BONO, Mary

BONO, Mary
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1961–

Biography

A month after the death of Congressman Sonny Bono in a skiing accident, Mary Bono announced her candidacy for the special election to fill her late-husband’s seat. “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 earned a reputation as a moderate on social issues, an advocate for environmental protections, and—as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade—a crusader against prescription drug addiction.

Mary Bono was born Mary Whitaker 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 BA 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 manage her husband’s businesses. From 1988 to 1992, 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 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 said. “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 Ralph Waite, an actor whose work commitments kept him out of the district for much of the time leading up to the election. In April, 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

Bono initially took her husband’s seats on the Judiciary and National Security Committee in the 105th Congress (1997–1999). In the 106th Congress, she kept her spot on the Judiciary Committee but dropped National Security for seats on the Armed Services and Small Business committees. In 107th Congress (2001–2003), Bono gave up all her other assignments to join the Energy and Commerce Committee, where she could focus on environmental issues. She served on this committee until 2013 and eventually chaired the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade in the 112th Congress (2011–2013).6

In the months remaining in the 105th Congress, Bono continued some of her late husband’s legislative agenda, including his support for decentralized government authority and greater local control, particularly in the education field.7 She continued the work to preserve the Salton Sea, a southern California lake—half of which lies in her district. In late 1998, 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 helped pass a bill initially offered by her husband to compensate members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for land near Palm Springs that had been developed. It became law in October 1998.8

The biggest vote of Bono’s first term came on the 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.” As the committee’s most junior member, she initially yielded 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.9

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.”10 In 2000 she helped pass legislation establishing the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument in her district. She also cosponsored 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.11

She also differentiated herself from many in her party on issues concerning access to abortion. While she supported parental notification and opposed federal funding for 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.”12 She also supported the use of surplus embryonic stem cells from fertility clinics for medical research, citing the influence her father, a physician, and her mother, a chemist, had on the issue.13

In November 2001, Mary Bono married Wyoming businessman Glenn Baxley; they divorced 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.14 After the wedding, Bono changed her name to Mary Bono Mack, which she used for the remainder of her congressional career.15

Over her career, Bono became one of Congress’s strongest advocates for mental health and substance addiction 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 observed. “It is time we update the archaic laws governing online pharmacies and ensure more adequate protection for consumers.”16 Though initially reluctant to publicly discuss her own family’s struggles with addiction, Bono and her son, Chesare, candidly discussed his addiction to prescription medications and drugs in a 2009 interview with People magazine.17 Revealing how personal the issue was to her, Bono attempted to regulate the narcotic painkiller OxyContin, a drug to which Chesare was addicted. In April 2011, as chair of the Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee, 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.”18 In 2010 and in 2011, she introduced the Stop Oxy Abuse Act, which limited the use of the drug for moderate-to-severe pain. Neither bill made it out of the Energy and Commerce Committee.19

Though she often voted with her party in the later part of her career, Bono continued to differ from most of the GOP when it came to social issues important to her district. The Palm Springs area included a sizeable LGBTQ 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. Although Bono voted against the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, she broke with the majority of the GOP that 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.20

The changing demographics of the greater Palm Springs area coupled with a newly redrawn congressional district also made it more difficult for Bono 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 won a three-way race with just 52 percent of the vote.21 In 2012 Bono 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’s previous district’s GOP advantage.22 Ruiz had wide name recognition among the district’s growing Hispanic population and won high profile supporters in the medical community and from prominent Democrats.23 In a tight race, which saw Bono participate in her first in-person debate since 2002, Ruiz prevailed with 53 percent of the vote.24 “After 25 years of public life in the beautiful desert,” Bono conceded, “it is now time for me to start a new chapter in my life.”25

In May 2013, Bono and Connie Mack—who also lost his 2012 bid for a Florida Senate seat—announced their divorce.26 Bono married Stephen Scot Oswald in September 2015, a former Navy pilot and astronaut.27 She currently works for a California-based consulting firm.

Footnotes

1John Hughes, “On Her Own: People Know Sonny Bono’s Widow, But Do They Know Mary Bono?” 29 March 1998, Orange County Register (Santa Ana, CA): E1.

2Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 May 2008): E914; Hughes, “On Her Own.”

3Frank Bruni, “The Widows Run,” 29 March 1998, New York Times Magazine: 34.

4William Claiborne, “Mary Bono Wins House Seat,” 8 April 1998, Washington Post: A4.

5Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920to Present.”

6Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2011): 596; Congressional Directory, 112th Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012): 476; Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Members’ Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint, Select) in the U.S. House, 1917–Present.”

7Lorraine Adams, “Keepers of the Flame,” 1 November 1998, Good Housekeeping 227, no. 5: 136; Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Oh, My God, We’re Not Blond Anymore: The Transformation of Mary Bono,” 1 July 1999, Esquire 132, no. 1: 122.

8Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998, PL 105-372, 112 Stat. 3377 (1998); Agua Caliente Revenue Distribution Act, PL 105-308, 112 Stat. 2932 (1998).

9Lloyd Grove, “In the Thick of It: For Mary Bono, A Year of Decisions Topped by One Vote,” 11 December 1998, Washington Post: D1.

10Bruni, “The Widows Run.”

11Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 148–149.

12Bruni, “The Widows Run.”

13Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2011): 151.

14Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Familial Connections of Women Members of Congress.”

15Keith Matheny, “It’s Now ‘Bono Mack’ for Mary,” 20 December 2007, Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA): B2.

16Deborah Barfield Berry, “Legislation Targets Online Pharmacies,” 17 October 2008, Desert Sun: B4.

17Johnny Dodd, “Mary Bono Mack and Her Son Chesare Back from the Edge,” People 17, no. 6 (February 16, 2009): 107–109.

18Hearings before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, Warning: The Growing Danger of Prescription Drug Diversion, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (2011).

19Stop Oxy Abuse Act of 2010, H.R. 4956, 111th Cong. (2010); Stop Oxy Abuse Act of 2011, H.R. 1316, 112th Cong. (2011).

20Politics in America, 2012: 150.

21“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Politics in America, 2012: 151.

22Marcel Honore, “Mary Bono Mack, Raul Ruiz Debate Spirals into Personal Attack Slugfest,” 13 October 2012, Desert Sun: 1.

23Erica Felci, “Raul Ruiz Bests Mary Bono Mack in Fundraising in First Quarter for Congressional Race,” 17 April 2012, Desert Sun: n.p.; Xochitl Pena, “Bill Clinton Endorses Raul Ruiz in House Race,” 24 October 2012, Desert Sun: n.p.

24“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Honore, “Mary Bono Mack, Raul Ruiz Debate Spirals into Personal Attack Slugfest.”

25Erica Felci, “Dr. Raul Ruiz Victorious as Rep. Mary Bono Mack Concedes Race,” 9 November 2012, Desert Sun: n.p.

26Ledyard King, “Connie Mack, IV, Mary Bono Mack Announce Divorce,” 25 May 2013, News Press (Fort Myers, FL): 1. She changed her name back to Mary Bono.

27Emily Heil, “Former Congresswoman Mary Bono Weds Former Astronaut,” 29 September 2015, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2015/09/29/former-congresswoman-mary-bono-weds-former-astronaut/.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Mary Bono" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Energy and Commerce
    • Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade - Chair
  • House Committee - Judiciary
  • House Committee - National Security
  • House Committee - Small Business
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