Mike Lee known for his Constitution knowledge, sense of humor

June 15, 2010

From the Deseret News:

SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Lee may be known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, but what his friends and family mention most about him is his sense of humor.

Not that they don't enjoy having the same kind of impassioned debate over interpreting the Constitution that Lee, an attorney, grew up with at the family dinner table as the son of a former U.S. solicitor general.

But they make the case that the GOP U.S. Senate candidate is a fun guy, even though he spends most of his time on the campaign trail explaining again and again how the Constitution would guide his decisions in office.

Their evidence of his humorous side? Well, his favorite movie is "So I Married an Axe Murderer," although other comedies including "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" come close.

And he's been known to refer to lyrics from one of his beloved '80s rock bands, Rush, during meetings when he served as general counsel to former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Then there's the weeds. Family friend Troy Boldt said Lee's idea of a good time is setting them on fire. "He's got a torch he connects to a propane tank and lights them up," Boldt said. "He's like a little boy around the campfire." Before the Lees moved away from his Cedar Hills neighborhood, Boldt said he'd bring his children over to watch.

But it's Lee himself who offers up the best defense to any suggestion he's too serious during what he likes to call his "Mike on mike" time on the road between events.

That's when he's behind a microphone set up in the passenger seat of his brother-in-law Bryan Burr's motor home known as the "Mobile Mike Express" and makes often silly comments about people and places through loudspeakers affixed to the front of the 45-foot vehicle.

For example, as the motor home pulls away from Heber City's Main Street park after Lee's recent appearance there, he spots a group of kids celebrating the last day of school by spraying each other with shaving cream.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he hollers into the microphone, "whenever you have a shaving cream fight remember to vote for Mike Lee." Hearing his voice booming out of the motor home, the teenagers stop and stare.

It's something the family members and volunteers riding along can't seem to get enough of. They shout, "Taco Time" when the motor homes passes one of the fast-food outlets. He says it's not just time for tacos, "it's time to vote for Mike Lee."

When they pass a group of bicyclists in Grateful Dead shirts, Lee shouts that he'll protect their rights, then shakes his head. "I could have made a Deadhead reference — 'Keep on Truckin' for Mike Lee,' " he says regretfully.

Lee, 39, clearly seems to be enjoying his first run for public office. "It's pretty similar to how I imagined it," he said, although he adds, "I didn't fully anticipate how tired I'd get. It's exhausting. And I've always been someone who works hard."

Even as a child, Lee took his opinion on the law and politics in general seriously. That's what was expected of him as the son of Rex Lee, who served as President Ronald Reagan's solicitor general and later, as president of Brigham Young University.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was the Lee family's LDS home teacher in Washington, D.C., when Mike Lee was in sixth grade. They never talked politics during Reid's religious visits, Lee recalled, but dinners at the Reid house were another story.

"They were the most vocal Democrats I'd ever been around," Lee said, still amazed at how freely the Reids criticized Reagan and his policies. "I actually cut my teeth arguing with them. It didn't have any effect."

And he often debated with his late father. Lee's attempt to convince his father it was a good idea for Americans to have assault weapons in their homes stands out. "We could descend into a system of lawlessness," Lee, then in high school, told his father. "He just kind of laughed at me."

Longtime friend Jay Jorgensen, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who ran for Congress in 2002 against Lee's primary opponent, Tim Bridgewater, said Lee has always been conservative.

"He's a man of principles and he's not changed them," Jorgensen said. "He saw the federal government was too big and needed to be cut down to size when he was 10 years old."

About as rebellious as Lee ever got, Jorgensen said, was running for student body president at BYU on a platform of eliminating the power of school administrators — including his father at the time — to screen candidates for student office.

"He's not shy," Jorgensen said. "His campaign platform was, 'My father ought not to have the power to choose me.' … He was standing up to people and saying, 'The way you're doing it is not the way it should be done.' "

There seemed little question Lee would follow his father's professional footsteps. Armed with a law degree from BYU, he clerked for U.S. District Judge Dee Benson. He left Utah in 1998 to clerk for a former assistant to his father in the solicitor general's office, Samuel Alito, then a federal appellate court judge.

Lee then joined a private law firm in Washington, D.C., where he and Jorgensen worked on Utah's unsuccessful challenge of the decision not to count Mormon missionaries in the 2000 Census.

He came back to Utah and became a federal prosecutor before being tapped as general counsel by Huntsman in 2005. Lee left that job a year later to clerk again for Alito, this time at the U.S. Supreme Court. Since then, he's been in private practice in Utah, representing high-profile clients such as EnergySolutions.

Lee said he always knew he would run for public office someday. "I don't know there was any moment," Lee said, but serving as a Senate page for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, while in high school was when he really got interested.

Among his fondest memories was when the conservative late South Carolina senator, Strom Thurmond, brought the pages mints. "He'd take a big handful from the senators' dining room and say, 'This is for the pages.' They were all sweaty," Lee said.

His father, he recalled, had been encouraged to run for office over the years but chose a different path. "He was not at all what I would have considered a campaigner, but I would have loved to see him involved in this," Lee said, saying his father would have had "a blast."

State Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, first met Lee as a little boy, when Valentine was a law student at BYU attending events hosted by Rex Lee. Then, Valentine said, Mike Lee "kind of reminded me of a mini-version of his father."

Now, Valentine said, Lee sounds just like his father when he talks about the law. "It's rapid fire, so you sort of have to listen fast," he said. When addressing a crowd rather than a courtroom, Valentine said, Lee does need to "slow down a little bit and talk to people in terms they'd understand."

Lee's wife, Sharon, said the pair never disagree on politics but she can hold her own when they debate, say, an issue involving their children, twins James and John, 15, and Eliza, 9.

"We have robust conversations," Sharon Lee said of her husband, whom she met while they were both still in high school. He was older, the opinion editor of the Timpview High School student newspaper, and she was the assistant editor, not above sneaking in a more liberal viewpoint once in a while to see if he was paying attention.

She's not above joking herself, interrupting her husband during a midday discussion in the Heber City park with a group of voters. "You know how the Constitution protects you? So does sunscreen," she says, handing Lee a tube of sunscreen. He doesn't even pause in his explanation of some constitutional question as he slathers it on.

Lee does pause later in the day, when he's asked whether he'd run again should he be defeated in the June 22 primary.

"It's like asking a woman in childbirth, 'When are you going to have another baby?' "Lee explains. "That's the last thing you want to think about."

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