MADD MOTHERS: IS THERE LIFE AFTER CANDY?

It was an event that drove home the tenuous nature of political power. To outsiders, Candy Lightner, the activist founder and guiding force of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), appeared to have a tight hold on the reins of the fervent organization that had touched the social consciousness of an entire nation. Only those on the inside had any ink-ling of a quiet struggle at MADD’s Hurst-based national headquarters, where Lightner was stripped of her power by a handful of men and women who, ironically, are among her thousands of admirers.

Last October, the 17-member MADD board of directors gave Lightner her walking papers, removing her as president and relegating her to a $7,000-a-month consultantship for the next two years. Lightner’s fall from grace came barely a month after MADD officials celebrated the organization’s fifth anniversary. Now, Lightner says, she’ll be leaving the Dallas area to return to her native California.

“She’ll be doing some work for MADD,” says newly installed president Norma Phillips of San Diego. “But she won’t be a spokesperson. I’ll be the spokesperson for MADD.”

Insiders say Lightner’s contract actually expired June 30. At that time, the board of directors would not acquiesce to her demands for a $10,000 bonus. When Lightner threatened to leave, the board promptly appointed a six-member executive committee to tend to the day-to-day running of the organization. On October 11, she was formally removed as an officer.

One MADD official, who asked not to be identified, said that over a year ago the board of directors decided that the task of managing the $2.7 million MADD operation required more than one person. “And Candy was not open to any limited [leadership] role,” says one source.

“I feel that if there was a sincere desire to continue working with me, we could have worked things out,” says the 39-year-old Lightner. “It seems that I’ve been replaced by a six-member executive committee, four officers and a public relations firm.”

Lightner was referring to Phillips and a trio of vice-presidents from Alabama, Wisconsin and Oregon. The prestigious New York public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton Inc. was hired just before Lightner was fired.

Now there is concern among MADD’s rank-and-file that the new leadership could streamline MADD’s administrative practices, but at the same time weaken its effectiveness in the political arena.

“I resent the attack on Candy,” says Marinelle Timmons of Houston, MADD’s Texas state director. “They could have shown her more appreciation for what she did for this country. I have no respect and no trust in our national board. The board’s action has taken an effective grass roots organization and turned it into a structured corporation. MADD’s going to fade into the woodwork, because you can’t have an activist in a structured corporation.”

But Don E. Schaet, recently installed executive director of MADD, says that although the organization will miss Light-ner’s “leadership, charisma and expertise,” there will be no changes in emphasis. “We are a victim’s assistance organization, even though we are perceived as lobbyists. If you’re asking me, ’Is there life after Candy?’ the answer is, there sure is.”

Coming to grips with financial management problems and expanding the membership rolls are right at the top of the new MADD list of priorities. “We’ll be having a membership drive,” says Phillips. “We have 600,000 actual members [who pay $20 minimum annual dues], but there are 7.5 million victims of drunk drivers.”

Phillips says the four new officers have begun a nationwide travel plan to touch base with each of the 367 county MADD chapters. To encourage growth, the new leadership has eliminated the $200 chartering fee for new chapters and will no longer require that local chapters send eight percent of their fiindraising take to the national headquarters. Phillips, whose 24-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver four years ago, says the organization will move to comply with Better Business Bureau standards for charitable solicitations. (A report by the national BBB alleged that MADD spent 70 percent of its budget on fund-raising and management and only 27 percent on program services.)

One of the organization’s major legislative goals for the post-Lightner years will be to codify into law recent federal court decisions, based on old dramshop laws, that have held bartenders financially liable for the accidents of drunk drivers to whom they served alcohol.

Meanwhile, Timmons says MADD chapters all over the country are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the new leadership. They want to make sure that MADD remains a grass roots organization. To assure this, she says chapter presidents want “chapter majority” representation on the national board of directors, meaning that nine of the 17 board members would be elected by region and from the ranks of chapter leadership. Further, the chapters are demanding a recall procedure to remove any board member.

Candy Lightner may have only a token role in MADD’s future, but the wrath of her vocal supporters remains something the new leadership will continue to handle very carefully.

“We’ve created an awareness of drunk driving that is unbelievable,” says Lightner. “Since 1980, we’ve gotten over 400 drunk driving bills passed nationwide, passed a 21-year-old minimum drinking age at the federal level, eliminated happy hours and caused a 25 percent reduction in the number of drunk driving related deaths.

“But I’m not sure how much longer the momentum on drunk driving will keep up. There’s not much more to do that’s controversial. I tend to enjoy the challenge of controversy.”

What’s next for the hell-raiser from California? “That depends on what day you ask me,” she says. “But mainly I want to be Candy Lightner. I’ve had little time to be a person. I’ve helped create the awareness of drunk driving. Now it’s the public’s responsibility to maintain it.”

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