Having never held any elective office prior to winning her House seat, Mary Bono transitioned over the course of more than 14 years from a wife of a celebrity-turned-Member-of-Congress to a Representative in her own right. “When Sonny was in office, I never spoke on issues. It was my responsibility to be a loving wife rather than a lobbyist,” she told the Orange County Register in 1998. “This is my chance to represent myself.”1 Bono eventually earned a reputation as a moderate on social issues, became an advocate for environmental protections, and—from her perch as chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade (under the Energy and Commerce Committee)—recognized as one of Congress’s leading advocates for curbing prescription drug abuse.
Mary Whitaker was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 24, 1961, one of four children raised by Clay Whitaker, a surgeon, and Karen Whitaker, a chemist. When she was two years old her family—including siblings Stephen, David, and Katherine—moved to South Pasadena, California, where she grew up as an accomplished gymnast.2 In 1984, she earned a B.A. in art history from the University of Southern California. While celebrating her graduation with a meal at BONO Restaurant, she met the owner, entertainer Sonny Bono. In February 1986, she married Bono and eventually raised two children with him, Chesare and Chianna. Mary Bono worked as a personal fitness instructor and helped managed Bono’s businesses. From 1988 to 1992, Mary Bono served as the first lady of Palm Springs, California, while her husband was mayor. During that time, she also served on the board of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. In 1994, Sonny Bono was elected to the U.S. House as a Republican in a district encompassing the city of Palm Springs.
On January 5, 1998, Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident in South Lake Tahoe, California. Citing a desire to continue her husband’s work, but also as a way to recycle grief into action, Mary Bono announced in early February that she would run in the April 7, special election to fill her husband’s seat. “I don’t think anyone expects me to be an expert on anything,” Bono admitted. “You’re going to tell me—what—that because I don’t have my J.D. or something, I’m not qualified? I think that people truly don’t want that. I don’t think they want a robotic politician in there.”3 She faced Democrat and actor Ralph Waite, also a political newcomer. Waite’s acting commitments kept him out of the district for much of the time leading up to the election and Bono defeated him with 65 percent of the vote.4 In the following November she prevailed against Waite again for a full term in the 106th Congress (1999–2001), this time with 60 percent of the vote. Bono won her next four elections by a similar margin.5
While initially filling some of her husband’s committee assignments—in her shortened term in the 105th Congress (1997–1999), she served on the Judiciary and National Security Committees—Representative Bono relinquished her assignment to the National Security panel as she developed her own legislative interests in her first full term. Retaining her assignment on the Judiciary Committee in the 106th Congress, she also picked up seats on the Armed Services and Small Business panels. In 107th Congress (2001–2003), Bono gave up all her other assignments to join the Energy and Commerce Committee—a prime perch to focus on her own interest in the environment. She served on this panel until 2013 and eventually chaired the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade in the 112th Congress (2011–2013).6
As with many previous congressional widows, her term in the 105th was, in part, a memorial to her late husband.7 She generally supported Sonny Bono’s legislative positions as an advocate for decentralized government authority and greater local control, particularly in the education field. She continued Sonny Bono’s work to preserve the Salton Sea, a southern California lake—half of which lies in her district. In late 1998, Congresswoman Bono and other California Representatives convinced the House to fund an environmental study and begin the process of cleaning the Salton Sea. Mary Bono also directed a copyright extension bill through the House which had been introduced by her husband.
The biggest vote of Representative Bono’s first term came in her role as a member on the House Judiciary Committee—which had opened impeachment proceedings against President William J. “Bill” Clinton. “I try not to think about it too often,” she said at the time. “I try to focus on the day ahead of me, the issues right in front of me. If I didn’t do that, I would become very overwhelmed.”8 As the committee’s most junior member, she began by often yielding her time for questions to other Members. But by the end of the process she had largely won favorable reviews with her thoughtful examination of witnesses. Bono supported bringing an impeachment motion to the House Floor and, along with the Republican majority, later voted to impeach the President.
Representative Bono also carved out her own legislative interests. She differed with Sonny Bono over land development issues. “I used to tease him that he would build condos at the base of Half Dome in Yosemite if he could,” she recalled. “That’s how extreme he was.”9 In 2000, she helped pass legislation establishing the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument in her district. She also co-sponsored legislation to bar national forests from charging fees to recreational users. “To tax the great outdoors is offensive to the concept of the national forest system,” Bono said.10 She also differentiated herself from fellow Republicans on the abortion issue. While supporting parental notification and opposing federal funding and partial-birth abortions, Bono believed that “in the end, it’s between a woman, her family and her God. It’s a moral decision, and she has to make it on her own. The Federal Government does not belong in it.”11 She also supported the use of surplus embryonic stem cells from fertility clinics for medical research, citing her physician father and chemist mother’s influence on that issue.12
In November 2001, Mary Bono married Wyoming businessman Glenn Baxley; however, the marriage ended in divorce four years later. In December 2007, she married fellow Republican Representative Connie Mack IV of Florida, becoming the fourth congressional couple to marry while both were still serving on Capitol Hill.13 The Congresswoman changed her name after the nuptials, going by Mary Bono Mack for the remainder of her congressional career.14
Bono Mack became one of Congress’s strongest advocates for mental health and substance abuse treatment. She was a cosponsor and vocal advocate for the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008, which required online pharmaceutical retailers to collect a valid prescription before dispensing controlled substances. “Too many individuals have the false perception that prescription medications are not as dangerous as street drugs,” Bono Mack observed. “It is time we update the archaic laws governing online pharmacies and ensure more adequate protection for consumers.”15 Though initially reluctant to publicly discuss her own family’s problems with addiction, Bono Mack broke the silence in February 2009 with a People magazine feature, in which she and her son, Chesare, candidly discussed his addiction to prescription medications and illegal drugs.16 Revealing how personal the issue was to her, Bono Mack attempted to regulate the narcotic painkiller OxyContin, a drug to which Chesare was addicted. In April 2011, as chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, she held a hearing on prescription drug diversion. “I agree that expanded public education plays a role in addressing the problem,” she said in her opening statement, “but we’re not going to make any real progress until we limit access to these powerful narcotic drugs and ensure that only patients in severe pain can obtain them.”17 In 2010 and in 2011, she introduced the Stop Oxy Abuse Act, which limited the use of the drug for moderate-to-severe pain. Both bills died in the Energy and Commerce Committee.18
Though she often voted with her party in the later part of her career, Bono Mack continued to differ from the majority of the GOP when it came to the social issues important to her district. The Palm Springs area included a sizeable gay population and, in 2007, she was one of 35 Republicans to vote in favor of a bill prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation. She also sponsored a bill that funneled AIDS funding to rural areas and backed the final measure to repeal the military’s ban on gay men and women serving openly in the military. Though Bono Mack joined her party in voting against the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, she broke with the majority of GOP Members that same year in supporting an expansion to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covered children from low-income families who do not qualify for Medicaid.19
The changing demographics of the greater Palm Springs area coupled with a newly redrawn congressional district, also made it more difficult for Bono Mack to win re-election in the late 2000s. Starting in 2008, her margins of victory began dipping. She won with 58 percent of the vote that year, as Democratic Presidential candidate, Barack Obama, won her district by 5 percent. In 2010, Bono Mack won a three-way race with just 52 percent of the vote.20 In 2012, Bono Mack faced Democrat Raul Ruiz, a Harvard-trained medical doctor and son of Hispanic farm workers. The two were competing in a new district, which stretched farther north to Desert Hot Springs and diluted some of Bono Mack’s previous district’s GOP advantage.21 In addition to being well-known among the district’s growing Hispanic population, Ruiz won high profile supporters in the medical community and prominent Democrats.22 In a tight race, which saw Bono Mack participate in her first in-person debate since 2002, Ruiz prevailed with 53 percent of the vote.23 “After 25 years of public life in the beautiful desert,” Bono Mack conceded, “it is now time for me to start a new chapter in my life.”24
In May 2013, Bono Mack and Connie Mack—who also lost his 2012 bid for a Florida Senate seat—announced their impending divorce.25 She currently works for a California-based consulting firm.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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