Utah's newest senator - he's LDS, liberal and rising rapidly
To say he simply is a rising Democratic star might be a perversion of astronomy.
Ben McAdams is an internationally seasoned securities lawyer with Wall Street cred. He has orchestrated the advance team's global itinerary for two U.S. presidents as well as for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He moonlights as a university professor but maneuvers daily as Salt Lake City's most effective - maybe ever - legislative lobbyist. And the former University of Utah student body president has just taken his oath as a state senator.
McAdams is all of 35.
"That guy has a Blackberry to envy," marvels Lisa Harrison Smith, spokeswoman for Mayor Ralph Becker, McAdams' boss. "I hope he has it insured."
Carting a network in his pocket, Becker's baby-faced senior adviser has ready access to the political class in Washington, the financial class in New York and the ruling class at Temple Square. As such, the devout Mormon -- with his unapologetic progressive politics -- has become an insurance policy for Becker's capital agenda.
And make no mistake, McAdams doesn't soft-pedal the connection between his liberalism and his religion. Instead, the working-class kid from West Bountiful argues the bond is natural -- indeed necessary.
"In some ways, I'm a minority in my own faith," the father of three says between slurps of oatmeal at downtown's venerable Lamb's restaurant. "It is who I am. My faith requires me to act in accordance with my conscience. I don't feel like an oxymoron. I do what I think is right."
For McAdams, granting equal protection to gays is right -- not only for his politics but also for his faith. He isn't a progressive despite his religion. He's a progressive because of his religion.
Political cliques already are whispering the soft-spoken Avenues resident would be the perfect candidate to capture a seat in Congress, or higher, after a term or two on Utah's Capitol Hill.
"I hope not," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, jokes about the grooming of McAdams, "because he could probably win some pretty big elections."
Humble nearly to a fault, McAdams shrugs off the hype.
Dead Head to Wall Street
Reared LDS with five siblings, basically on his mom's sixth-grade teacher's salary, McAdams learned early about class warfare and came to appreciate subsidized school lunches. Seeing the struggles of his dad, a smoker and "not a very good" used-car salesman, taught the youngster to value diversity and labor.
The young McAdams went to work at age 12 on a Davis County farm, then cleaned carpets and slung fast food before landing a job at a guitar shop, where he could noodle tunes to his beloved Grateful Dead and The Doors. McAdams went on to join "awful" high school garage bands and still keeps one guitar at his office and another at home. Strumming, he says, "clears my mind."
More "activist" than partisan, McAdams headed the Viewmont High environmental club then lobbed leaflets for the late Wayne Owens, a Democratic folk hero who failed in his 1992 bid for U.S. Senate.
After a Mormon mission to Såo Paulo, Brazil, the sterling student developed a feisty taste for politics at the U., where he snagged a Karen Shepherd scholarship and later led the College Democrats. McAdams also did Hinckley Institute internships in the White House west wing and the Utah Legislature, where he met Becker, a "political hero."
Politically driven in his 20s, McAdams also was socially stubborn. Courting his girlfriend, Julie, a friend from Viewmont, McAdams repeatedly squeezed out dollars for dates by donating blood at a North Temple plasma center.
"She never knew," he remembers wryly, recalling he would give extra for the $50 payoff. The desperate effort failed at first -- Julie briefly dumped him before he came clean about the blood.
"He said, 'Do you know what I've been doing for you?,' " says Julie McAdams, who would marry him eight months later. "I was flattered. I mean, it was weird, but he did it for me."
The couple later landed at Columbia Law School and lived in New York another three years. With Julie busy at another law firm, McAdams survived 80-hour weeks doing securities contracts for the prestigious Davis Polk & Wardwell. The job would frequently ferry McAdams back to Latin America, where the corporate deals piqued his penchant for politics.
"He's one of those people whose smarts are exceeded by a basic sense of decency," says James Sample, a Columbia classmate and a law professor at Hofstra. "He's got an open mind, he's a listener. And yet, when he feels conviction about something, he sticks with it without being disagreeable."
Bizarre brush with al-Qaida
Despite excelling on Wall Street, McAdams always has kept a foot in Washington. Since the late '90s, he has held key positions with the advance teams for President Bill Clinton and, later, Hillary Clinton during her New York Senate run.
But that "adrenaline rush" turned to fear in the spring of 2000, when McAdams was in Bangladesh to stage an event for Bill Clinton. A then-little-known al-Qaida cell had planted rocket launchers and Stinger missiles along the border to shoot down the president during a visit to a village. Only a handful on the advance team knew, including McAdams, and they had precious hours to move villagers under nightfall to the safety of the U.S. Embassy.
"It was very cloak and dagger; it was like the movies," says D. Foster, McAdams' advance colleague, who notes that while the rest of the world didn't learn of al-Qaida until 9/11, "we found out that day."
When Clinton arrived in an unmarked jet, McAdams' group had pulled off the feat, giving the appearance of a village inside the Dhaka embassy.
"If I had to go to war, he would be in the foxhole with me," Foster says of McAdams. "In the darkest hour, when things look bleak, Ben is the shining light."
Though the work doesn't pay much -- he often survived on PB&J sandwiches -- McAdams continues the advance gigs. He worked for John Kerry in 2004 and even President Barack Obama last summer. Hoping for a sexy, international trip, McAdams says he was told by Obama's brain trust he first must pay his dues. "They suggested I start in Cleveland."
Paging a politician
After returning to Utah, McAdams plunged into law but quickly was approached by Becker to help run City Hall. "I said yes within an hour."
He became the mayor's mind and muscle at the Legislature, where insiders only half-jokingly say "he speaks Mormon." Democrats and Republicans agree McAdams has been almost frighteningly effective.
"Rocky's administration didn't get a lot of Christmas cards from the Legislature, so Ben had some ground to make up," says Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo. "He brings a willingness to find solutions and not necessarily just posture."
His score card includes saving the funding for the airport TRAX line and scoring $20 million for a new North Temple viaduct. The latter is considered the linchpin for a west-side "Grand Boulevard" and a key cog for a streetcar line to Davis County. The deal followed plenty of face time with then-Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, who credits McAdams' temperament.
"He keeps emotions in check and stays objective," the Syracuse Republican said days before resigning his Senate seat in the wake of a DUI arrest. "He never burns bridges. But lobbying is a much different game than legislating. There's added complexity now because your votes are being tracked."
Even so, McAdams already stands as a hero for preserving the city's mutual-commitment registry and brokering the recent deal for Becker's anti-discrimination ordinances. To smooth waters about what conservatives labeled gay-rights laws, McAdams spent hours negotiating in the living room of Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan.
McAdams "stands as a bridge between different worlds," Bramble says.
For his part, McAdams downplays his influence, saying he simply builds coalitions by camping at the Capitol around the clock.
"We shouldn't pity ourselves as poor Salt Lake," he says. "We need to get in there and play the game."
Stephenson says McAdams is the city's most effective voice on Capitol Hill in decades. And he marvels at the "impressive" role McAdams played in winning the LDS Church's endorsement of the anti-discrimination measures.
McAdams, who was in the LDS bishopric in New York and teaches Sunday school to 17-year-olds, says his sit-downs with church leaders seemed natural.
"I wanted to see my faith do the right thing."
Face for the future
Angling for the District 2 Senate seat, McAdams literally spent the past year getting fit for office. He lost 40 pounds wrestling his household elliptical machine and regularly gets ribbed by the City Council as a "stranger."
But party insiders say the Senate freshman easily has the makeup for Congress or a statewide seat.
"He's a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, connected to labor, connected to the LGBT community, to low-income issues," the Target Group's Jim Gonzales says. "If you were going to build one in the basement, those are the parts you'd use. For many Democrats, he's what we hope the future will look like."
Julie McAdams, an attorney at the U.'s office of general counsel, says her husband always finds time for his key constituency: The couple's 4-year-old twins and 1 1/2 -year-old son. He has read the tattered Monster at the End of this Book to daughter Kate so many times, McAdams had to buy a second one.
"He brings home surprises for the kids -- PEZ dispensers," Julie says. "I like to call it spoiling. But they go crazy for them."
McAdams will continue his work sweetening the fortunes of Salt Lake City after he takes an unpaid leave of absence for the 2010 legislative session. And since the last effort seemed so clandestine, no one can be sure if McAdams' future role will include brokering policy changes with the LDS Church.
Back to that. Did the 35-year-old son of a used-car salesman, with a weighty assist from the mayor and the city's Human Rights Commission, really force an epiphany in favor of gay rights from the Brethren? Asked directly, McAdams pauses, shifts in his seat, takes a sip of water, then another - and smiles.
Age » 35
Family » Wife Julie, 4-year-old twins James and Kate; 1 1/2-year-old son Robert.
Elected office » Replaced Democratic state Sen. Scott McCoy.
Education » Bachelor's degree in political science from University of Utah; law degree from Columbia.
Experience » Stint at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York; political advance teams for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; adjunct professor of securities regulation at University of Utah; senior adviser to Mayor Ralph Becker.
Extras » Speaks Portuguese; participated in Spanish immersion program in Costa Rica; will celebrate 10-year wedding anniversary during 2010 legislative session.