One man’s political crusade in Utah

Bill Lee has a wife and seven children, a leadership position in his church and a one-man heating-and-air-conditioning business he struggles to keep afloat. But for the last few months Lee has been working full time, unpaid, on something akin to a crusade: toppling Robert F. Bennett, Utah’s three-term Republican U.S. senator and part of a political dynasty.

Lee, 44, is a Republican himself, a longtime party volunteer who supported Bennett until this campaign. Now, however, he feels betrayed: by the senator’s vote to spend hundreds of billions propping up Wall Street, by his willingness to bargain on healthcare legislation, by his diffident manner and his broken pledge to serve just two terms in Washington.

Lee is not angry, in the fashion of the “tea party” movement, or paranoid, like the conspiracy theorists who insist President Obama is a foreigner. In many ways he reflects the national mood — disgust with Washington, contempt for the political class — that threatens members of both parties.

Nervous is the word Lee uses to describe himself — nervous about the direction of the country and the growth and expanded reach of the federal government. “They keep digging their fingers deeper into our lives,” he says.

Bennett has reason to be nervous, too. When GOP activists gather Saturday in Salt Lake City to pick their Senate nominee, there is a good chance he will lose, making him perhaps the first incumbent casualty of this tumultuous election year.

Democrats have the most at stake in November as they try to protect their congressional majorities. But Bennett’s troubles, coming after Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was chased from Florida’s Senate primary, suggest problems for officeholders everywhere. (Crist is now running as an independent.)

“There’s a wholesale frustration with the status quo,” said Don Sipple, a veteran GOP strategist who suggested that, unlike 1994, “This may be more an anti-incumbent year than an anti-Democratic year.”

Sitting in his white Ford pickup, Lee senses a movement afoot. It is an awakening, he suggests, of conservatives who say that government must be rooted more firmly in the Constitution and that lawmakers need to focus less on power, perks and pork-barrel spending.

His candidate is Mike Lee, an attorney and of no relation, whose signs ride along in Bill Lee’s truck for chances like one this week. Checking a furnace at the home of another Lee backer, he scribbled the names of people willing to plant placards in their yards. After driving a few blocks, he grabbed two signs and maneuvered around a strawberry bed.

“This is one of the busiest streets in town,” Lee says, happily pounding stakes into a lawn across from Brigham Young University.

The campaign has been a sacrifice, but one Lee makes because, he believes, it is important for his family. “I worry about my kids enjoying the same America I enjoyed,” he says. “It’s worth staying up late, giving up things like coaching baseball, so they can have the same opportunities I did.”

Lee’s view of the world is small but stunning: the jagged Wasatch Mountains framed in the windshield of his truck, which he plies, engine rattling, through communities south of the Great Salt Lake.

He has lived his whole life in Utah, save for a two-year Mormon mission to West Virginia. He studied political science at BYU, where he met his wife, and then followed his father into the heating-and-air-conditioning business.

His parents were conservative, but Lee’s political leanings are neither hereditary nor a product of his environment. Being Republican is easy here; Provo has been rated America’s most conservative city. Even so, he read the state and national platforms of both parties before deciding the GOP was the right fit.

Lee takes a similar approach to campaigns. For two decades, he has been a regular at party meetings, gathering literature he annotates, drafting questions he asks candidates face to face. “I need them to look me in the eye,” he says.

Lee always voted for Bennett, who came from a prominent family. His grandfather was president of the Mormon Church; his father, Wallace, served four terms in the Senate; and his son, Jim, manages his campaign. In time, however, Lee grew disenchanted. He would contact Bennett’s office once or twice a year. The response was typically a form letter. “Ask a specific question,” Lee says. “Get a generic answer.”

The brush-off and Bennett’s failure to quit after two terms were small grievances, however, compared with the outrage Lee felt when the senator helped negotiate the Wall Street bailout. The senator says without the aid the economy might have collapsed, but Lee is skeptical. He wonders: Where was Bennett before the housing bubble burst and plunged the country into recession?

“He was on the Senate banking committee,” Lee says. “It’s like he was the watchman on the tower but let the thieves in.”

Lee perceived a troubling pattern: Bennett worked with Democrats on the financial bailout; he collaborated with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on a healthcare bill requiring Americans to buy insurance, similar to Obama’s plan. And another thing, Lee sheepishly admits: A photograph of Bennett grinning alongside Obama at one of the inaugural balls really bothered him. Why did he look so happy?

Lee once had five employees but he let the last one go in January. At home, Lee and his wife, Karen, cinched their belts tighter.

The family used to go to dollar movies, but that became an indulgence, so they rented videos. Then, to cut back, they started borrowing movies from Karen’s brother. Gone were the trips to Disneyland or Oregon, to see relatives. This year’s family vacation was a drive to a state park, for a day hike.

The massive stimulus bill was supposed to jump-start the economy, but Lee sees no evidence. To him, it was just another case of the federal government wasting money, going deeper into debt.

So he was glad for one particular service call in October. A Republican activist was hosting a talk by Mike Lee and wanted her furnace checked. She was desperate to fill seats, so she invited the repairman. Bill Lee brought his wife. (“A cheap date,” he jokes.)

He was captivated by Mike Lee’s call for limited government and strict adherence to the Constitution, and by his stance on issues: opposing bailouts, the stimulus bill, Democrats’ healthcare plan. Bill Lee was one of the campaign’s first volunteers, tapped to build a political operation around Provo, then promoted to oversee hundreds of volunteers statewide.

He will be on the floor at Saturday’s Salt Lake convention, missing his son’s lacrosse playoff, to help direct campaign operations. Even so, he makes no long-term commitment, even to Mike Lee.

“Six years down the road, I’ll look at the issues and if there’s someone better, I’ll go with him,” Bill Lee says. “I have no problem with that.”