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MADD Leader Pays High Price for the Heady Life of a Celebrity

March 22, 1987|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — These are heady days for businesswoman Norma Phillips--on stage with President Reagan, singing with Stevie Wonder, dining at fancy French restaurants. The price of admission was her son's death at the hands of a drunk driver.

She vented her anger by forming the San Diego chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1982; today, she is MADD's national president and by her estimate spends 80% of her time away from her luxurious home in Escondido, relentlessly campaigning from pizza parlors in Toledo to the Rayburn House Office Building in the nation's capital that drinking and driving is unacceptable.

It has become her passion, totally consuming a woman who does not want for diversion: a family garage filled with two Mercedes-Benzes, a Jaguar, a stretch limousine and a Rolls Royce; a ski boat docked at Lake Havasu; jewelry, and a poodle with its own bedroom in her elegant, 5,200-square-foot custom-designed home.

She has been spoiled rotten her entire life, Norma Phillips acknowledges, first by her parents and now by her husband of 20 years, Harold Phillips. And by her reasoning, the best way to respond to her son's death was to throw not money--what's money?--but to put virtually her every waking hour into MADD.

During a 3 1/2-day visit here recently, she attended three receptions, handed out public service awards, lobbied congressmen, shared a press conference with a senator, testified at a congressional hearing, participated in an all-day drunk driving workshop and met with local MADD chapter members.

Everywhere she goes, Phillips, 49, projects MADD as the nation's most successful organization in readjusting society's attitude toward drinking and driving. It arguably is. But, reflecting its current leadership, MADD cuts a different image today than the one that fired up a nation to rebel against drinking drivers in the early 1980s.

It was MADD's frenzied founder, Candy Lightner, who became a folk heroine of sorts in pricking the public conscience after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1980.

No Mystery to Magic

There was no mystery to MADD's magic in the media: here were mothers willing to go public with their grief over the loss of their children to drunk drivers in a society where the marriage of booze and cars was punishable by a slap on the wrist.

MADD grabbed the nation by its shoulders and shook. Legislators passed new laws, judges meted out tougher sentences, prosecutors were less willing to plea bargain, police departments got more money for drunk driving enforcement, teen-agers were spoon-fed anti-drunk driving messages and the victims of drunk drivers received counseling and support.

Then, MADD's board of directors and Lightner split in October, 1985. Lightner said she and MADD had together reached their peak and it was her time to bow out while on top; MADD's directors said Lightner's brand of zealous--and sometimes ungraceful--leadership had worn thin and that the organization's staff, finances and programs were beyond Lightner's management expertise.

Lightner left the organization with a two-year contract to serve as a $7,000-a-month consultant--with a stipulation that she would not criticize the organization she founded.

Concern in the Ranks

With Lightner's departure came concern in the ranks that the movement was destined to become institutionalized and ineffective. The novelty had worn off and now the zealous leader was gone.

The challenge to Phillips--who at five feet once had to stand atop a senator's briefcase to reach the television microphones at a press conference--is to keep the message fresh and stimulating, with equal doses of genuine passion and some tried-and-true cliches: "We won't be out of business until the day when no one dies from an alcohol-related crash."

So Phillips comes to Washington and beats her drum--not as noisily as Lightner but, some say, with a bit more rhythm and finesse.

For Norma Phillips' family, the curse of drunk driving hit on Nov. 29, 1981, when Dean, 24, her only son by a previous marriage, and his girlfriend, Laticia Crosthwaite, 20, left the Phillips home in Escondido after a Thanksgiving dinner to meet Laticia's family in the Anza Borrego State Desert for a weekend of off-road vehicle fun.

The couple joined three other cars for the caravan to the desert. Near Warner Springs in northern San Diego County, a man driving a Rolls Royce crossed the center line of the highway and crashed head-on into Dean Phillips' pickup truck, compacting the cab to 12 inches in height.

Norma and Harold Phillips handled their anger differently; Harold Phillips to this day has difficulty discussing Dean's death, and was willing to simply donate money to MADD in his son's memory. Norma, on the other hand, said she needed a way to vent her anger "and I said, let's give me, not money.' "

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