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Battle over Phyllis Schlafly's legacy intensifies, with her children at the center

Phyllis Schlafly speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Gage Skidmore | Flickr
Phyllis Schlafly, speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference, was a significant force for conservative views.

In a few weeks, the St. Louis area will be Ground Zero for the dueling factions of  the Eagle Forum organization set up decades ago by conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, who died in early September at age 92.

Schlafly’s daughter, Anne Cori, says leaders of the Eagle Forum’s official political arm, which goes by the same name, will gather at the Frontenac Hilton on Jan. 26 for an educational policy conference, followed by a “roundtable’’ of state chairs from around the country.

At the same time in Clayton, a new rival political operation – called Phyllis Schlafly's American Eagles – will meet to discuss some of the same conservative issues, and how best to move forward.

Ed Martin heads the new political group, which he said in an email “will be what Phyllis wanted us to be. And do what she wants.”

In that email, sent this week to would-be attendees, Martin jabbed at the Eagle Forum political operation that he once headed. “There are other meetings in St. Louis … run by people who were revealed in court filings to be working against Phyllis and her wishes,” Martin wrote. “If you want to go to the meetings of these losers, please do not come to our meeting — we are not interested in people who want to play all sides…”

Martin was ousted months ago by Cori and board allies from his post as president of the Eagle Forum political operation, known as a 501C4, which refers to a provision in the IRS' code. But the two sides remain locked in legal battles, with three suits filed between them. Cori and the board majority sued Martin when he refused to step down. A second suit, filed by Cori and the board majority, challenge his actions setting up the rival political group.

The third suit was launched by the Schlafly Trust, controlled by some of her children, against the Eagle Forum arm. The suit contends the board majority has improperly used Phyllis Schlafly's "image, intellectual property and trade secrets."

So far, Cori and the board majority of the Eagle Forum political arm have won all the initial judicial rulings in all the suits.

Martin remains president of the Forum’s nonprofit arm, called Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense. It’s based in Clayton and focuses on education and research. He also has the support of Schlafly’s four sons.

IRS filingsshow that Martin is paid roughly $74,000 annually from the nonprofit arm, and used to be paid an additional $66,000 from the political operation.

Phyllis Schlafly named Martin to both posts in early 2015.

In 2015, both segments of the Eagle Forum reported taking in just under $1 million apiece in donations. The nonprofit reports assets of about $22 million, while the political arm reported assets of just under $6 million. In the 2016 election, the nonpartisan watchdog group called the Center for Responsive Politics reported that the Eagle Forum’s political arm distributed $101,000 to various Republican candidates around the country.

Martin blasted, defended

Phyllis Schlafly was a household name for decades, beginning with her high-profile -- and ultimately successful -- battle to block ratification in the 1970s and early 1980s of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly was staunchly against abortion, feminism and same-sex marriage.

She also became an outspoken opponent of allowing women in military combat and of any actions that she viewed as hurting the United States' status as the top world power, with the strongest military. And she advocated curbs on immigration and called for stronger border security.

In 2015, she named Martin as the new president of Eagle Forum, although Schlafly retained the title of board chairman.

Cori and former Eagle Forum executive Colleen Holcomb say that Martin was removed last spring as president of the political arm – where Cori now is acting chairman – because of poor leadership skills; blocking a financial audit and, according to one suit, “misappropriating resources.”

Ed Martin
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Ed Martin is at the center of the controversy over the legacy of Phyllis Schlafly.

Martin also is accused of isolating Schlafly from longtime supporters and misleading her about what the court fight was about. Soon after his firing, Schlafly had sent a statement calling on the board members to step down.

In an interview this summer, Schlafly contended that the suit was directed at her.

Cori says that the legal fight has nothing to do with her mother.

But in a way, it does. For both sides, the fight – in and out of court – appears to be over who can best advance Schlafly’s longstanding conservative views on such issues as women’s rights, the Supreme Court, immigration and the U.S. military.

Andrew Schlafly, one of the sons siding with Martin, calls the dispute “an incredibly self-centered power grab by a few people.” including his sister.

“They have almost no support by the members,” Andrew Schlafly said. He added that it’s “beyond bizarre” that Cori and her allies “would spend upwards of $1 million on legal fees.”

Cori agrees that a power struggle is going on. But she quipped it’s between a majority of the board running the Eagle Forum political arm and “five guys named Phyllis.”

She says her camp has plenty of support from grassroots Eagle Forum activists. She contends that her brothers and Martin are relying on Phyllis Schlafly’s name and reputation to advance their own aims. Andrew Schlafly asserts that it’s his sister and “her little ‘Gang of Six’ ” who are guilty of such motives.

Although many of the combatants are related, Cori emphasized that she did not view the dispute as one based on family. She said the legal fight is primarily directed at Martin.

Cruz versus Trump?

Eagle Forum’s leadership split became apparent last spring when Cori and her mother (joined by Martin) sent out dueling emails right before Missouri’s presidential primary.

Cori was among the Missouri Republicans who backed Ted Cruz for president; in her email, she referred to Trump as an “ego-maniacal dictator.”

Phyllis Schlafly declared she was backing Trump, particularly after he agreed during a private meeting to back the socially conservative GOP party platform if he became the party’s nominee. Since then, Martin also has been an outspoken supporter of Trump.

Andrew Schlafly points to that split as key to the current fight.

Colleen Holcomb, a lawyer and former executive director of the Eagle Forum’s Washington office, says such political differences within Eagle Forum ranks have not been unusual. What is different this time, she said, is that Martin appears to have made support for Trump mandatory for anyone to be aligned with Phyllis Schlafly’s legacy.

In any case, Holcomb contends that the internal disagreement over Cruz and Trump is a “red herring’’ advanced by Martin and his allies to shift attention away from the real issues behind the split.

Martin, she said, was “saying he was doing all these things he wasn’t doing,’’ and misleading Phyllis Schlafly.

Martin said in a statement that "I was happy to serve Phyllis as her hand-picked successor and did exactly what she wanted."

He called Holcomb "a disgruntled employee'' who was fired by Schafly. Holcomb said she resigned in 2013  after she got married and that she had remained on good terms with Phyllis Schlafly and with Cori, her daughter.

Martin noted that he has the support of most of Phyllis Schlafly's children, and contended that the Cruz-Trump disagreement is key to the current dispute.

Cori and her board allies, he said, "have temporary access to some of the C4 assets but they do not have control of Phyllis' intellectual property nor the other seven organizations that Phyllis built."

Andrew Schlafly vigorously defends Martin’s performance. “I think he’s done a phenomenal job,’’ Schlafly said. He contended that the Cori camp has “tried to demonize him.”

Schlafly son lobbies for, and against, some Trump judicial favorites

Meanwhile, some in the Cori camp say it’s the Martin faction that has tried to make the fight personal. Both sides  point toa conservative article, circulating on the web, that asserts Cori supports abortion rights and attacks her husband, Tom Cori, the former CEO of Sigma-Aldrich.

Anne Cori says she’s opposed to abortion and contends her critics “made up out of whole cloth’’ their assertions that she was a closet liberal.

Meanwhile, Andrew Schlafly has attracted national attention recently for his efforts to organize a conservative coalition of 85 groups to back some of Trump’s possible nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court and oppose others.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to push hard to confirm any Trump choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last winter. Senate GOP leaders blocked President Barack Obama’s recommended pick, saying it should be up to the new president to fill Scalia’s seat.

Andrew Schlafly sent an email late Wednesday to Vice President-elect Mike Pence laying out the conservative coalition’s views. Schlafly signed his own name on behalf of the Legal Center for Defense of Life. Martin signed on behalf on the Eagle Forum’s nonprofit arm.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.