SALT LAKE CITY — A mullet doesn’t often find its way into politics.
But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, used the bygone hairstyle — short in the front and sides, long in the back — to make a point about government.
“If you had a mullet, there’s nothing about making the mullet cool today, nothing you could do just by getting a slightly shorter mullet that would make the mullet cool today,” Lee said.
“By the same token, if you just shrink government as it exists today, you’re not necessarily going to be fixing the problem. You might have a slightly smaller problem. But just like the slightly shorter mullet, it’s still ugly today,” he said.
Lee spoke to a group of mostly young entrepreneurs Tuesday at Church & State, a nonprofit resource center for business startups housed in a renovated downtown church. He also took questions from the audience and later from reporters in a separate gathering.
The first-term senator who faces re-election this year talked about his conservative reform agenda for tax policy, higher education and business regulation, among other things.
“Conservatives tend to make a mistake when we talk about simply wanting to cut big government, as if a slightly smaller version of the currently dysfunctional, disfigured government that we have would somehow suffice,” Lee said.
“No. What we need to do is fix broken government, not just cut big government.”
Lee said government too often gets in the way of business innovation and development, noting that startups account for 100 percent of the net job growth in the country.
Higher education currently ties student loans to a decades-old federal accreditation system that doesn’t account for modern realities, he said. States, Lee said, should be allowed to accredit alternative programs that don’t fall into the traditional four-year college.
That idea appealed to Garrett Clark, Salt Lake City campus director of the The Iron Yard, a 12-week computer coding and programming boot camp tailored to meet job needs in the community. Some prospective students, he said, can’t get the funding for the $12,000 tuition.
Opening federal student loans would be a “softball right down the middle” to help students who would learn skills that are in demand at startups or established companies the moment they graduate.
“It’s really designed to be a life-changing trajectory for these students via the Iron Yard curriculum,” Clark said of the program that started in South Carolina and is now in 16 U.S. cities.
During the question-and-answer session, Davis Smith, CEO of the outdoor gear company Cotopaxi, described himself as a conservative who no longer identifies with conservative positions on climate change, energy, immigration, refugee resettlement and gun control.
Smith asked Lee what conservative leaders could do to not fall out of touch with millennials who are fiscally but not socially conservative.
Lee said the best way conservatives in federal offices can deal with that divide is to remember that most social issues are best handled at the state and local levels.
“We need to stay in our lane,” he said.
The senator also repeated what he has said before, that conservatives need to do a better job of explaining what they’re for, not just being against things.
Lee was asked about the armed standoff in Oregon, particularly that as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what he thought about organizers invoking Mormon scripture to take over a federal wildlife refuge.
“I’m not aware of any tenet of my religious faith as a Latter-day Saint, nor am I aware of any sound public policy that would tell me it’s a good idea, that it’s necessary to do what they’ve done here, to occupy a federal building and promising to defend it with force in an armed standoff,” he said.
Lee said the armed protestors should stand down.
“I don’t think they’re justified by their religious beliefs,” he said. “This is not the way to resolve that.”
By Dennis Romboy, Deseret News
Published: Wed, Jan. 6, 2016, 3:00 p.m. MST