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Power players

Dealbreakers wield clout in public and behind the scenes in Utah

Published: Thursday, May 17 2001 2:51 p.m. MDT

No. 1 dealbreaker Gayle Ruzicka heads Utah Eagle Forum. (Chuck Wing, Deseret News) No. 1 dealbreaker Gayle Ruzicka heads Utah Eagle Forum. (Chuck Wing, Deseret News)
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."
Karrie Galloway, head of Utah's chapter of the Planned Parenthood, doesn't believe Ruzicka's distinction as a dealbreaker is a positive one. The two women can chat personally about their children and other topics but are often at odds over sex education initiatives. "That's what concerns me most about Gayle's organization, is the perception that they will win at all costs, as opposed to looking for the middle ground."
House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, hears a lot about the Eagle Forum during the Legislature's 45-day session each year but says he rarely hears from Ruzicka herself.
"They are good people and they do have an impact," said Stephens, who said Ruzicka's power is often exaggerated. Still he's seen the Eagle Forum in action. "Most of the time it's behind the scenes," he said. "Lots of times (legislators) don't know it's going on until their bill's dead."


Mayor Rocky Anderson resents the implication of being a "dealbreaker."
"Apparently from the results of your survey, people think that I'm good at stopping things. But I like to view myself also as someone who helps build things." Like the light rail spur to the University of Utah, he said. The mayor was also listed in the newspaper's top 10 most influential people, a distinction Anderson sees as positive.
Anderson gives other reasons for opposing some recent projects:
On killing the "super mall" near the Salt Lake airport: "That was a huge, uh, fight. I tend to think of the mall as a real opportunity . . . as a real opportunity for community dialogue of how to go about long-term community planning and the need to get away from automobile-dependent sprawl development."
On getting rid of the DARE youth drug-fighting program: "What I was doing there . . . is to substitute that very ineffective program with programs that have actually been established as effectively stopping drug abuse over the long term."
On opposition to Legacy Highway: "I'm not just trying to stop Legacy Highway. What we're focusing on is a mass-transit-first policy."
While he has ended or changed a number of projects in his short 18 months in office, Anderson also ticked off a number of projects that he's implemented, saying he is a builder in the community, not an obstacle.


No better example can be found in the deal-killing area than the infrequent statements LDS Church leaders make on political issues.
After the church's First Presidency came out against the legalization of parimutuel horse betting and the citizen initiative that would have allowed it in 1992, the ballot measure failed soundly.
That was a local issue and perhaps a slam-dunk in Utah. But church leaders also have had a national impact.
They opposed the controversial MX missile railroad-based anti-ballistic missile defense system suggested for Utah's west desert in the late 1970s. Many believed the church's opposition sealed the missile's fate. MX was never built.


The Deseret News also found that several community groups are also considered dealbreakers: the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the Utah Education Association and other special interest groups have considerable influence in stopping specific projects in their areas of concern, the newspaper's panel of experts said.
Standing up against issues publicly is always emotional, says Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. "In every culture, saving face is a very important value. And I've never found it particularly becoming in any way to be hurtful to individuals or organizations in a public fashion. There are times when you cannot avoid it" and have to publicly try to kill an idea.
For example, he is adamant and public today in his opposition to the plan by a business coalition called Private Fuel Storage to build a temporary storage facility for high-level nuclear fuel rods in western Utah. "And there's really no way to quietly say to them, 'I'm going to do all I can to stop what you're doing.'"


E-MAIL: lucy@desnews.com ; bbjr@desnews.com

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