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 The women who fought Ed Martin, from left: Eunie Smith, Glyn Wright, Anne Schlafly Cori, Rosina Kovar, Shirley Curry, Carolyn McLarty and Cathie Adams, with Pat Andrews seated. - COURTESY OF EUNIE SMITH
The women who fought Ed Martin, from left: Eunie Smith, Glyn Wright, Anne Schlafly Cori, Rosina Kovar, Shirley Curry, Carolyn McLarty and Cathie Adams, with Pat Andrews seated.

On April 9, one day after the leader call and two days before the 501c4 board's planned call to discuss Martin's future, Martin launched a public attack on the board members — and he did it using the organization's mailing list.

The email, sent to 41,000 Eagle Forum donors and supporters, reported that the board was meeting in two days. But rather than explain that Ed Martin's job was in jeopardy, it alleged that Schlafly herself was about to be ousted.

The reason it gave was not her support of Trump, but rather the "Con Con people." The movement to hold a new constitutional convention, funded by the Koch brothers, had long been an anathema to Schlafly. Martin suggested that its backers were trying to launch a coup within her own organization.

"On Thursday," began the email, "we received a tip from a longtime Eagle Forum member in South Carolina that the Con Con people are pursuing a scheme to push Phyllis Schlafly out of Eagle Forum. Things are happening that are disturbing. In just two days, on this coming Monday afternoon, six directors of Eagle Forum are holding a rogue meeting in violation of the Bylaws unless they are stopped. The rogue group members have a hidden agenda, and most refused to return phone calls personally made to them by Phyllis to ask what their concerns are."

Martin then included the email addresses and cell phone numbers of "the six directors in this gang of six. ... We need your help to stop this hostile takeover."

The board members were bombarded with angry messages.

"Each of us got 400 or 500 emails," recalls Eunie Smith, Eagle Forum's vice president and a board member since the 1970s. "You use Eagle Forum's credibility to tell that kind of lie — it's a real disservice to the people who'd put their trust in the organization. ... But if you tell a big enough lie, some people will believe it."

Smith was most horrified, however, by the way Schlafly was being used. On April 9, Smith and other board members got letters, purportedly written by Schlafly, asking them to resign. But when Smith telephoned her old friend the next morning, Schlafly assured her she hadn't even seen the correspondence. She said she'd follow up after church.

Instead, later that day, the board members got a cease-and-desist from a Clayton law firm. It ordered them not to move forward with their meeting.

Determined not to be bullied, the women convened by telephone on April 11. They voted to fire Ed Martin, effective immediately — a six to zero vote. (Phyllis and John Schlafly, who were present but not voting members, objected on both counts.)

When Smith followed up with Phyllis Schlafly, saying she'd like to meet to discuss a succession plan, she instead got a formal-sounding letter. It didn't sound like her old friend.

The letter offered to remove Martin as president after a few key events that summer and early fall, but it conditioned the action on the removal of several board members — something that wasn't within Smith's power. She reminded Schlafly of that in a phone call, but didn't seem to make any headway. It was their last real conversation.

And Martin, far from being fired, continued to act as if he were in charge. "I am still president," he told Mark Reardon on KMOX.

On April 22, the six 501c4 board members filed a lawsuit in Madison County, Illinois. It asked the court to declare their April 11 meeting lawful — meaning Martin was, in fact, fired from the 501c4 presidency.

The court issued a temporary restraining order just one week later. Per the board's request, it mandated that John Schlafly and Martin allow the board to access Eagle Forum's Alton headquarters. But until the judge had time to weigh the merits, the status quo was to be preserved.

That left Martin mostly in control. All payments had to be signed off by both factions, but officially, he was still Eagle Forum's president. The judge also ordered the board to continue paying his salary.

For the board members, the spring and summer of 2016 were incredibly difficult. Despite the judge's order, they still weren't granted access to the Alton headquarters (they tried again in court, without much satisfaction). And even though the judge had told Martin and his allies to turn over the organization's email list, they provided excuses, saying they didn't have the technical know-how to access it.

In May, Martin even started up a new 501c4 organization, Phyllis Schlafly's American Eagles. Its directors were Eagle Forum board members loyal to him, including two of Schlafly's sons, and its address was Eagle Forum property. Again the board members found themselves in court, arguing that Eagle Forum assets were being diverted to the new organization. (The suit is still pending.)

Beyond all the conflict, Martin was a source of frustration for many Eagles. Some volunteers and state leaders say they found him unresponsive and inattentive to the details they thought were important; others felt he ignored their public policy concerns, preferring to set the agenda himself rather than let ideas bubble up from state leaders, as Schlafly had done.

And although Schlafly was nominally still their leader, and Martin professed to acting in her name, many longtime Schlafly associates say they believe Martin was blocking access to her, a charge he denies.

Anne Schlafly Cori had long considered the Eagles her mother's best friends. When one of them called her in late 2015 to say that the organization was falling apart, and that they had to take action, she agreed to get involved out of loyalty to them, she says. As a result, she found herself attacked through the organization's mailing and phone lists, and cut off from her own mother.

"It was heartbreaking that my mother was isolated this year from each of us and so many other people that cared so much about her and her life's work," she said in a statement to the RFT.

Gayle Ruzicka, the Utah leader, was one of the few old friends who managed to get through to Schlafly directly in those final months.

"As I would talk to her, she'd say, 'Why is this happening?' I would explain to her the problems with Ed," Ruzicka says. "She'd say, 'This is not supposed to be this way — he has no say over my presidents, my state leaders.'" Yet Schlafly didn't want to join with the dissidents trying to remove him. "She'd tell me, 'I just need to hang on to Ed until after the convention,'" Ruzicka recalls.

(Martin insists he did not limit access to Schlafly, and that he only did what she wanted. "Phyllis was a very strong personality," he says. "It's convenient to put these things on me, but it's very hateful, and hurtful.")

A big priority for some Eagles was a training dinner for RNC delegates in Cleveland. Schlafly had long been obsessed with a few key issues in the party's platform; she believed that training like-minded new delegates in parliamentary procedure was the best way to keep moderate Republicans at bay.

Yet as Cleveland drew near, it became clear nothing had been planned, despite Martin's promises.

"He continually told me all the things he was doing to prepare for the convention, that training dinner, and it never happened," Ruzicka says. "There was dinner, but no training. None. I'm still astounded and baffled by that. I fully expected that Ed was following through on everything he said he was going to do and what Phyllis wanted us to do." (Martin insists the training was held, but that some people just weren't invited.)

In some ways, Ruzicka says, the fact that Schlafly seemed increasingly out of it during the convention was a relief.

"I believe that the Lord was there for Phyllis," she says. "I could see God's hand in everything. Because Phyllis did not know how bad things were."

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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