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Decades before right-wing politicians talked of repealing the 16th Amendment authorizing the federal income tax, J. Bracken Lee refused to pay his share of revenue to the federal government. And he did so while serving as Utah's Republican governor in 1955.
"Only death and taxes are certain," the Price native notably said in a folksy tone. "But death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets."
For Republicans, the 1950s was an era of internal struggle between those who wanted a party pliable to modern demands, and those who wanted a return to core conservative principles of low taxes and small government. Lee planted himself firmly in the latter camp.
"Do it honestly, do it the best you know how, and let 'em holler," he said.
In many ways, that makes Lee a non-Mormon whose political career includes 12 years as mayor of Price, two terms as Utah governor, and three terms as Salt Lake City mayor a progenitor of today's madder-than-hell parade of tea party activists. Or was he?
While Lee worked tirelessly to pull the Republican party further right, yet he would find himself out of place among conservatives in today's Republican party, according to Susan Neel, a specialist in modern U.S. history at Utah State University-College of Eastern Utah.
Neel will present her assessment of Lee's unique influence on Utah conservative politics at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday as part of the Utah State History Conference at Fort Douglas. The conference begins Friday and runs through Sunday.
Neel was first drawn to Lee's legacy during her research of Colorado River water reclamation projects. "He was very much an individual," Neel said, acknowledging the politician's formidable charisma, wit and hard work.
Utah historian Will Bagley believes that Lee's roots in Price, with its history as a Western "open town" where gambling, drinking and prostitution were often quietly overlooked, also lent him a Libertarian streak similar to current presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Lee famously, but politely, declined a request by leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to sign a statement that he would oppose the sale of liquor by the drink, Bagley said, but went on to win the governorship regardless.
"He scared the hell out of many Utahns," Bagley said. "The state had gone through a nice round of bipartisanship, then Lee injected a very right-wing version of Republican politics."
Neel said Utah's romance with Lee's charming ways hit the rocks in 1955, during a crucial moment for funding authorization for water reclamation projects that Utah Republicans wanted desperately. Lee opposed them as wasteful government projects, making him an accidental ally of Sierra Club Foundation founder David Brower and other environmentalists.
"The larger problem was his public refusal to pay income tax," Neel said. "Here Utah Republicans were trying to get millions in congressional approval for these projects, when the state's own governor wouldn't pay his taxes."
The Utah Republican Party kicked him out into the political wilderness, but he soon found a home with the For America movement, a national anti-tax organization.
Later, Lee returned to Utah politics as mayor of Salt Lake City. During his first year as mayor Lee was caught at an illegal poker club by Salt Lake City police chief Cleon Skousen. Skousen was fired but would go on to even greater political fame as a scion of the John Birch Society and conservative author.
Neel said she doubted Lee would fit the requirements of today's conservative tea partiers, even if he might be considered a kindred spirit of sorts. The cultural issues of abortion, gay rights and feminism that would later fuse religion into politics had yet to arrive. But most of all, Lee was too much his own man.
"One of the things he disliked about big government was that it resulted in big heads and egos," Neel said. "He didn't like that. But that's not to say he didn't think he was right. He was stubborn as all get out."
Utah State History Conference
P "The Peoples of Utah: Celebrating Diversity" is the theme of the 59th annual conference.
When • From Friday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Where • Fort Douglas, 32 Potter St., Salt Lake City
Info • Conference sessions are free to the public. Call 801-533-3517 or visit history.utah.gov for more information.