Meet Cleta Mitchell, the Conservative Movement's Anti-Gay Eminence Grise

How did a liberal Democratic Oklahoma legislator come to be an influential activist and lawyer to the Republican firmament?
Cleta Mitchell speaks at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. (Gage Skidmore)

In 2011, a little-known group called GOProud was a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual marquee event for the right. A staunchly right-wing, fiscally conservative group that also promoted a pro-life message, GOProud seemed like a great fit for the event. There was just one problem: GOProud's main function was as a gay-rights group.

Enter Cleta Mitchell.

Mitchell was, and is, on the board of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC. After calls from angry social-conservatives who threatened to boycott the event if GOProud was allowed to remain as a sponsor, Mitchell orchestrated a push to expel GOProud. It wasn't initially successful -- the group remained as a sponsor that year

But after that the 2011 conference, Al Cardenas succeeded David Keene as ACU president. With Mitchell's support, he called a vote of the board on whether or not GOProud should be allowed in CPAC. The board voted strongly in favor of banning the group.

GOProud has been absent ever since. This isn't to say the decision has been universally popular at CPAC -- indeed, an independent, unsanctioned panel at the convention center on welcoming gays into the movement that featured GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia and conservative journalists Jennifer Rubin and Jonah Goldberg at this year's conference was packed with well-wishers -- but the ban has stuck.

Mitchell doesn't dispute her central role in the ban, but says she only did what was in the best interest of the conference, calling herself "the advocate of CPAC" and pointing out that participants in the boycott -- including Heritage, the grandfather of conservative groups, were too big to ignore. But some involved in the process say Mitchell's role went well beyond simple responsiveness. "She ginned up opposition from Jim DeMint and Jim Jordan and groups that had never really been involved in CPAC in order to make it look like [GOProud] deserved it," a key organizer of the 2011 confab told me. (A spokesman for DeMint said that is "simply false," and added that his decision not to speak at the conference was uninfluenced by Mitchell.)

What's more, the organizer points out, most of the groups that threatened to boycott 2011's CPAC didn't actually do so in the end, with Heritage a notable exception. "Even Focus on the Family continued to be at CPAC when GOProud was there," the organizer said. "CPAC 2011 made more money, had more cosponsors, and had more attendees than any previous CPAC. Even if Cleta's opposition to GOProud was based purely on profit, she was wrong."

Cleta Mitchell is not a household name, even among conservatives. She's part of the behind-the-scenes power-players that run the show in the Beltway. In addition to her role at the ACU, Mitchell sits on the board of the National Rifle Association and is a longtime attendee at Grover Norquist's infamous Wednesday planning meetings.

But first and foremost, Mitchell is lawyer to the stars of the conservative movement at Foley & Lardner, one of the biggest and most powerful firms in the country. Her clientele is the cream of the Republican crop: Marco Rubio, Jim DeMint, Kelly Ayotte, Jim Inhofe, and Pat Toomey, among many others.

What makes Mitchell's role as a prime mover and shaker in conservative circles so fascinating, however, is that she hasn't always been a conservative -- or even a Republican. In fact, she entered politics as a liberal Democrat in a red state. From 1976 to 1984 she served as a representative in the Oklahoma State House, where she became the first woman in the U.S. to chair a state appropriations and budget committee.

When Mitchell first dove into hot-button social issues, it wasn't as a defender of traditional values. She was a driving force behind the passage of Oklahoma's Equal Rights Amendment. The Oklahoma incarnation of the amendment was supported by then-president of the National Organization for Women Eleanor Smeal, who came to the state house in person to support the amendment. Conservative luminary Phyllis Schlafly, who helped kill the national version of the amendment, backed the opposition. These days, Schlafly is a mainstay of CPAC.

In 1978, Mitchell criticized Carter aide and women's-rights activist Midge Costanza, saying her views didn't go far enough: "I don't think she is sensitive to political reality. She doesn't know enough about where we are in the women's movement and the ERA."

Even amidst all this social activism, according to a lawyer who is a close friend of Mitchell's and fought for the ERA with her, Mitchell "never talked" to her about gay issues while she was in the legislature. And yet it was work to keep gay-rights groups out of events like CPAC has come to define her public image -- though Mitchell says "no one cares" about this aspect of her career -- rather than any of her prior social activism. It has also led GOProud's Chris Barron to once call her "a nasty bigot," and LaSalvia to accuse her of "personal animosity towards gay people."

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Jonathan Krohn is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Vice, Salon, and The New York Times. More

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