Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Ben McAdams, left, acknowledges family after he's sworn in by Sen. Michael Waddoups.

New Utah state Sen. Ben McAdams hardly looks old enough to be a lawmaker. But the fresh-faced Salt Lake Democrat is no neophyte when it comes to politics.

"I think I've lived a lot in 35 years," McAdams said during a recent interview at City Hall, where he's worked for two years as Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker's legislative liaison.

"I've got energy and fresh ideas, so I think youth is a good thing," he said. "But I also have enough life experience that I think I've got some good judgment and good perspective to bring."

His District 2 constituents agree. They chose him to replace the state's only openly gay senator, fellow Democrat Scott McCoy. McCoy, an attorney, stepped down late last year to devote more time to his legal career.

Although this is the first office he's held, McAdams was an electrical engineering major at the University of Utah when he felt the pull of politics, thanks to an offhand remark by a political science professor.

The professor had suggested his students watch then-President Bill Clinton's second inauguration the following day. A classmate of McAdams had an even better idea — fly back to Washington, D.C., for the event on his free airline passes.

Being in the nation's capitol for the first time was enough to convince McAdams his future was politics. Instead of engineering, he graduated with a political science degree and went on to Columbia Law School in New York City.

A stint on Wall Street as counsel for a financial firm was mainly to pay off his college loans, McAdams said. He and his wife, Julie, also a Columbia Law School grad, always planned to come back to Utah.

The pair, who met in high school, were married during his senior year of college. McAdams, who was already working several jobs to pay his way through school, recalled selling plasma to earn enough extra cash to take his future bride on dates.

It was the birth of their first children, twins James and Kate, four years ago in New York City that set the timetable for their return to Utah, McAdams said. The couple also have another son, Robert, who is 1 1/2 years old.

McAdams already knew and admired Becker, having gotten to know him during a U. legislative internship when Becker served as a state representative from District 24. So he jumped at the chance to help the new mayor.

"He's one of my heroes," McAdams said of Becker. "His politics align very well with mine." The two also share a similar political style, McAdams said, praising the mayor for his ability to build a consensus on often controversial issues. "He is passionate. He's just methodical."

Becker's advice to the new senator? "Always stand up for what you believe in but never make it personal," McAdams said his boss told him.

As Democrats, both the mayor and McAdams are used to fighting uphill battles in one of the most Republican states in the nation. Becker had been House minority leader in the Legislature; McAdams' job with the city had been to push the mayor's agenda to state lawmakers.

That agenda included the city's recent ordinances aimed at protecting gays and lesbians from employment and housing discrimination, proposals backed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is not clear whether the Legislature's GOP majority will support similar protections for all of Utah's gays and lesbians, but McAdams said he'll back the effort. "I look at it as a matter of civil rights," he said.

He'll also take on legislation McCoy had attempted to pass that would extend certain wrongful death benefits to gay and other nontraditional couples.

McAdams, a member of the LDS Church, said he doesn't find it difficult to be a Mormon and a Democrat.

"I don't feel any dissonance between myself and my political beliefs and my faith," he said, describing himself as progressive in his views. "There are certainly people who have criticized me, but I believe I'm acting 100 percent in accordance with my conscience."

He said that that's what his faith requires, "to act in accordance with what my personal beliefs are. I don't look to any outside source or religious authority to tell me how I should think or what my political opinion should be. They come from me."