SALT LAKE CITY — Attorney Mike Lee on Tuesday formally launched his campaign for the U.S. Senate against 76-year-old Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah — who is twice his age — saying "it's time for a new generation of leadership in Washington."
But Lee, 38, used two 77-year-olds — former Gov. Norm Bangerter and former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah — to introduce him at the announcement ceremony and provide endorsements. But the most powerful endorsement came from Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who earlier had dropped out of the Senate race against Bennett to help a daughter struggling with depression.
"I had over 1,000 state delegates at the point that I got out of the race who committed to support me at the upcoming (state GOP) convention this year. I'm happy to have every single one of them get to know Mike Lee and support him," Shurtleff said.
If a candidate earns 60 percent of the delegate votes at the GOP convention, he or she proceeds directly to the general election; otherwise, the top two candidates face off in a primary. Delegates for the next convention will be elected at caucus meetings in March, just three months away. Bennett has been spending heavily as he has courted delegates for months, while Lee is just starting.
Shurtleff, once considered the top challenger to Bennett, said that other candidates besides Lee lack the "experience, the background, the commitment, the zeal, the understanding of the Constitution" that he believes a public servant needs. He said Lee has those qualities, "and I can give him my 100 percent support."
Lee has served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Lee also was a general counsel to former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and a law clerk to federal Judge Dee Benson and has worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., as well as Utah. His father, Rex Lee, was a former U.S. Solicitor General and a former president of Brigham Young University.
"The time has come to pass the torch to a new generation of Republican leaders — men and women committed to the daunting but essential task of returning the federal government to its proper, limited role," Lee said as he announced his candidacy at the state Capitol, a site he said he chose as a symbol that government closest to the people is best.
"Our Founding Fathers decided that it would work best if they gave Congress only limited powers," Lee said. "Unfortunately, too many of those who serve us in Washington — Republicans and Democrats — have lost their grip on this principle." He said too many view the Constitution as something "that can be ignored whenever it is convenient."
"The first thing we need to change: Stop deficit spending," Lee said. He called for a Constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget every year to do that.
Also, he called for Congress to focus on the powers clearly given to it by the Constitution, such as national defense. He said it should "reform the distorted tax system" by creating a flat tax where everyone pays the same percent of income as tax. He said it should quit creating more government and cut the government's size and scope.
"Finally, the time has come for us to end the era of the lifetime, career politician," Lee said. With long service (Bennett has been in the Senate 17 years), Lee said, officials "grow far too comfortable spending other people's money."
To end long service in office, Lee called for passage of a Constitutional amendment limiting senators and House members to 12 years of service.
Hansen — who served 22 years in Congress, including 10 years with Bennett , and who has supported Bennett in the past — said he is supporting Lee because he is impressed with his experience and stands, and because "there's always a time for change." He added he is not criticizing Bennett but believes it is time for a change.
Bangerter said he supports Lee "because he asked me," and the former governor said no other candidates had sought his support. He said he also opposes deficit spending, which he said has become too rampant, and he believes electing Lee could help stop that.
Eight legislators also appeared at the announcement to endorse Lee, including former Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo; Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield; Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain; and Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden.
Other Republicans already in the Senate race are millionaire entrepreneur Tim Bridgewater, businesswoman Cherilyn Eagar and small businessman James Russell Williams III. Businessman Sam Granato is the lone Democrat in the race so far.
Eagar on Tuesday attacked both Lee and Bennett for not supporting a ban on importing foreign low-level nuclear waste as sought by EnergySolutions, which wants to import such waste from Italy. Lee has represented EnergySolutions in successful-but-appealed arguments that Utah and a northwest compact of states lacked authority to ban such shipments.
Eagar complained that Bennett has taken large donations from EnergySolutions ($49,300 since 2005), and that Lee has a conflict of interest because of his representation of the company.
"I'm also asking Bob Bennett … as well as the new Senate candidate, Mike Lee, an attorney who represents EnergySolutions, to remove their conflicts of interest. I invite them to join the grassroots fight to end these back-room deals and entangled alliances that are funding the 'incumbent party.' This is a major source of the corruption in Washington," Eagar said.
Lee said he opposes a bill pushed by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, to ban importing foreign low-level nuclear waste. However, he said he would support a bill that would limit how much such waste could be imported, and limit the amount of time that such waste would be accepted.