Eagle eye: Moral crusader Ruzicka wields 'phone tree'

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

"I see it time and time again," says Clark. "Legislators come to her and ask, 'What can I do to make you happy?' They know she has the power to stop it."

A balcony view

During the 45 days in which the Legislature is in session, Ruzicka and her colleagues can be found in the balcony that overlooks the House and Senate chambers. They pass notes to legislators urging support or to meet with them in the halls. Ruzicka has become a legendary figure sitting in the gallery, leaning over the railing, watching legislators to see how they vote.

"We laugh on the press bench because when lawmakers are taking their votes and she's in the audience, she's looking over the edge and writing their names if they don't vote the way she wants," says Jerry Spangler, longtime Deseret Morning News reporter. "I remember talking to one lawmaker about a bill, and he told me he could never vote for it because it was too extreme. When the vote came up, it was close and he voted for it. I talked to him later and asked him why he changed his mind. He said, 'I represent Utah County, and Gayle was in the audience.' That's the kind of power she wields with her phone tree."

Another legislator says, "I remember a joint caucus with Republicans and Democrats and they announced they were going to close the caucus — they were trying to get support for certain bills. Well, it wasn't the press they wanted to get rid of, it was her. Sometimes she intimidates."

Some rivals criticize Ruzicka's methods. They claim her phone tree creates an illusion that there is more support for her causes than there actually is. But even her opponents say it's fair play within the system.

"They are more dedicated" than their rivals, says a former legislator who has no love for Ruzicka. "The government belongs to those who show up."

Says Ruzicka, "I tell everyone they can do the same thing I do. If you disagree with me, you'd better get up there, because I will be. I'm not doing anything you can't do. What I represent is everyday citizens who are working hard raising children. When those legislators get all those calls, they're not coming from me. I don't have any money. I don't buy legislators dinner or take them to Jazz games. All we're about is mommies who care to go up there, and we are very organized."

Playing the game

Millie Peterson, a Democratic senator and retired social worker whose views are contrary to Ruzicka's, says opponents "need to use her tactics against her. Otherwise, politicians run scared. Go out and get your own people to be delegates. They have to do a better job of being there. You have to give her credit. She knows how to play the game. Watch her and understand how she does it. C'mon! Don't just hammer her. Do something."

In the same breath, though, Peterson criticizes some of Ruzicka's tactics, such as watching proceedings from the balcony.

"I don't find that appropriate," she says. "I don't think that's how we treat our elected officials. Work with them, without telling them what to do. You can't browbeat them. I would be uncomfortable with that individual telling me how to conduct myself. I was there representing my constituents and doing the best I can to represent them, not lobbyists — and she is a form of a lobbyist."

Ruzicka defends herself, saying, "If we weren't there, they wouldn't be listening to us. There are so many lobbyists up there. If we're not up there, someone else could persuade them. Legislators don't have time to study and read every bill. We don't get paid. We are citizens, not lobbyists. I'm sorry, but these are their constituents — the people who will make the phone calls and have the appropriate conversations. We don't try to twist arms and bully the people we are calling. . . .

"You sit up there in the gallery and listen to what goes on and wait for your bill to come up. You send notes saying, 'Please vote for/against it.' I lean forward so I can see. I don't browbeat. If you do that, human nature is to do the opposite. We try to be nice and smile and present the facts and tell them why we feel the way we do."

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