The Man Who Replaced Phyllis Schlafly

At Eagle Forum, a bitter battle between Phyllis Schlafly's oldest friends — and Ed Martin, her chosen successor

In Phyllis Schlafly's twilight years, a bitter fight over her chosen successor divided her empire.
In Phyllis Schlafly's twilight years, a bitter fight over her chosen successor divided her empire. GAGE SKIDMORE

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click to enlarge Ed Martin earned a rare Tea Party endorsement in his run for Congress. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
Ed Martin earned a rare Tea Party endorsement in his run for Congress.

When Phyllis Schlafly began to focus on choosing a successor to run Eagle Forum, many people thought it would be Michele Bachmann. The former Republican congresswoman had a history of fighting abortion and other causes important to Schlafly — and, Eagle Forum associates say, she seemed interested in the job.

When Schlafly somehow settled on Ed Martin instead in early 2015, many of her volunteers outside of St. Louis were perplexed.

"Nobody knew him," says Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum organization. The skepticism was immediate, Ruzicka says: "Who's Ed Martin? Where did he come from? How is this happening?"

But if Martin, now 46, was an obscure choice to Schlafly's "Eagles" outside of Missouri, within it, he was very much a known quantity — with a reputation that left some Republicans questioning Schlafly's judgment. Martin had been the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, a candidate for state attorney general and congressman, the chief of staff to Governor Matt Blunt, and always in the middle of controversy.

Perhaps the most well-documented instance happened while he was working for Blunt, in 2007. The scandal that would become known as "Memogate" involved Martin working to circumvent public records law — and firing the aide who dared to challenge his actions. The aide would go on to win a $500,000 settlement in a wrongful termination case.

In a 2010 RFT profile chronicling Martin's run for Congress, a Democratic strategist likened working with him to handling a "lit firecracker": "It's gonna explode; you just don't know when." The race ended in defeat, and Martin's own communications director was angry enough about the experience to blast Martin on her personal Facebook page. "ALL politicians are: egotistical, shady, and talk out of both sides of their mouth! Many are male chauvinists!"

Yes, she confirmed to the Post-Dispatch, she was talking about her former boss.

After another failed campaign on Martin's part, this one for state attorney general, Schlafly hired Martin to do some fundraising for Eagle Forum, and he became a familiar sight around its Clayton office. At the time, he was also serving as chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, an unpaid position that he'd won by mounting a Tea Party challenge to the incumbent chairman.

Once he was running the show, he seemed to piss off half the party in short order. Former Senator John Danforth issued a stern rebuke after Martin used his party pulpit to blast senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for their "back-room dinner party attitude." Martin also angered top Republicans by meddling in a Mississippi Senate race. (As for Martin, he notes that controversy is not unusual in politics: "In this field, if you do your job well, you're going to be in the mix.")

Unlike Schlafly, though, who could be biting in her denunciations of the powers that be but was doted on by the rank-and-file, Martin was not well-liked by his underlings. During his two years at the Missouri GOP, the staff suffered total turnover. People still giggle about the email he sent after a departing staffer left with an office chair.

"Taking any property that is not one's own is not appropriate and may well be illegal," he wrote in an email blasted out to the entire staff. "I am getting in touch with the relevant authorities about this." The matter was closed without follow-up when someone gently explained that the person who took the chair was its rightful owner.

Party bigwigs might have overlooked an unhappy staff, but they couldn't ignore the way fundraising ground to a near-halt. Big donors just didn't ante up on Martin's watch. When he took over, the Missouri GOP had a balance of $316,000 in its combined accounts. By the time he left less than two years later, cash on hand had dwindled below $10,000, with $110,000 in debts. That balance sheet would hamstring the party's efforts for months. (Jonathon Prouty, the executive director brought in by Martin's replacement, says the party didn't finish paying off the debts until August 2016, nineteen months after Martin's departure.)

A challenge to Martin's reelection was inevitable, and when a former party chairman announced he was mounting one, Martin may have seen the writing on the wall. In February 2015, he announced he was leaving the chairmanship for a job as president of Eagle Forum.

The Forum job paid handsomely — $150,000 a year — but it would have been difficult even for an administrator with a deft hand. Not only was Martin the first male president in an organization run almost entirely by women, but he was the first president not named Phyllis Schlafly.

Formed in 1972 as a 501c4 non-profit, Eagle Forum was joined nine years later by a sister organization, a 501c3 charity called the Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund. The two were closely linked: Each had a board of directors to look after its interests, but as president of both, Schlafly set both agendas, which the volunteer board members were happy to follow. Lines between the two organizations were porous, and no one thought too hard about the distinctions between them; to many, Schlafly was the Eagle Forum, and that was that. (State chapters had separate charters, but they too looked to Schlafly for vision.)

The women who served as paid staff often rose quickly through the ranks. Schlafly, famously frugal, preferred to give smart young people a chance rather than invest in big names or padded resumes. Glyn Wright, for example, started as an intern in St. Louis; within a few years, she was running the D.C. office and lobbying Congress.

That trust paid off in absolute loyalty. Staffers and board members alike describe Schlafly in familial terms — depending on their age, they call her their sister, their mother, their grandmother. She didn't suffer fools, but she didn't need to: Staffers and volunteers alike were determined to live up to her expectations.

And she listened, says Colleen Holmes Holcomb, a former executive director of Eagle Forum's D.C. office. "Her Eagles were always her trusted advisors and closest friends. She absolutely loved these ladies, and a few men," she says. "It was one of the things I noticed when I came to work for her. She really trusted their judgment. ... Whenever we'd talk to Phyllis about anything, her first question was, 'What does the Eagle in the field think?' It made the organization very effective."

Holcomb says that many Eagles had concerns about Martin even before Schlafly asked the board to vote to hire him, replacing her as president of the two organizations while she ascended to chairman. But at the time, their loyalty to Schlafly was absolute.

"They voted for him based on Phyllis' trust of him," she says. "Even though I knew some people weren't fans, Phyllis is the leader. You have to carry out what she wants."

About The Author

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske is the executive editor of Euclid Media Group, overseeing publications in eight cities. She is the former host of St. Louis on the Air and was previously editor-in-chief of the RFT and the LA Weekly. She lives in St. Louis.
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