Elected: April 1998, 7th full term.
Born: October 23, 1961, Cleveland, OH
Home: Palm Springs
Education: U. of S. CA, B.F.A. 1984
Professional Career: Gen. mgr., Bono restaurant, 1986–90.
Family: married (Connie Mack) , 4 children
The congresswoman from the 45th District is Mary Bono Mack, who won the seat in an April 1998 special election after the death of her husband, Sonny Bono, the onetime pop music celebrity who became a member of the U.S. House. In 2008, she married U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican.
Bono Mack grew up as Mary Whitaker in South Pasadena, the daughter of a surgeon and a chemist. She was an accomplished gymnast and remains a fitness buff and a certified personal fitness instructor who has studied karate and Tae Kwan Do. She met Sonny Bono when she was celebrating her college graduation at his Los Angeles restaurant in 1984. They were married two years later. The couple was on a family vacation when he was killed in a skiing accident in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. At the time of his death, she had no political experience and was little known in Washington. House Republican leaders encouraged her to run for her husband’s seat, believing she was the only one who could avert a divisive Republican primary. In the special election, Democrats backed actor Ralph Waite, best known as Pa Walton in The Waltons. Waite was hurt during the brief campaign because he kept a commitment to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman six times a week in a New Jersey theater. The campaign’s biggest controversy came when Sonny’s 83-year-old mother said that her son would have opposed Mary’s candidacy, preferring that she care for their children. But it was no contest. Mary Bono won 64%-29%, a bigger margin than Sonny’s two victories.
Bono Mack has a moderate voting record, especially on social issues, and is the least conservative of the California Republicans. She helped pass the reauthorization of the Ryan White AIDS research law in 2006, and she supported embryonic stem cell research and increases in the federal minimum wage. Her initial legislative priority was passage of Sonny Bono’s bill to restore the Salton Sea, a body of water in the desert that had been shrinking and getting polluted by agricultural runoff. Although some Democrats objected to taking funds from other California projects, Bono Mack secured $13 million for what became the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.
On the Energy and Commerce Committee, Bono Mack in 2009 caused considerable consternation in Republican circles for supporting the Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions. She said that the bill, while “far from perfect,” prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from having sole regulatory authority over greenhouse gas emissions. By April 2010, she was less supportive of the bill, writing in a letter to GOP negotiators that she had “serious reservations” about proceeding with the talks. Though she joined Republicans in opposing the health care overhaul that year, she worked with Democrats on bills aimed at improving children’s health and combating eating disorders and obesity.
In 2007, the House passed her legislation to crack down on invasive computer “spyware,” which can hijack a computer and tamper with its operations. Bono Mack, who collects about $100,000 annually from her late husband’s royalties, has opposed legislation to relax controls on digital piracy. The House passed her bill in December 2009 to educate consumers about privacy and security risks associated with digital file-sharing. During the immigration debate in recent years, she supported tougher enforcement at the border as well as an expanded guest worker program.
Bono Mack usually has been re-elected with ease, though she has faced tougher battles in recent elections. In 2008, she was challenged by former Assemblywoman Julie Bornstein, a Democrat who ran an ad depicting Bono Mack as a bubblehead for Bush’s policies. Bornstein spent nearly $400,000, but Bono Mack won 58%-42%.
Two years later, her moderate record led to a primary challenge from Clayton Thibodeau, who moved from San Diego County to Hemet at the urging of tea-party activists. But she trounced Thibodeau in the June 2010 primary, setting up a race against Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet. He raised serious money, bringing in nearly $1.7 million. Openly gay, he was able to neutralize some of the support she had built up in that community. Encouraged by Obama’s showing in 2008, national Democrats hoped they could wage a competitive race, and ran ads highlighting her opposition to the 2009 financial reform overhaul. But Bono Mack proved difficult to pigeonhole as a lockstep conservative. She won with 51.5%, having raised more than $2.2 million.