It has been over a decade since J. Bracken Lee retired from Utah public life. For over forty years, Brac Lee was immersed in Utah politics, serving as mayor of Salt Lake City for two terms. He also sought election to both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. He gained national attention as a critic of the graduated income tax and federal deficit spending. As a dominant force, Lee combined natural political knowledge with tremendous energy and sustained amazing political popularity. Dennis Lythgoe has spent the time since Lee’s retirement preparing a political biography of this colorful and controversial Utahan. Utilizing extensive personal interviews and the Lee papers, Lythgoe has attempted to evaluate Lee’s political impact.
Although Lee gained considerable national attention, his career was Utah-centered and his influence on Utah was considerable. As governor and major, J. Bracken Lee was willing to fight many battles, some important and others mere shams. When he fired those who opposed him, be they liquor commissioners, police chiefs, or university presidents, he did it with flair and finality. Those who despised Lee were numerous, yet the voters kept electing him. This is why Lee is still an enigma. Although J. Bracken Lee is non-Mormon (his wife is LDS), he usually had the support of many General Authorities of the predominant church in Utah. That fact is confusing as Lee was often accused as major, both of Price and Salt Lake City, of running open cities. “Open” means that his administration was easy on prostitution, vice, and liquor law enforcement. However, in every Lee election, even when he ran as an independent, there was a large LDS constituency that voted for him. Lythgoe’s explanation of this electoral success is that Lee’s fiscal conservatism, his passion for economy in government, and his Republicanism endeared him to such LDS leaders as J. Reuben Clark, Thorpe B. Isaacson, and Ezra Taft Benson, who in turn influenced the Mormon vote.