Eagle eye: Moral crusader Ruzicka wields 'phone tree'

Published: Sunday, Nov. 7 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

"She's a hero," says Karen Clark, vice president of the Utah Eagle Forum. "I can't think of anyone who loves her family or country more. She's misunderstood. If people only knew her. Her main focus is the family, and that's dear to most of us."

Ruzicka has made her share of enemies. She says homosexual groups have attacked her home computer with a barrage of pop-ups, porn and gay-themed e-mails. She takes her computer to the repair shop with a certain regularity to get it cleaned up. The repairmen tell her they can tell that her computer has been targeted.

She can find more venom in letters to the editor and ugly phone calls to her house in which callers have told her children they have a horrible mother. At times callers fill up her answering machine with ugly messages and foul language and even threats on her life. It was a fact of life growing up in the Ruzicka household.

"When you're little, you wonder, why is that person being mean," says Kristyn, Ruzicka's daughter. "As you get older, you get tougher. We know how she really is. They mischaracterize her. They confuse political opposition with personal behavior. If you don't agree with her politically, don't attack her personally. It's not very mature. They say horrible things that have nothing to do with her political life. She's been called hateful, but if you talk to her, you find she's so kind, loving and generous."

Grass-roots democracy

The power Ruzicka wields has stirred resentment, but she came by her influence honestly and in the most American of ways — by utilizing the forces of democracy more effectively and energetically than her opponents.

It begins with her phone/e-mail tree, which she created years ago as a way to rally and mobilize support quickly. "I knew the most important thing was to notify people," she says, "but how? We didn't have the Internet 15 years ago, but everyone has a phone. How do you call everybody? Well, everyone can call five people, so I sat down, got out paper and made a phone tree."

When she wants, for instance, to rally support for a certain bill, she calls her Eagle Forum secretary, who, in turn, sends a fax to the phone tree chairman, who faxes 30 or so chapter presidents throughout the state, who then call five people, who call five more people, who call five more people. In addition to making the five calls, they also call one legislator.

"I am astounded by how many people it reaches," says Ruzicka. "A legislator will say, 'Last night I received a hundred phone calls.' Or the secretaries at the Legislature will say, 'The phones were so tied up all day, we couldn't make a call.' "

There is no membership per se in Eagle Forum, another of Ruzicka's organizational wrinkles. Membership, she says, would give the impression they're closed to non-members. The phone tree is fueled strictly by word of mouth — the callers knows others who share their views and want to be involved. Non-membership also means that those who receive the calls have the option not to participate. In that case, the caller simply calls the next person on the list.

"I want people to pick and choose what they're interested in," says Ruzicka, who keeps Eagle Forum participants informed about issues and candidates with annual conferences, e-mail, newsletters and monthly chapter meetings. "Some people may agree 100 percent on pro-life, but not on education. Well, I don't care. I want them to be involved in things that are important to them. We tell our callers, here's the issue, here's our position, if you agree, call, if not, don't call."

This is how Ruzicka and her colleagues — who are almost all women ("Because the men are at work," says Ruzicka) — rally support for or against bills and candidates, encourage people to attend mass meetings and legislative sessions about a particular bill and call representatives to urge support of their agenda. This ability to mobilize people is the source of much of Ruzicka's influence. Eagle Forum participants attend en masse neighborhood caucuses in which delegates are chosen for county and state conventions, which is where candidates are chosen. This helps put their own candidates in office, or candidates who support their agenda.

"They get their power from those mass meetings," says a former political rival. "They make sure that their people are at those caucuses."

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