Power players

Dealbreakers wield clout in public and behind the scenes in Utah

Published: Thursday, May 17 2001 12:00 a.m. MDT

She is one woman. One 59-year-old grandmother from Highland who drives a tired Chevy Suburban, loves her home, kids and country, and strikes unholy dread into the hearts of the political leaders who go up against her.

To be invisible is the best thing. To be off Gayle Ruzicka's radar screen is ideal. Because politicians with legislation to pass, or bills to carry, do not want Ruzicka on the other side of their effort. They do not want her sending out the word theirs is a bill to be killed. They do not want her activating her phone tree.

She is considered Utah's No. 1 dealbreaker, according to months of research by the Deseret News.

Ruzicka is the leader of the Utah Eagle Forum, an ultra-conservative, family values group with an undetermined number of members statewide — and she can mobilize thousands of Utahns to action in an afternoon.

She's done it, time and time again, at the Utah State Legislature. Her influence in the local political arena earned her the dealbreaking title, according to the paper's study, which asked 30 community leaders which three people are most effective at stopping projects.

"I don't know that you'd call me a dealbreaker," Ruzicka said recently. "I just think it's about getting the message out. . . . I don't see it as power, I see it as educating people."

Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson was the No. 2 dealbreaker in Utah, according to the paper's research. LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was third.

Ruzicka is a walking dichotomy: someone liberals love to hate but someone who — when you get to know her personally — is admired for her commitment, even humanity.

Local liberal radio talk show host Tom Barberi of KALL Radio watches Capitol Hill closely and has a long-running skirmish with Ruzicka and her group. "She definitely has influence on the outcome of legislation, and it's dangerous," he said. "She does not represent mainstream Utahns."

She loves the limelight, bullies people publicly and understands very well the game of name recognition and publicity, he said. "She is the most well-known non-elected official in this state," Barberi said.

Here's why.

Late one Wednesday afternoon, toward the end of the 2001 legislative session, Ruzicka glanced at an agenda to the last meeting of a legislative education committee. She noticed a truancy bill by Rep. Duane Bordeaux, D-Salt Lake City, which referenced a section of the Utah code she knew covered education. That raised a red flag to her. Quick research by her Eagle Forum friends determined the bill "totally changed the homeschool law," according to Ruzicka.

She wrote out a quick memo. "Here's the problem," she told her Eagle Forum colleague. "Go make a phone call."

Jeanne Minert of Layton is the Eagle Forum secretary and handles the phone tree. She called five people, who each called five people, who each called five people and so on. Someone began faxing the opposition letter to a bevy of like-minded organizations and individuals, who in turn faxed it out to their colleagues.

Another Eagle Forum volunteer did the same with a formidable e-mail list.

Meanwhile, Ruzicka went on her conservative talk radio show on KTKK and announced the action. Call the bill sponsor, she told listeners. Call your state representative.

Someone called each lawmaker on the education committee and announced the Eagle Forum's opposition. The next morning, opponents packed the committee meeting room. By then, conservative lawmakers on the committee had made up their minds, Ruzicka said. "That bill didn't have a chance. It was over with."

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