J. Bracken Lee, one of the state's most colorful and controversial political figures, died Sunday in a Salt Lake nursing home of natural causes. He was 97.
In a vigorous defense of his fiscal conservatism as governor of Utah (1949-57), Lee once uttered the words that made him famous: "Do it honestly, do the best you know how, and let 'em holler!" That statement accurately portrays not only Lee's unique, forceful personality but the entire philosophy of government that generated his reputation as one of the few genuine mavericks in American political history.From his earliest days in politics, he was charismatic, independent, supremely self-confident and candid.
In an enduring career, he was mayor of Price for 12 years, Utah governor for eight years, mayor of Salt Lake City for 12 years, perennial candidate for governor and senator, frequently mentioned candidate for president or vice president, and a forceful spokesman for conservatism. He was especially known for his fiscal conservatism and his strong stand against income tax, foreign aid, and the United Nations.
Many people compared his candor and gift for self expression with that of Harry Truman, although their political philosophies were opposite.
Due to a well-known penchant for personal confrontation, Lee probably also made more enemies than any other Utah politician.
Although his record as mayor of Price was in some ways laudable, it was also morally questionable to the typically religious Utah voter. But as governor, he gained immediate respectability for his emphasis on integrity and economy. His principal target for economy was education, however, and he soon made an enemy of almost every educator in the state. On balance, his healthy relationship with the LDS Church probably saved him from educators' wrath. His general conservatism in a conservative state protected his political career until he publicly criticized the popular U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
His third-term hopes were destroyed in 1956 when he found church leaders, educators and politicians almost universally opposed to him. Yet, as an independent for governor and for senator in 1958, he still exercised startling influence over Utah politics.
Lee proved his resiliency by his three-time election as Salt Lake mayor until his voluntary retirement in 1972. Finally, as an ex-mayor in his 70s, he demonstrated a surprising ability to influence the election or defeat of other politicians.
Undoubtedly, he remained a respected, though controversial, figure because he seemed always to retain "the courage of his convictions."
Joseph Bracken Lee was born Jan. 7, 1899, in Price, to Arthur James Lee and Ida May Leiter Lee. His grandfather, Edwin C. Lee, came to Utah as an LDS convert from England in 1855, and all of Edwin's sons were active in the church except Arthur, J. Bracken Lee's father.
Lee's maternal ancestors were also LDS converts who arrived in Utah in 1849, but Lee's great-grandmother became inactive and reared Lee's grandmother outside the church. As a result, J. Bracken Lee was never a church member.
Lee attended elementary school in Fruita, Colo., and Carbon County High School in Price but did not graduate; instead, he enlisted in the Army when World War I broke out in April 1917, two months prior to graduation. He served in the 21st Infantry until March 1919, emerging with the rank of sergeant. He then served as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve until 1935.
After the service, he worked for several months as a postal clerk before joining his father in the insurance and real estate business, eventually becoming manager and owner of the agency.
He married Nellie Amelia Pace on Sept. 20, 1920, but she died five years later on Jan. 1, 1926. On Feb. 23, 1928, Lee married Margaret Ethel Draper from Wellington, Utah, and they had a long and happy marriage. Margaret was an active LDS Church member but, according to Lee, never tried to convert him. She died March 2, 1989.
Lee had four children: Helen Virginia L. Nelson (by his first marriage) and James Bracken, Margaret Jon Taylor and Richard L. Lee (by his second marriage).
As Lee's insurance business prospered, he had time to devote to outside interests, becoming a registered Republican, a 32nd degree mason, an Elk and a Legionniare. By 1931, he had become so politically connected that he ran for mayor of Price but was swamped. After sitting out the 1933 election, he tried again in 1935, and this time, won by two votes. He served six consecutive terms, from January 1936 to December 1947.
His tenure was highly controversial, with Price becoming known as an "open city," referring to his liberal policies toward gambling, liquor and prostitution. He advocated open saloons instead of liquor stores and actually arrested two state liquor enforcement agents, Chester Dowse and Henry Bell, while they were in the process of raiding and closing the Jones Club on Carbon Avenue.
Despite these problems, Lee was a very popular mayor, and his liquor publicity propelled him into contention for statewide office.
He was unsuccessful in 1942 as a candidate for Congress and in 1944 as a candidate for governor. However, in November 1948, he won the governorship by 27,439 votes over the incumbent candidate Herbert B. Maw.
Running for re-election in 1952, he handily defeated Salt Lake's mayor, Earl J. Glade. He sought a third term in 1956 but lost in the primary election to George D. Clyde and then was defeated as an independent in the final election.
Gov. Lee's administration covered a period of industrial and population growth and inflationary pressures. He consistently opposed to the use of income tax funds for foreign aid and unlimited use of taxing powers.
Under Lee's direction, Utah greatly increased its state building programs and highway construction. He established a state motor pool, abolished the state liquor enforcement agency and the Publicity and Industrial Development Department. He set up a more restricted Tourist and Publicity Council and was influential in the simplification of the state fiscal structure, which placed welfare funds in the general fund.
During his administration, corporation franchise and motor fuel taxes were increased and individual income tax was decreased. The debt-free status of the state was maintained; when he left office, there was an $8.35 million surplus in the general fund.
Lee contended that cutting waste and inefficiency resulted in more public improvements during his tenure than during preceding administrations. Lee was consistent in his battle for economy and successful in his effort to attain it. Much of his national recognition resulted from that record. Utah newspapers supported his cause, and economically minded Utahns found it difficult to criticize him even when he exasperated them.
While governor, he displayed an extraordinary capacity for running contrary to general political trends in the state, attracting both dedicated support as well as fervent opposition.
Lee's views on national and foreign affairs generated much of the controversy during his administration. This controversy won national attention, resulting in Lee's appointment in 1957 to the top executive position of "For America," a national organization dedicated to many of the causes Lee championed as governor.
Following his losing battles for the governorship and the U.S. Senate, Lee announced his intention to run for mayor of Salt Lake City, a shrewd decision that rejuvenated his political career. In a nonpartisan race, he was able to brush aside his tainted image of an independent and maverick Republican. In a smashing victory, Lee swept 197 of 202 districts in a race that included six candidates.
While mayor, Lee showed that he had not entirely left the maverick image behind. In 1962, he made another bid for the U.S. Senate, losing in the primary to Sen. Wallace F. Bennett.
In 1964, Lee made one final attempt to regain the governorship. Because of the wrath of educators, Lee had no chance to emerge from the Republican convention, placing a distant third to Mitchell Melich, the eventual GOP candidate, and D. James Cannon. That was the year Democrat Calvin Rampton was elected.
Lee coasted to an easy re-election as mayor in 1963. But in 1967, his last political campaign, Lee only narrowly defeated D. James Cannon, by 291 votes. Comparing the last Salt Lake victory to his first election as Price mayor in 1935 by 2 votes, Lee declared it a "landslide." But by 1972, after 12 years as Salt Lake mayor, he was ready to retire.
A political poll in the middle of his final term revealed that six of 10 voters rated him as either an excellent or a good mayor. Lee viewed his major contributions in Salt Lake City as a balanced budget and extensive civic improvements.
The most controversial episode of his tenure as mayor was his 1960 firing of popular police chief W. Cleon Skousen. The community reeled under the impact of this thunderbolt. Although they were both conservatives, Lee and Skousen differed seriously on methods of law en-force-ment. Lee objected to Skousen's raiding of private clubs, and compared him to the "Gestapo," while Skousen called Lee "soft on law enforcement." They also disagreed over the budget. Their feud continued for many years and represented one of the most colorful confrontations in Utah political history.
He was prominent in Masonic activities, including membership in Joppa Lodge 26, Free and Accepted Masons; El Kalaj Temple of Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine in Salt Lake City. He held the 32nd Degree, KCCH, in Utah Consistory, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite.
Other affiliations during his life included Carbon Country Club, Price Post No. 3, American Legion, Price Lodge 1550, BPO Elks (once exalted ruler) and four terms as president of Carbon County Associated Enterprises.