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."

Mitchell hasn't spoken at any length as to why she suddenly seemed to be a champion of these issues as of late -- and what brought her to the Beltway wasn't social issues or even fiscal issues but term limits (she was made head of the Term Limits Legal Institute in 1991) and most of her work since has focused on areas other than social policy. But her stance is ironic in light of her past.

Namely, her first husband was gay.

Mitchell married Duane Draper, who she met in the city of Norman in her home state of Oklahoma. In 1980, Draper moved to Massachusetts to take a teaching fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The couple divorced two years later in July 1982 on grounds of "incompatibility." (Mitchell's friend from the Oklahoma legislature, after hesitating, said she didn't feel comfortable discussing whether Draper's sexuality was a reason for the divorce.)

In 1988, Draper became director of the Massachusetts AIDS policy office. His interest wasn't just academic or humanitarian -- he himself contracted the disease. By the time he died of AIDS in 1991, Draper was living as an openly gay man. From his hospital bed, he told the Boston Globe that his support for AIDS victims and gay rights were two elements of a single mission to make life easier for "all AIDS people, especially gay men uncertain of how families, friends, and co-workers will take [their diagnosis]."

In 1984, Mitchell (nee Deatherage) married Dale Mitchell -- son of all-star left-fielder Dale Mitchell, who was the final strikeout in Don Larsen's 1956 World Series perfect game. As The Oklahoman noted at the time, Cleta Deatherage took her husband's last name, and in return he switched parties from Republican to Democrat -- even though she said after her retirement that she was finished with politics. But she couldn't resist the pull of elected office, and mounted an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 1986.

Around the same time, the FBI began investigating Dale Mitchell for banking malpractice. In late 1992, he was convicted of five felony counts of conspiracy to defraud, misapplying bank funds and making false statements to banks and ordered to pay $3 million in restitution--something that his wife says convinced her that government had grown too big.

By 1996, she had changed her party affiliation to independent, later changing it to Republican.

As powerful as she is, Mitchell is wary of the press. When I first approached her to request an interview, she repeatedly speculated that I would write a "hit piece," and only agreed to speak on the condition there would only be one GOProud-related question. When I asked her in an email about a blogpost linking Draper's sexuality to the couple's divorce, she clammed up. "I think I'm finished talking about this with you -- it is a hit piece as I suspected from the start," she said. "Swing away!"

But maybe the reason Mitchell is so reticent to talk, particularly about gay marriage-related issues, is that when she starts on the issue, she has quite a bit to say. As BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner noted, she helped turn a panel on bullying at this year's CPAC into an anti-gay diatribe. Yet she professes ignorance of what GOProud actually does, calling them "nothing-burgers" and adding, "I have no idea what they do except promote the homosexual agenda."

Meanwhile, despite Mitchell's best efforts, gay rights are decisively on the march. Along with Supreme Court hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act last week, a steady stream of elected officials are embracing marriage equality -- including Republican Senators Mark Kirk and Rob Portman -- and it's hard not to wonder how and when the conservative establishment will adapt.

There are, of course, holdouts -- Ed Gillespie, who said on Fox News Sunday recently that he doesn't see the GOP changing its views on the definition of marriage, or Rick Santorum and other staunch social conservatives. But with people like Senator Jeff Flake saying that not only could he support a Republican candidate for president who endorsed gay marriage, but that such a Republican is "inevitable," RNC Chair Reince Priebus saying that the party should be more accepting of pro-gay marriage groups, and the rise of a more libertarian strain in the party, led by Ron and Rand Paul, the GOP faces either a policy switch or deep irrelevance.

Mitchell herself, ironically, offers a clear model of how people can change. What's not clear is whether the right as a whole is ready to emulate that model.