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What's this? Utah Democrats are pushing for Mike Lee?

Published August 12, 2014 11:23 am

Legislative candidate • Democrat has same name as GOP senator, but opposite politics.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Believe it or not, Utah Democrats are working hard to elect Mike Lee.

No, they are not helping the right-wing Republican U.S. senator. They are pushing a different Mike Lee — a West Valley City Democrat, a vice president of the Utah AFL-CIO and a Unified police officer — for the state House.

The Democratic Mike Lee says his shared name with the better-known Republican, and their opposite politics, constantly creates confusion for his campaign — often followed by humor.

It started even before he filed for office, when he persuaded state Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, to host a joint meeting to help him get to know Democratic delegates in their shared area. Lee volunteered to make the invitation calls.

In the second call, he remembers saying, "Hi, this is Mike Lee. I'm running for the House of Representatives. I called to invite you to a meeting." After running through more information, he mentioned, "I'd like you to join me and Senator Karen Mayne."

The delegate — who had remained silent — finally spoke up. "I'm so glad you said, 'Senator Mayne,' because I was about to hang up on you. I thought you were Senator Mike Lee."

The Democratic Lee said, "It was at that point I knew I had to make a distinction between the two of us."

So he is temporarily using his legal, given name: Michael D. Lee, which will appear on the ballot and is on lawn signs sprouting up in his district.

"I've always been Mike," so it's a little difficult being Michael now, he said, adding that only his mother and his ex-wife ever called him by the more formal name.

When he talks to people on their doorsteps, "I initially tell people I am Michael, then I always find myself reverting back to Mike. I want to make sure that people know I am not him [the Republican], but I can't be someone who I am not."

People sometimes do a double take when it clicks that they have a politician named Mike Lee at their door.

"Last night, I had been talking to a man for two or three minutes. He finally jumps and says, 'You're Mike Lee?' I said, 'I'm not the Mike Lee you're thinking of. I don't even look like him,' " said the entirely bald candidate, who has never met his GOP counterpart.

He recounts how, when the Republican was running for the Senate, one lobbyist who had worked with him at the Legislature on some police issues, got his Mike Lees mixed up.

"I got a voice mail," said the Democrat. "He said, 'I've got a foursome to [GOP Sen.] Orrin Hatch's golf tournament and I was wondering if you want to come and play.'"

So the Democrat called back and left his own message: "I'd love to come to your golf tournament. I don't know if you mind, but I'd like to bring Sam Granato as my partner." Democrat Granato was running against the Republican Mike Lee at the time.

The lobbyist called back sheepishly acknowledging that he had called the wrong Mike Lee.

"I know you did, the Democrat said. "I was just messing with you."

He's says it's been interesting for him on the campaign trail this year to see the depth of passion inspired by the Republican senator.

"I've learned that people love him or hate him. There's a lot of people out there who adamantly despise the man."

On the other hand, he says, the Republican also has plenty of "people who are passionately for him" — and are a little disappointed when they discover he's a different Mike Lee.

"I honestly don't know if it's going to negatively or positively impact me" as people vote, the Democrat says. If some Republicans accidentally believe they are voting somehow for the conservative as they cast a ballot, the Democrat says, "I'll take it."

But his opponent believes it may go the other way.

"There may be some Democrats who see his name, think it is Republican Senator Lee, and refuse to vote for him," says former Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City.

Lee says he is trying to create his own identity as a defender of west-siders by conducting a door-to-door campaign every night, planning social media and Internet advertising and even running some cable TV ads.

House District 30 is seen as one of the few truly competitive districts in the state.

Current Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City, is retiring two years after the district was redrawn, forcing her into a showdown with Cox, also an incumbent. She won that hard-fought race.

But now Cox is back to try to reclaim the district.

Lee has run unsuccessfully twice for the House, but never against Cox.

The Democrat has outraised Cox, $22,500 to about $4,500, according to disclosure forms.