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GOP Senate nominee Mike Lee is somber as he talks about the Constitution, and how too many people ignore it. But inside him lies a secret thrill-seeker who loves big, bad roller coasters and even says they taught him lessons about politics and defending the Constitution.
"It was a pretty routine thing for us to go to amusement parks when I was young," he says. Vacations often consisted of his father one-time U.S. solicitor general and former BYU president Rex E. Lee giving legal speeches around the country during mornings, and then hunting for wild roller coasters with the family.
"My dad would yell so loud that it was entertaining and embarrassing," Lee, 39, says.
He explains his rules for riding coasters. "Front seat is preferable. It is not mandatory. What is absolutely mandatory is your arms have to be up. The scarier the roller coaster, the more you have to yell especially down the first hill."
Politics • He says that has parallels in politics. "It's frightening and thrilling at the same time," he says. And it pays to be courageous and take on big challenges and coasters because "you know you're not going to die in the process of doing it," even if it is scary.
Lee says he wants to use such courage, and maybe even some figurative yelling, to stand up against how he says America has forgotten its constitutional basics, and to stop runaway federal spending.
It's something that may be in his blood he already has two second cousins in the U.S. Senate (Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Mark Udall, D-Colo.), and another who was there previously (Gordon Smith, R-Ore.). They are all descendants of David King Udall, an early Mormon pioneer in Arizona.
Lee says he was raised, literally, on talk of politics and the Constitution around the family dinner table.
"I say only half-jokingly that I was 30 before I realized that not every family talked about politics and constitutional law as we did in ours. It isn't all we talked about. My parents weren't cruel, and we weren't weirdos. But it's the world we lived in," Lee says.
Lee would often go to the U.S. Supreme Court to watch his father argue cases there as solicitor general representing the Reagan administration, and he would discuss interesting issues of the day with him.
"He loved to analyze issues and present both sides of them so that I understood. I sometimes got frustrated with that because I wanted him to tell me what was the right side," Lee says. "He wanted me to analyze it and come down where I thought it was best."
When Mike Lee was about 10, he discussed with his father the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Instead of focusing on abortion itself, he remembers concluding as a child that the "biggest problem was that it [abortion] should be addressed by the states and not the federal government." No wonder the younger Lee grew up to become a constitutional lawyer, too.
The law • "I've never seen anyone so passionate about the law. He truly loves it," says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. He and Lee live in Alpine, used to carpool together, and Chaffetz hired Lee as the general counsel to former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. when he was Huntsman's chief of staff.
"He is usually the smartest guy in the room. He's a tenacious worker. He's exceptionally well-versed in the law," Chaffetz said. "He's perpetually happy and energetic. I've never seen him tired or disheveled. He's the Energizer bunny."
Lee says that legal work and politics have always been intertwined in his mind, so it is natural for him to jump from law into politics to defend constitutional principles. It is something others in his extended family have done.
Morris and Stewart Udall, cousins of his father, were elected as Democrats to Congress from Arizona. Stew became secretary of the Interior, and Mo was a presidential candidate. Lee says they became legends in their hometown of St. Johns, Ariz., where his father was raised and may have encouraged others in the family to be politically active.
He remembers when the pair visited his father in Washington when he became solicitor general.
"He answered the door, and they said, 'Hi, we're the ward teachers,'" a term the LDS Church had not used in years, instead using the designation "home teachers." "My dad laughed and said, 'Come on in boys. That shows how long it's been since either of you set foot in a Mormon church.' "
Lee said he has yet to meet Sens. Mark and Tom Udall the sons of Mo and Stew. "I don't know all my second cousins. If you add in second-cousins-once-removed and third cousins, I'm probably related to two-thirds of the state. It's not that much of an exaggeration. If I can just get the votes of the descendants of [ancestor pioneers] John D. Lee and Jacob Hamblin, I'll be in good shape."
He relishes the thought of going back to Washington, D.C., and getting to work on whittling back the size and scope of the federal government, which he says is "too big and too expensive and it was never meant to be that way."
A side benefit is that Washington isn't too far from the Busch Gardens amusement park in Williamsburg, Va., the site of his all-time favorite roller coaster. "It's Alpengeist. It takes the cake," he said.
Mike Lee, Republican Senate nominee
Age • 39
Professional • lawyer, Howrey LLP; former clerk, Justice Samuel Alito, U.S. Supreme Court and 3rd District Court of Appeals; former general counsel, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.; former assistant U.S. attorney, Salt Lake City; former litigator for Sidley & Austin, Washington, D.C.; former clerk, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson in Salt Lake City.
Education • Law degree, BYU, 1997; B.S. in political science, BYU, 1994 (also student body president there).
Family • Three children.
Fun fact • Second cousin to Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., and former Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.