HIGHLAND There must be some mistake. The woman who answers the door says she's Gayle Ruzicka, but this can't be her. Ruzicka has been ranked among the 20 most powerful people in Utah and one of the two most powerful women in the state ahead of Christine Durham, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, and Olene Walker, the lieutenant governor who became governor.
But the woman at the door looks like the local Relief Society president. The lady next door. She's as domestic as Betty Crocker. She's 62 and lives in a simple two-story home in a rural neighborhood in Highland, with a garden and a large yard. She's the mother of 12 and grandmother of 19.
This is Gayle Ruzicka?
This is the woman considered so intimidating that a former legislator, contacted for a comment, said she wanted to be anonymous because Ruzicka and her allies are "scary"? This is the woman who can mobilize an army of women to descend on Capitol Hill with a phone call? This is the woman who dares to fly in the face of political correctness and the age of hyper-tolerance?
As the president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, Ruzicka has politicians looking over their shoulders. She is a favorite subject of the media and letters to the editor. She has been called everything from fanatical to heroic to wacko to intolerant. She is famous for her phone tree and for browbeating that's what rivals call it legislators from her perch in the gallery above the state Legislature, which she once did while a half-dozen of her children sat by her side doing their homework.
The woman at the door introduces herself as Ruzicka and extends her hand as she welcomes a guest into her home. The walls are covered with enough photos of her family and extended family to qualify for a Hall of Fame. American flags and patriotic art are displayed throughout the house and on the front porch. There is a framed needlepoint: "Families are forever." There are prints of Christ and another of George Washington praying.
"I love being at home with my family," she says, looking around.
Home and family are her primary jobs. Politics is her side job, something she does because she believes somebody must do it. When she isn't staying up into the wee hours studying issues and laws on the Internet and contacting legislators and answering the phone that never stops ringing with people wanting her input or a speech, she cleans, cooks, shops, gardens, makes household repairs, reads voraciously, dotes on grandchildren and serves as a Relief Society teacher for her ward in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Meeting her in her home, no one would guess she is a grass-roots political force with a steely determination and energy that would seem to be beyond a mother of a dozen children.
Friends and enemies
Her black-and-white views, combined with her power and effectiveness, have made her a polarizing figure in Utah politics.
"I don't think much of that woman," says a former legislator. "I don't have any respect for her . . . , and her husband's worse than she is."
"Political people want to discredit her as a right-wing wacko," says Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. "She works hard to advance principles, and they try to discredit her. She doesn't deserve that."
"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.
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."
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."
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."
Ruzicka has been approached repeatedly to run for office, but she has never given it serious consideration. "I have no desire to be an elected official," she says. "I can do more for what I want to accomplish by working with elected officials. I also want the freedom to pick what I do and be with legislators if I want to be there. I can send others. We have callings in life. We all have a role we need to play."
She was born into a politically active family. Raised in Nampa, Idaho, one of four children, her father was a labor union president who was active in the Democratic Party.
"Mom was more adamant about it than he was," says Ruzicka. The entire family participated in politics at the grass-roots level, registering voters, urging people to vote, preparing mailers, making phone calls, meeting politicos.
"My parents taught me the importance of being involved," she says. "It was my involvement in the (LDS) church that taught me to be organized. The Eagle Forum is organized in chapters responsible for their areas, and each one puts people over projects. Like the church."
She met Don, an insurance broker from New York, while he was on a business trip in Boise. He eventually moved to Idaho, and they married and started their large family 12 kids in 24 years. Later, they moved to Arizona, and in 1989 they settled in Utah.
By then, Ruzicka already had a full-time teaching job at home. She took only a handful of college classes herself, but she was an avid reader who read her children's textbooks to keep ahead of them and worked closely with them on their homework. Her first six children attended public schools. The rest attended home school, with their mom as their teacher.
"When my first daughter was nearing graduation, I realized I had just gotten started," she says. "I thought, 'I'm not finished with you yet. You've got much more you need to learn that I need to teach you.' I started to think there had to be a better way to spend more time with my children and have more time to teach them. By the time they go to school and get their homework done, it's bedtime. Something was missing. It didn't seem right."
Further dissatisfied with what she calls the "shallowness" and liberal bent of the curriculum, she learned about home schooling on a TV show one night, "and I knew that was for me." After much legal wrangling and hiring an attorney it still rankles her that the government had to approve of how she educated her children she pulled her children out of public schools.
They attended home school in the morning and, when they were older, participated in activities and special classes in the public high school in the afternoon. One was president of the high school debate club, another the star of the school musical, another was a cheerleader and member of the drill team. The Ruzicka children have gone on to college and have become teachers, investors, businessmen, forest rangers.
Her home school was structured. They got out of bed at a certain time, they started and finished class at a certain time. Afternoons were devoted to science experiments or field trips. Somehow she managed to take care of the house, feed the children and do the schoolwork grading papers, preparing lessons, teaching class.
A Capitol education
Over time, she was drawn increasingly back into the political world. While in Arizona, Don belonged to an organization that tried unsuccessfully to stop the 1988 impeachment of Gov. Evan Mecham.
As a mother of a dozen children, she had played a minor role in politics for years, writing letters and making calls for campaigns. She worked on the Equal Rights Amendment issue while in Idaho, and she worked with the Eagle Forum in support of Mecham. After moving to Utah, with her children older, she spent more time in politics.
"There were two things that made me get really involved home school and the pro-life issue," she says. "That later evolved into the homosexual agenda. I felt I needed to have a say in it."
In Utah, she began to wade deeper and deeper into issues, namely pro-life bills and education. Soon, even legislators were seeking her input. In 1991, two years after moving to Utah, she was made president of Eagle Forum.
It created a schedule that would wear out a marathoner. Ruzicka oversaw a large household, taught a half-dozen children and she led a large political organization.
"I found out I could live without a lot of sleep," she says.
Her routine: Up at 6, clean the house, organize the day, wake the kids, get them ready for school, teach school, perform her Eagle Forum duties, go to bed sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. When the Legislature was in session, she got up at 5 a.m. to get her kids fed and dressed, then she loaded them in the car and made the 45-minute drive to the Legislature, sometimes braving the Point of the Mountain in snowstorms.
There she would sit in the balcony of the Legislature, surrounded by her half-dozen kids, who were doing their homework.
"Sometimes I would find myself thinking as I drove, what am I doing," she says. "I would be crying. I made a commitment to do these things and had to keep my commitment. There are people all over the country who do it."
For the most part, she says her children were remarkably well-behaved, although there were days when she would have to take them out on the Capitol lawn to let them run. They got to know more about the workings of politics than any field trip would have shown them.
"They were so good that legislators would compliment them about it all the time," says Ruzicka.
Kristyn, the Ruzickas' ninth child, recalls, "We sat up there and did school work. My mom talked about it a lot with us, and we knew what was going on."
Her children grown now, Ruzicka presses on with her maniacal schedule. She routinely sleeps only a few hours each night. When the Legislature is in session, she sleeps only a couple of hours after staying up to read bills and trying to understand the full ramifications of each.
"Gayle is very committed," says Don. "It takes a supportive family, too. It's not something everyone can do."
"I used to stay home and not worry about what the rest of world was doing," says Ruzicka. "Just teach your kids correct principles. But pretty soon, the dragons started coming through the front door what was taught in school, Internet pornography, abortion, homosexuality. Women have had to roll up their sleeves and protect the home. . . . John Adams said our Constitution was made for a moral people. If we want to maintain our liberty in a moral world, we better work hard because we're going to lose it rapidly."
Christensen, for one, applauds Ruzicka's courage. "Because of political correctness, the unpardonable now is intolerance. In Berkeley, Calif., they're trying to decriminalize prostitution because prostitutes say their rights are being infringed upon. The Founding Fathers believed people would be tempted, but that if the majority were allowed to rule, the country would choose morally and wisely.
"But now, with political correctness, the minority rules. Judges and special-interest groups overrule democracy. The built-in protection of the moral majority has been overruled. This is what makes Gayle tick. She feels strongly about it. She's willing to get up and do something about it."
Ruzicka, who carries a miniature set of scriptures in her purse wherever she goes and reads them when there is an idle moment, is tough but soft-spoken, and she does her homework. Peterson notes, "I don't agree with most of her opinions, but I have to tell you, I enjoyed interacting with her at the Legislature. Personally, I like her."
When she's not fighting for her causes, Ruzicka is happy to be a homebody. She helps organize a carnival for her grandchildren in her back yard each summer and takes them into her home for much of their summer break, filling their time with community events, miniature golf, Lagoon, trips to the park. Even when she had many of her children still in her home and was swamped with home schooling and Eagle Forum duties, she took in friends of her children who needed a place to stay, sometimes putting them up for an entire school year.
"I've got a lot to do, and I enjoy it," she says. "I've never done it any other way. Life is full of joy if you're busy. There's always someone somewhere who needs me.
"I believe this is what I'm supposed to be doing," she continues. "It's not something I enjoy. I love staying at home. I'm a stay-at-home grandma and mommy. I love being with them. When the kids were little, it was so much work to get them ready. I remind the Lord everyone needs to be released. I've never enjoyed it. I don't like being away from home. I don't enjoy anything that takes me away from home for a few hours at a time. I don't enjoy politics, but somebody has got to do this."
Ruzicka looks forward to the day she can walk away from it. She hopes to serve a church mission with her husband and spend more time in her home with her children and grandchildren.
E-mail: [email protected]