Ed Martin is living in the long shadow of Phyllis Schlafly, the revered conservative author and activist who has been fighting on the front lines of the culture wars for longer than the 45-year-old has been alive.
Mrs. Schlafly, 91, stepped down this year as president of the Eagle Forum, which she founded in 1972, to make way for Mr. Martin, a social conservative who cut his teeth in Missouri politics and as a member of the Republican National Committee.
Although Mrs. Schlafly was elevated to chairwoman of the board and CEO and planned to stay active in the organization, the move signaled a passing of the torch at one of the nation’s most stalwart conservative organizations — but not a change in direction, Mr. Martin said.
“It’s certainly some sort of changing of the guard, I guess, but what Phyllis always did when you look closely at her career was she was a joyful warrior — a joyful messenger,” Mr. Martin told The Washington Times, arguing that Mrs. Schlafly’s style and charisma have been vital to the organization.
“What Phyllis is asking me to do is in someway model what she did, which was be a joyful, happy, serious person, but a warrior that people will be attracted to that will be fun and interesting,” he said.
Mr. Martin hopes to pick up where Mrs. Schlafly left off by supporting traditional marriage and the pro-life agenda, and opposing free trade, amnesty for illegal immigrants, Common Core K-12 education standards and U.N. deals that undercut American sovereignty.
He has taken over during a fast-moving time in American politics.
In a matter of months, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, federal funding for Planned Parenthood came under scrutiny and Congress approved an overhaul of No Child Left Behind, an education law that Mrs. Schlafly panned.
Meanwhile, the establishment and insurgent wings of the Republican Party are jockeying for position and are at odds over the best way forward for the nation and the GOP ahead of the presidential election next year.
Mr. Martin said the Eagle Forum will continue to resist establishment forces in Washington and speak up for ordinary Americans who share its values.
“I am a big fan of ‘The Hunger Games’ movie, and one of the cool images there is when you come to the Capitol from the districts,” he said. “I feel like we are out in the districts and when you come to the Capitol, everyone has everything here — all the money and power.
“Out in the districts, we kind of know what is going on,” he said. “I think that is kind of like Phyllis. She has never been swallowed up by the D.C. movement.”
Focus on the future
Mrs. Schlafly and Mr. Martin have had similar career arcs.
In 1952 and 1970, Ms. Schlafly lost bids for Congress in Illinois. Mr. Martin lost a congressional campaign in Missouri in 2010 and a state attorney general race in 2012.
Soon after that door closed, another opened.
“Phyllis said to me once had she won, she would have been a member of Congress,” he said. “Had I won, I would have been a member of Congress or attorney general. Having lost, you learn so much about how politics works, how candidates and politics react, and it is a huge training.”
Mr. Martin plans to apply the lessons he learned as a candidate to serve as president of the Eagle Forum, which he hopes to make into one of the more nimble and modern activist organizations. He said that requires “seeing around the corner” and being prepared to immediately respond to issues, including the U.N. Climate Change Conference in France this year and the coming battle over whether to strip the traditional marriage plank from the Republican platform.
“If they take it out, it is not only a huge error, it’s a huge loss. I don’t think the Republican Party stands a chance to win in ‘16 and after that I’d say its in doubt,” he said.
“There’s plenty of pro-choice people in the Republican Party even if we have a pro-life plank and they know it, and that for them is not a top issue,” he said. “Not a lot of pro-life people that will tolerate a pro-abortion plank, and I think on marriage it is a very similar dynamic.”
Making the group faster and more aggressive also requires bringing fresh faces into the fold and recruiting a new generation of leaders who can represent the group at the local, state and national levels.
That could be a challenge, given that polls show younger voters tend to lean Democratic and an overwhelming majority of millennials support same-sex marriage.
The Republican National Committee also warned in it post-2012 election “Growth and Opportunity Project” report that there is “a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want.”
Mr. Martin acknowledges that the same-sex marriage debate is a “harder one,” but he and others in social conservative circles believe the momentum in the battle over abortion is on their side. Pro-lifers often tout polling data from Marist College in New York as proof that most young Americans do not favor abortion.
“Right now, there is only one issue that people are more conservative than their parents, and that is the abortion issue,” Andrew Schlafly, one of Mrs. Schlafly’s six children, told The Times. “So it is heartwarming to see that, but we need to expand out from that and give young people on board with the other key issues as well, such as marriage.
“So Ed will help with that. As a younger person himself, he will help reach a younger audience. And all the conservative organizations need to step up to do more of that: reaching out to the young people,” he said.
‘Be a real force’
That served as a backdrop to the 22nd annual Leadership Summit in Washington, where Mr. Martin engaged in playful banter with about 80 college-age attendees. The event was billed as an opportunity to engage in arguments “to debunk liberal lies” and “equip yourself to stand up to liberal professors and administrators.”
Attendees also had a chance to hear from a series of elected leaders, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican presidential contender; Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia, who toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 2012 Republican primary season; and conservative commentator Ann Coulter, one of the most vocal critics of the nation’s immigration system.
Speaker after speaker credited Mrs. Schlafly with giving them the political bug and providing them with an ideological framework.
“Phyllis Schlafly has been a dominant force in conservative thought for many, many, years,” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama told The Times. “I read ‘A Choice Not an Echo’ when Barry Goldwater ran for president. That book was everywhere, and it helped form a conservative mindset for millions in my generation.”
“This whole movement has got to continue,” Mr. Sessions said. “I think Ed really does have the ability to carry it on and keep it at the highest level.”
Mr. Sessions said Mr. Martin’s engaging personality was on display at the leadership summit, where he lobbed the students trivia questions about Mrs. Schlafly’s career, Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and handed out signed copies of “A Choice Not an Echo,” Mrs. Schlafly’s self-published classic.
“Come on — you guys have Google on your phone,” he said, teasing the students.
Mr. Martin said the idea is to train the younger generation and give youths the skills and understanding they need to win the political argument, whether that is at a statehouse, on a local school board or just in their neighborhood.
“We want to energize you,” Mr. Martin told them.
“Don’t wait for some magic moment where you are suddenly supposed to be active,” he said. “The beauty of the moment that we are in is that speed is the No. 1 thing, and young people are faster than older people, whether it is the NFL or politics. So if you guys and gals can get energized, you can be a real force and make a difference.”
The message resonated with Savannah A. Emerich, who said she plans to be the first female speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives. She said she had chatted with Mr. Martin about opening a chapter of the Eagle Forum at the University of North Georgia.
“I am here to make sure all my views are clear and any questions that I might have are answered because I don’t like to talk about something unless I know exactly what I am talking about,” Ms. Emerich said.