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Mia Love: From dreams of Broadway to Capitol Hill

Published October 9, 2012 11:06 am

Mia Love • The Saratoga Springs mayor has become a rising star in the Republican Party.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The midge is a humble pest.

Growing to about the size of a mosquito, but without the bite, they swarm by the tens of thousands around lake shores across the state.

It was one such swarm in the summer of 2002, when the residents of the Loch Lomond subdivision in Saratoga Springs decided they had had enough. The nettlesome bugs were blanketing their homes and residents were afraid to open their doors for fear the cloud of insects would gush inside.

So they turned to one of their neighbors, an outspoken young mother transplanted from Connecticut, to go to demand the developers address the problem.

Eventually, the developer relented, agreeing to spray weekly and the midge plague was resolved.

It was a small victory over a tiny bug, but it earned Mia Love a reputation as a neighborhood fixer that grew from there and set her on a path that could ultimately lead this suburban mother of three from her lakeside home to the halls of Congress.

But growing up, Love didn't dream to be in the spotlights that she basked in as a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention in August. Instead, she dreamed of the lights of Broadway.

Another life • The 1970s were a time of turmoil in Haiti. Poverty was crushing and the island nation's dictator, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, ruled with an iron fist, subjugating the people through a mix of voodoo mysticism and sheer terror.

His special police force, the Tonton Macoutes — Creole for "bogeymen" — tortured and murdered opponents, sometimes leaving a severed head as a warning.

As a young man coming home from the movies one evening, Jean Maxime Bourdeau was confronted by the Macoutes. Fearing for his life, he ran and was chased through town until he hid in a drainage pipe, where he cowered through the night.

His mother feared he was dead or kidnapped. But Jean returned home, as Love tells it, determined that his children would not live in fear.

In 1974 Bourdeau, then about 30, received a tourist visa and joined the waves of hundreds of thousands of Haitians fleeing to the United States. He left his wife, Maria, behind with their young son, Jean, and infant daughter, Cynthia, and settled with an aunt and sisters in Brooklyn.

While prohibited for tourists, he — like many immigrants at the time — sought work. His wife joined him a few months later.

Love has told the story of her parents' journey to American with $10 in their pockets over and over during the campaign, including her speech at the Republican National Convention.

In his first interview since his daughter announced her bid for Congress and became a national political celebrity, Jean Bourdeau, a burly man now in his late 60s with gray stubble on his head and a thick Haitian accent, expressed immense pride at never receiving welfare.

"My family helped me to get my start, to put my feet on the ground," he told The Salt Lake Tribune, speaking outside of his home in Stratford, Conn. He is retired now, but drives a school bus and works other odd jobs. He is a member of the Freemasons and a man who has fallen deeply in love with the United States.

He saw this country as his only hope of providing his children with a stable life.

Bourdeau also confirmed he was only able to legally reunite his family in the United States after he and his wife had their third child, Ludmya "Mia" Bourdeau, who was born in December 1975, an American citizen by birthright.

Her role as the family's "ticket" to America under a lenient immigration law, which was later repealed has stirred some controversy and raised questions that Love has refused to answer, considering them an unfair attack on her parents.

"Mia is a citizen born in this country and at that time the country was favorable for children," Jean Bourdeau said. "It was very easy to do things legally by immigration way."

"The country of up "• The naturalization process was simple: The Bourdeaus received an information packet within a day of making inquiries with immigration officials. They were interviewed and passed a test and within a few years the family members became U.S. citizens.

By that time the Bourdeaus had left the high-rises of New York for the more suburban surroundings of Norwalk, Conn., a diverse city of about 78,000, which has maintained a strong Haitian community, and where Maria Bourdeau had relatives.

Working long hours as a janitor and factory worker, Jean Bourdeau was able to move his family into a three-story home on Ponus Avenue, a winding highly traveled two-way street that alternates between cozy tree-lined neighborhoods and dense business districts.

On Sundays, Maria Bourdeau would be in the kitchen, cooking up a meal for whatever family or friends or neighbors happened to stop by. "That's the way she showed love. She feeds people," said Love.

The Bourdeaus enrolled their children in Catholic elementary schools before moving them to public schools, and their parents emphasized the importance of gaining an education.

"I want them to be something what I never be in my country," said Jean Bourdeau. "I want them to go to school, to learn. This is the country of up. You can be whatever you want to be."

It may not have been an idyllic neighborhood — Love says that when she threw a party, a friend's mother was reluctant to let her son travel to the rough side of town to attend — so the parents kept their kids busy in after-school programs, summer camps and extracurricular activities.

Love was in the choir, where she demonstrated some talent. When she reached high school, she was in the color guard, traveling on weekends to competitions with the school's top-ranked marching band, and keeping a grueling schedule.

Then she got involved in theater, landing the role as "the oldest woman alive" in the musical "Barnum."

"I fell in love with it," said Love.

Performing • Jeff Smith, her music teacher in Norwalk, Conn., remembers how Love had to climb into a full body suit and cake on makeup to make her appear to be the oldest woman alive. Students wheeled her out on a cart before she belted out the song "Thank God I'm Old."

"She was a very outgoing student," said Smith, who retired in 2010 and moved to New Hampshire. "A very strong young lady and a very powerful personality."

In "West Side Story," she sang a duet with Becky O'Dowd, who was a year older and a friend of Love's sister, Cynthia. They remain close friends and, after graduating from Norwalk High School a year early, Love followed O'Dowd to the University of Hartford's Hartt School as a musical-theater major.

Love was one of 11 to qualify for the program, which was still new but seen as a potential stepping-stone to Broadway, a path many graduates have taken.

The Hartt School was demanding: Dance lessons each morning followed by acting and voice lessons and then play rehearsals in the evening, all wrapped around the traditional slate of college courses. It left time for little else and Love's drive and ambition chafed some of her fellow performers.

"She was very intense with the way she approached her work in the theater, almost in a way that was off-putting to some of us," said Rachel Mans­field, a theater teacher in Connecticut, who was one of Love's classmates.

Love and Mansfield played rivals in their senior year production of "42nd Street," Love as the fresh-faced Peggy Sawyer, the musical's main character, while Mansfield portrayed the aging actress Dorothy Brock.

Near the beginning of "42nd Street," Love performed a duet with Kevin Duda, who went on to appear in Broadway productions, including his current run in The Book of Mormon musical. Duda is a few years younger than Love and remembers looking up to her, calling her a "leader" in the department.

"Whether it was musical theater or not, you knew she was going to succeed at something because she had such a strong will," said Duda, who hasn't been in contact with Love since college.

He didn't remember any unusual strife between Love and her classmates, brushing it off as the standard drama within a drama department.

Love was "an excellent dancer" and a driven person, Mansfield said, but also "competitive but somewhat aloof." She said Love aggressively pursued friendships with people she felt were talented, but kept herself apart from her classmates at large, a number of whom she has lost contact with entirely.

O'Dowd sees that as a sign of Love's character.

"One of the things I like about Mia is that not everybody likes her, not because she isn't a nice person but because she didn't always go with the popular thought," she said.

Politics seemed unlikely, however, especially Republican politics, since so much of the theater community at the school was liberal.

"If she had the views she has now [back] then, she didn't speak of them," said O'Dowd.

But a chance encounter with a Mormon missionary altered the course of her life, leading her away from the theatrical stage and toward a political one.

A mission and a missionary • The Bourdeau children were raised as faithful Catholics, so Jean and Maria Bourdeau were puzzled when their oldest daughter, Cynthia, decided to convert to Mormonism.

Love, who was very close to her older sister, was sent on a reconnaissance mission, to gather intelligence on her sister's newfound faith and report back to her parents.

"I was going to investigate for my parents, and I ended up [joining]," she said. "It wasn't as odd or different as I thought it would be, and it was good. I ended up wanting to be part of it and the LDS faith just kind of worked for me."

Two missionaries, Elders Ryan Hill and David Valletta, taught Love about the faith. At one point, she briefly crossed paths with another missionary from Utah serving in the mission, Jason Love.

She barely remembered him, but he said he remembers her "very distinctly."

"It was this beautiful girl, and the thing that stood out to me was she was singing show tunes. I think she was singing something form 'Les Mis,'" said Jason Love. "I was star-struck."

Not long after she graduated from college, Mia Love was baptized into the LDS Church, a decision her father has accepted.

"Everybody got their opinions about how you see things, but always believe in God," he said. "I sent them to school. They can do whatever they want to."

O'Dowd said the conversion was unexpected. "It threw me for a loop, totally," she said. But in typical fashion, Mia Love pursued the faith with vigor, the way she approached everything, O'Dowd said.

After school, Mia Love decided to spend a few months sorting out priorities before she figured she would dive into serious Broadway auditioning.

She landed a job as a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, which allowed her to be based anywhere in the country and, as a new member of the church, she wanted to be closer to an LDS temple and decided to move to Utah in 1998.

She got an apartment with a Utah Mormon who had nannied in Connecticut and called one of the few people she knew in her new town — Craig Smith, one of the missionaries she had met — to see if he could help them move in.

Smith was busy, but suggested she call Jason Love, who brought a friend and helped the women settle in. They barbecued afterward, and Mia Love got the idea of playing matchmaker between Jason Love and her roommate.

The four spent time together hiking or miniature golfing, but Jason Love had his eye on Mia. In September they went on their first date — shooting shotguns and pistols at a gun range, a first for Mia, but an activity she enjoyed.

"I thought, OK, I'm really going to like this girl," said Jason Love. "She always had a sense of adventure, always willing to try new things."

Within weeks they were engaged with the wedding set for mid-December. A few days before the wedding, Mia Love got an unexpected call offering her a leading role on Broadway in the musical "Smoky Joe's Café," which she had been in as part of a national touring company, but they wanted her in New York by Wednesday, two days before their wedding.

Broadway had been her dream, but the wedding went ahead.

Metamorphosis • It was the end of one act in Mia Love's life and the opening of a new one. She continued to do plays and community theater and taught music and acting at nearby schools, but she largely shelved her Broadway ambitions for a domestic life and, soon, motherhood.

She also shifted toward politics. She had been brought up believing it was important to vote — her father speaks with pride of casting his first vote as a citizen for Ronald Reagan and equal pride in his most recent vote for Barack Obama.

"That was my dream come true," he said. "I said to Mia: 'You can vote for whoever you want. Me? I vote for Obama.' I never thought black would become president."

Mia Love cast her first presidential ballot for George W. Bush, but her relationship with Jason Love pushed her much deeper into the political world.

"When she became a Mormon and she strongly found faith and she moved to Utah, that was a real metamorphosis," said O'Dowd. "And then all of a sudden she is in politics."

Jason Love's father was a software engineer and was politically active, drafting his sons to canvass neighborhoods and pitch in on local Republican political campaigns.

"All of the things my parents were teaching me, it kind of fit" the Republican philosophy, Mia Love says. "It started clicking, so even though I knew very early on I was Republican, I started actively getting engaged after I met my husband."

In 2002, after being drafted to win the "War of The Midges," neighbors turned to her to help solve other problems, squabbles with developers or the City Council.

About the same time, she was deeply disturbed by a California court case seeking to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance and it prompted her to teach her 1-year-old daughter, who barely could speak in complete sentences, to say the pledge.

She and a neighbor, Aubrey Ewing, began attending City Council meetings to voice their frustration with this issue or that in their subdivision, which was seen as the problem community on the outskirts of the city.

"Even though we would come and voice our opinion, they did what they wanted anyway," said Ewing. "She [Love] said, 'I guess really the only way to make things happen is to be part of the decision-making.'"

The next year, several seats on the council opened up, and with Jason Love pounding in lawn signs and Mia Love and Aubrey knocking on doors, Mia Love was elected to the City Council.

After six sometimes-turbulent years on the council, she decided to run for mayor of Saratoga Springs and won handily, becoming the first black female mayor in Utah.

At her swearing in, her parents sat nearby in the audience, beaming with pride.

"I smiled inside of me. I smiled all of my fibers," said Jean Bourdeau. "I said 'wow.' I am glad to see Mia go wherever she wanted to go."

Editors Note • Matt Canham reported from Connecticut.

Correction: Mia Love's first presidential vote was for George W. Bush, not George H.W. Bush. —

Mia Love bio

Age • 36

Family • Husband, Jason Love, and two daughters and a son.

Education • Bachelor's in performing arts, University of Hartford Hartt School

Birthplace • Brooklyn, N.Y.

Occupation • Flight attendant, call center manager, fitness instructor and mayor

Hobbies • Music, long-distance running