of, the senator for, the tea party movement, that he's, if you will, rising to the bait and seizing any tempting morsel that comes by," Mann said. That includes media opportunities, but also chances to get a few tea party ideas into law.

Last week, Lee introduced his first bill: a constitutional amendment to require Congress to balance the federal budget every year. He sought input while drafting the bill from FreedomWorks, the national tea party outfit chaired by former House Republican leader Dick Armey. FreedomWorks was the first big group to endorse Lee's primary campaign, and at a tea party orientation in November, Lee said the support almost brought "tears in my eyes. God bless FreedomWorks."

"He's what we would call a legislative entrepreneur," said Matt Kibbe, the group's president. "He doesn't just believe the right things. He's out there trying to make a good idea legislatively viable."

Lee's fellow Utahan, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), introduced a competing amendment that would allow for slightly more spending - and it appears to be more viable, having attracted 26 Republican co-sponsors, twice as many as Lee's.

Lee's aides say he hit it off with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), connecting over land issues important in their mostly rural states - a surprising alliance considering that she has had a moderate streak since beating back a tea party challenger last fall.

Lee's cousins, Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), have welcomed him warmly, as has Reid, whose son, Josh, is one of Lee's closest friends.

He hasn't decided whether to move his family to Washington, as his father did. Rex Lee, who died in 1996, was Reagan's solicitor general and moved his brood east. As a boy, Mike watched his father argue before the Supreme Court, and they took their constitutional debates home to hash them out over the dinner table. "I was about 30 before I realized not every family discussed the Presentment Clause over potatoes," he said.

When Lee was 16, his family returned to Utah. Rex Lee became president of Brigham Young University, while Mike Lee, a student there, was elected student body president on an anti-establishment platform.

As all devout young Mormon men are prescribed to do, Lee went on a missionary trip. On long drives along the Rio Grande in Texas, he would talk to his friend Jay Jorgensen about upcoming Supreme Court cases and their constitutional arguments. "I was 19 years old and was like, 'Dude, what are you talking about?' " Jorgensen, now a Washington lawyer, recalled.

At his first Judiciary Committee hearing this week, Lee was introduced as "a law geek." He clerked twice for conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Lee also was general counsel to former Utah governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a Republican now weighing a presidential campaign.

When Harry Reid arrived in Washington, then a freshman representative from Nevada, he joined the Lees' Mormon church. The church assigned Reid as the Lees' home teacher, visiting with the family on behalf of the church's bishop. Reid remembers their "squawky dog, a Chihuahua mutt."

"The Sunday school class was being taught by this man who talked like this Utah hick," Reid said in an interview. "I realized it was Rex Lee - this famous lawyer."

Mike Lee and Josh Reid, then both 11-year-old sons of political fathers transplanted in Washington, quickly bonded.

Harry Reid was a jovial dad, known for gibes and practical jokes. Lee recalled dropping by the Reids' house in McLean to check out Josh's new bike. Josh's dad had newly figured out how to lock the garage door from the outside, and held the kids captive, however teasingly.

But Reid never tried to influence Lee's politics.

"They were some of the first real passionate Democrats that I ever knew," Lee said, saying he learned in the Reid household that if he touted the virtues of Reagan, "I was going to have to stand up for myself."

"I've always known since I was 11 years old, when I first met the man, that we were on opposite sides of the issues," Lee added. "It is weird to now be in the same body as him. I wouldn't blame him if he still saw me as an 11-year-old."

Reid said it is "unusual" to have Lee in the Senate, "especially realizing that he is very, very conservative. . . . But that's okay. Mike is who he is."

As Lee contemplated running for office and throughout the Senate race, he turned to Josh Reid for advice. Reid said he was surprised to see Lee become a champion of an outsider movement.

"Mike has always been very conservative, but he's not the guy who would be showing up at protests and stuff like that. To put him in the same category as a Sharron Angle is kind of surprising, because I see them as completely different types of people," Reid said, referencing his father's GOP opponent last year.

"I wouldn't consider Sharron Angle an intellectual person, but Mike is a scholar," Reid said. "The tea party may be en vogue right now, but I think Mike's going to last a lot longer than the tea party."

Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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