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Utah Gothic 

Don and Gayle Ruzicka would rather be right than do right.

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The car motor had barely cooled when Don Ruzicka dashed back out, gave quick good-byes to everyone, and sped off in the hot dust of an Arizona night.

Gayle thought it just a little odd that he kept that baseball bat in the back seat. So, what’s the deal, Don? Why the bat?

Just in case he runs into a good game, he says. She nods, but knows he’s lying. There’s really nothing she can do. This is the man she loves, and this is God’s will. So she turns back to her duties as mother and teacher—as a vessel for the truth as it is revealed to them. What is right.

Don, an ever-supportive husband, father and insurance man, was undergoing a baptism by fire into conspiracy politics, learning just how hard it is to stick to your principles when money, ego and political turf are at stake. That’s why he carried the baseball bat. He had to be ready to rumble.

He met up with Leon Woodward, a fellow conservative activist, and the two of them casually sneaked into the Capitol Building in Phoenix, which was pretty heavily secured in those days, what with everyone being out to get the governor. Nobody saw them as they darted from column to column, snapping pictures of this and that, looking for evidence they never found.

This was enemy territory. You could tell it by the huge, looming mural on the wall of the legislative conference room. It was like Burton Barr was watching their every move. It seemed as though the longtime Arizona House majority leader, the Republican iconoclast who disappointed the party elite when he lost the gubernatorial primary to Evan Mecham, was going to somehow get them.

In 1986, ultraconservative Evan Mecham won the Arizona governorship after five failed attempts. And then he was being stalked by all these people who should have been his friends, who didn’t understand, or who were just plain homosexual or something. Don rushed in to defend the governor to get the goods on those who would undo him. “I was snooping around with Leon and then security got wind of it,” says Don. “We got into a footrace trying to get out of there before we got nabbed.”

Don Ruzicka had been sitting around a table with some like-minded conservatives and Gayle when they determined that he should be chairman of Concerned Arizona Voters. That was what they called themselves, the people who would end up fighting Mecham’s recall, along with the impeachment and the criminal trial.

“I used to compare it to Chicago politics,” says Don. “It was very rough. They just flat didn’t want Evan Mecham to be governor. That he won was a real coup when the establishment machine thought they’d had everything sewn up.”

Every so often, the Republican establishment does get surprised, but they were having none of it in Arizona. Mecham was facing a recall election after barely a year in office, and impeachment on charges that he had hidden a big campaign contribution, as well as allegations that he misused state funds and he obstructed justice when he told the head of the state police not to cooperate with the attorney general’s criminal investigation.

Mecham was making history. No other governor in American history had faced three political and criminal challenges simultaneously. But, as Don says, he was such a scrappy little guy. Not only did he cancel Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but he defended the term “pickaninny,” used so skillfully by notorious communist-fighter Cleon Skousen, the former Salt Lake City police chief who lost a run for governor. The NFL even moved the Super Bowl out of Arizona lest Mecham leach on it.

The impeachment came about because of this huge campaign contribution—$350,000—and a questionable state loan to his Pontiac dealership, and the attorney general thing. The criminal investigation turned on the campaign contribution, from a lawyer allegedly involved in an arbitrage scheme. But the recall, well, it was just an attempt to discredit him by people who didn’t agree with him politically.

That’s why Concerned Arizona Voters decided to focus on keeping the recall from happening. “We were responsible for the recall failing,” Don proclaims proudly. “I was doing these cottage meetings. By default, it was my hobby, but it was more of a calling than a hobby. You feel you have no choice. You do what you have to do. People rely on you. People say, keep it up. It becomes physically hard to back away, and it may seem arrogant, but you think things will fall apart without you.”

Don was gone from home a lot. There were secret meetings to attend. “Attorneys from all over the country would come in Evan’s defense,” he says. “You just couldn’t trust anybody. It was kind of a fun and interesting time.”

What wasn’t fun was fighting his own party. “The Republicans were terrible. The establishment was not happy about Evan winning the election,” Don says.

But Gayle understood what her husband had to do. In Arizona, it was he who was the controversial one; he who was speaking every night somewhere in the state. “It was Don’s responsibility to take the truth to the people.”

The Ruzickas are the political by-product of their best friend’s introduction more than 20 years ago. Don was the city boy; Gayle the country belle. Neither started out a Latter-day Saint.

Don was born and raised in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants from Czechoslovakia. They later moved to Tennessee, where he went to high school. It was when he moved to California that he converted to the Mormon church.

Gayle was born in Nampa, Idaho, a Mormon railroad town with a big sugar-beet factory. She was ushered into the Mormon church in preschool, when her mother decided the kids needed a good, solid religious foundation. Neither Edna nor Clinton Clark were Latter-day Saints, but they were both from Christian backgrounds, and the LDS church worked for them, Gayle says. Ironically, the Clarks are descendants of two sisters who rebelled against polygamy and left the church.

That bit of information came from a newspaper report, one of those that continue to rake through the background of Utah’s morality maven, Gayle Ruzicka.

Needless to say, Gayle was none too happy when a reporter found her genealogy and discovered a divorce from 33 years ago. Collective gasps of disbelief. “I’m tired of it; my children are tired of it,” she says. “I have to be more concerned about my children’s right to privacy.” And frankly, she says, every one she knows is sick of reading about her.

This is not exactly Princess Di and the paparazzi. But the public seems to be hoping for something akin to Princess Margaret getting her toes sucked. Instead, you get the tiresome tale of Gayle’s 12 children, all home-schooled, following her like quail to the Capitol, slipping notes to legislators. You know the implications. If you’re not for life, you’re for murder. If you’re gay, you sin. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you’re against us, we’ll trample you.

Gayle Ruzicka is perhaps more symbol than substance, a trite and tattered target of ridicule for Utahns who either fear her fervor or fight her single-mindedness. She is as infamous as she is revered for her very public stands on moral and social issues. People laugh at her like she’s one of those self-righteous bobbleheads, but this one has a brain.

She has made it a point to understand the system as well as the motivations of the people who run it. And she has proven politically skillful in the guise of some kind of avenging angel.

“I admire her passion and wish it wasn’t so misguided,” says Bev Cooper of Utahns for Choice. “Unfortunately, several legislators believe that they represent Gayle rather than their constituents.”

For good reason. Ruzicka and her phone-tree friends in the Utah Eagle Forum have been credited with election losses, like that of moderate Republican Nancy Lyon. As the 2002 election looms, no one wants to run against the Eagle Forum—unless they live in an area that reviles the Forum. That’s part of what happened in 1998, when Jackie Biskupski, a lesbian, won a Salt Lake legislative seat. Biskupski’s opponent, Bryan Irving, didn’t think the Eagle Forum’s involvement exactly helped him.

Ruzicka concedes defeat, although she says the Eagle Forum didn’t do all that much. “We were involved with a group who lived in the neighborhood and did not want a lawbreaker becoming a lawmaker,” she says. So many lawbreakers out there.

“We helped those people; people had a right to know,” she says. “None of them thought they’d stop her. If the Lord wanted to run in that area, he’d have to run as a Democrat to win.”

Well, Roger Thompson wasn’t exactly the Lord, but he did profess to being a Democrat when he ran against Biskupski for Salt Lake City Council in 1997. Biskupski’s then-private lesbian lifestyle was the topic of a whisper campaign that did her in.

OK, this homosexuality issue is a big one for Gayle. Not that someone might be homosexual, she says, but that they might want to promote their radical agenda. “People who are homosexual, that is their choice,” she says. “Nobody is stopping them. You don’t see me going down to the Stonewall Center. … But they want the government to recognize their lifestyle. They want to bring it into public schools, to teach them they’re born that way. They want support clubs to recruit people who have doubts. That’s the radical agenda.”

Radical is one of those labels that gets bandied about quite a bit. It’s been used to describe the Ruzickas themselves. “When they say we’re radical right, we’re what every mommy and daddy want for their children,” Gayle says. “Where would you find the person who doesn’t care?”

The Ruzickas are different. They care a whole lot, so much so that their brand of caring has become their identity. “That’s the way the Lord intended it—by good people doing good things,” says Gayle. “I find it’s more a way of life because of the issues.”

Good things and good issues mean God, family and country. She always measures issues by the “right” side of things. She and her husband are strict constitutionalists. Strict in philosophy. That can be a problem with conservatives, Don says. “Generally, they are based on principle, somewhat focused and unwilling to bend, unwilling to meet in the middle. Moderation is by far the better approach, but conservatives can’t become more middle of the road. There are some people who become a little extreme, who’ve never had a problem seeking the truth. Maybe it’s a personality problem,” he says.

The problem is his, and he’s proud of it. Don Ruzicka is co-founder of the Utah Republican Assembly, formed as he sees it to bring the Republican Party—kicking and screaming—back to the principles of the Constitution. The GOP, he believes, has drifted toward the middle in an effort to become more mainstream. “It’s a false concept when you can please everybody,” says Don.

He and Tom Draschil, Utah’s poster child for the conservative right, beat the drums for “Principle Over Politics,” their URA motto. Of all the congressional candidates running this year, Draschil was the Ruzicka’s clear favorite in the 3rd District. His convention speech mentioned, “God’s inspiration Constitution,” the “Evil One” trying to destroy the nation, and a reverence for Cleon Skousen. Now that Draschil’s lost again—this is No. 3—he’s become the Ruzickas’ political pastime.

“We’ll continue to try to get him elected—until he’s elected,” declares Gayle, who also supports Rob Bishop over House Majority Leader Kevin Garn in the 1st Congressional District. Bishop is a former speaker of the House, a former state party chairman and gun lobbyist whose conservatism has emerged dramatically over the years.

It’s no dark secret that the Ruzickas are conservative. Yawn. The jolt comes with Gayle’s surprising ability to bond with liberals when it works for her. She earned an invisible emblem when she teamed with the American Civil Liberties Union in 1997 against “Smart-Card” driver licenses, claiming they were an invasion of privacy.

Then in 2001, she joined that lovable Democratic representative, Fred Fife, to rescind the state’s call for a constitutional convention. Since 1995, it’s been an embarrassing open wound for conservatives who realized that by passing the nation’s first convention call, they may have opened a huge liberal can of worms.

But who would have thought she’d be up at the Capitol, shoulder-to-shoulder with a lesbian on an issue? During the “English Only” debate, questions arose about how the initiative drive was being funded. Her first year in office, Biskupski found an ally in Gayle Ruzicka, her strongest detractor during her election. Together, they passed a bill to require financial disclosure on initiatives.

Gayle says she was persuaded to change her thinking on this one, which most other conservatives supported. It should be really difficult to get things on the ballot, she thought. We live in a republic—not a democracy. It’s also the representative form of government from which she derives her power.

It wasn’t at all incongruous to Gayle, who’s just a snitch Machiavellian in politics. “You can vote for the candidate of my choice for any reason,” she says. “I am not one who gets panicked and wants to take someone out because of something I don’t agree with,” Gayle says.

Biskupski doesn’t have any expectations of ongoing alliance. “If there’s something that impacts her group or their families negatively, she’s up there doing everything she can, but when it comes to other people and their families, there’s a blatant disregard for those people,” Biskupski says of Ruzicka.

Other families, like gay families. Gayle Ruzicka has stood solidly against adoption for homosexuals. And she fought the school lunch program as an infringement on parental rights.

There are certain issues on which you take a strong stand and don’t waver. “If it’s a matter of right and wrong, or life and death,” Gayle says. Gay rights is wrong. Abortion means death. It’s that simple to her.

It goes without saying that the Ruzickas are unhappy with Sen. Orrin Hatch and his stand on cloning, which they call pro-abortion. Who is he to say when life begins? she asks. “Only God knows when life begins; we have no right to try to put our own definition on it,” Gayle says. So, she says, you err on the side of caution, “not to kill it before its life.”

Biskupski calls Gayle a self-appointed caretaker of morality in Utah. “What she deems immoral and unhealthy for our communities is coming out of her own viewpoints on things, and then it becomes agenda,” Biskupski says. “I think it becomes agenda because she understands the delegate process and knows how to eliminate candidates or incumbents who don’t see eye-to-eye with her. The moderate Republicans have just not gotten off their La-Z-Boys to take control of their party. I’m very frustrated with them.”

Pundits seem to look at the Ruzickas’ influence as emblematic of the state’s political leaning. Biskupski is a little cynical. “In the Legislature, I would say her power has been dimming, but it’s only because members of leadership don’t want to answer to anybody,” Biskupski says. So, it’s a control thing.

Gayle Ruzicka understands control and just how precarious it is. In her legislative dealings, she balances perceptions of fear and friendship. She says she never threatens, that she simply uses voting records to make a point. Like a bludgeon.

“Gayle is the quintessential embodiment of someone who can work with someone totally opposite and can be a friend with everyone, even if they disagree with her 98 percent of the time,” says Don.

Unlike his wife, he never found politics that easy. Even as a Republican legislator now, he finds it hard to be temperate. Sometimes things just grate on you. “There’s so much divergence of opinion,” Don laments. “People are so different in perspective and there’s so much rampant stupidity. People are not understanding what it’s all about.”

It’s about getting back to basics, fundamental principles. Even as Republicans divide like amoebas, Don Ruzicka likes to think the party is headed back to conservative ground. “We have to be so concerned with laws that afford us our lives, not to have government intervening with what’s our right from God,” he says.

It all goes back to God—and the Constitution. A holy mission for the Ruzickas. “What is our special interest?” Gayle asks, rhetorically. “It’s the United States of America, family, freedom and education. … We get absolutely nothing out of this, other than what anybody else does—it’s called freedom.”

That may be why neither she nor the Eagle Forum register as lobbyists. Once in 1998, Eagle Forum attorney Matthew Hilton registered—once. The law requires registration not only if you disburse money, but if you intend to influence legislation. The lieutenant governor’s office, however, says they’d have to have a complaint to act.

No one has complained in all these years. The art of persuasion may be nasty business, but it just doesn’t seem criminal. “What we do is coax people to come to the right side,” says Gayle. “We’d rather be right than do right.”

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses and Citizen Revolt columns. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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