There’s more to politicians than politics, no matter how much they are revered or reviled. That certainly is true of Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In interviewing the senator’s friends, foes and family members for the Lee profile The Tribune published Monday, it became clear that there’s more to the man than political posturing or pontificating.
Like him or loathe him, Lee has a softer and more risible private side that differs substantially from the more serious and austere public face he often displays.
Here are a few stories that didn’t make the cut for the profile.
Political power broker
In 2016, Lee eventually endorsed his good friend, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for president. But that was after Donald Trump all but cinched the nomination.
Early on, Lee remained neutral, Cruz recalled, because he wanted to be in a position to broker the peace between the Texas presidential hopeful and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was also vying to become the GOP nominee.
Right before the Florida Republican primary, Cruz said his campaign polling showed Trump would win the Sunshine State decisively. But what intrigued his campaign was that if he and Rubio ran together as a ticket, while they would still lose Florida, they would win upcoming primaries in Missouri, North Carolina and Illinois by double digits.
When Cruz shared the information with Lee, the Utah senator shared those polling numbers with Rubio and helped organize a meeting to discuss the possibility of a Cruz-Rubio ticket. Lee flew down to Florida to meet with the two candidates. But Rubio canceled the meeting.
“So Mike and I had dinner together, just the two of us,” Cruz said. " And as I look back at the 2016 [race], that’s one of those fork-in-the-road moments where the outcome .. could have been very different.”
If he had prevailed, Cruz added, “Mike would have been the very first person I would have put on the Supreme Court. I think he would make an extraordinary Supreme Court Justice.”
Everybody likes Mike
Lee was one of two boys in a family of seven children. Large families were a bit of an oddity in Washington, D.C., where Lee’s father, Rex, was serving as U.S. Solicitor General. When Rex and Janet Lee took their children to eat out at area restaurants, diners often asked about their large family, prompting Lee’s father to quip that they left the other four children at home.
When some of Mike’s siblings — clearly embarrassed by the attention — told their parents they wished there were only two children. Rex and Janet would ask, “OK, which two would you choose?”
“Every single one of them would say, “If there were just me and Michael, then everything would be great,” said Janet Lee Chamberlain, who eventually remarried after Rex’s death from cancer in 1996. “He was kind of everyone’s favorite person.”
Fast friends and fake fraternities
One of Lee’s closest boyhood friends when he lived in McLean, Virginia, was Josh Reid, son of then-Congressman Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was later elected to the Senate and became Senate majority leader.
Mike and Josh attended the same elementary, early morning LDS seminary classes and their freshman year at McLean High School together before the Lees moved back to Provo. They also listened to ‘80s rock ‘n’ roll, including the Smiths, the Cure and Depeche Mode.
“We went from tweens to teens together,” Josh Reid said. “I remember going to [LDS] stake dances. I was around when Mike kissed his first girl.”
For his part, Lee recalls good-natured political debates — usually initiated by Josh — with Reid family members, and the time the congressman locked him and Josh in the garage for a few hours as a practical joke.
“We were riding our bikes and skateboards all around the [Reid’s] garage,” Lee recalled. “[Harry] locked the door from inside the house. He was a practical jokester and wanted to see what we would do … What I’ve never been able to figure out is how he prevented us from opening the garage door from the inside.”
Later, while Senate majority leader, Harry Reid was known for threatening to keep the Senate in session over the weekend and locking everyone in the chamber, joking he had “locked up a senator before.”
Despite their differing political views, Lee and Josh Reid have become lifelong friends. While attending Brigham Young University after they returned from their respective LDS church missions, the two joined a fake fraternity (real ones were not allowed on campus) called the CDU.
“We told people it stood for Collegiate Development Union,” Reid said. “But since it was created in the ‘70s, it meant Chicks Dig Us, which is kind of terrible in retrospect.”
One CDU highlight, Reid added, was when Lee and other members crashed another fake fraternity’s clambake at the Provo Marriott, carrying signs with slogans like “Make love, not chowder.”
Doing impressions, making waves
Lee’s mastery of the Constitution and near-photographic memory of legal precedents and obscure cases made an impression on his Senate colleagues. So did his impersonations, although not always in a good way. After Lee mimicked Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell while speaking to a small gathering, Spencer Stokes — Lee’s chief of staff at the time — was soon summoned by McConnell’s chief of staff, Josh Holmes, who wanted an explanation.
Stokes met with Holmes and assured him the senator meant no disrespect.
“I told him [the senator] was young and liked to do impressions,” Stokes recalled. “I said, ‘He does great impressions of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Hey, he even does impressions of me.’ "
Make your case
Rex and Janet Lee’s children didn’t always get their way, but they did get a hearing. Mike’s older brother Thomas, who recently retired as an associate justice of the Utah Supreme Court, says their dad would allow them to make their case.
“He would often say “I’ll give you your day in court” if we wanted to argue for a raise in our allowance or a different car to drive or something like that,” Tom said.
Janet says her children’s arguments were impressive on occasion and persuaded her and Rex to change their minds.
“They’d come up with some pretty good arguments,” she said. “So, we didn’t always tell them no. At some point, we’d say, ‘You’ve made a really good case … Let’s see what we can do.’ Other times, Rex would say point blank, ‘That was a really great argument, but no.’ "
Tom believes those experiences taught his younger brother not only how to make an argument, but also how to be a good listener.
“Michael is a lot that same way in his current role in the Senate,” he said. “He’s a listener, and he’s someone whose door is always open.”