Former Gov. Evan Mecham dies at age 83 - East Valley Tribune: News

Former Gov. Evan Mecham dies at age 83

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Posted: Friday, February 22, 2008 1:10 pm | Updated: 11:05 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Arizona's political history turned on Evan Mecham. The former governor ran as an outsider, a self-styled political reformer doing battle with what he deemed the corrupt elite, a cabal of crooked politicians, wealthy power brokers and their pawns in the media.

Sign guest book for Evan Mecham

Mecham's 15 months in office were the most bitter and divisive in the state's history. Though his term as governor ended with his impeachment 20 years ago, the bitterness and divisions it left still linger.

Mecham, 83, died Thursday. He spent his last years being cared for in the dementia unit of the Arizona State Veteran Home in Phoenix. He was discharged Feb. 13 to the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center, and later transferred to hospice care in Gilbert.

Mecham is survived by his wife, Florence, and seven children. A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. March 1 at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 4901 W. Union Hills Drive, in Glendale. Until then, state flags will be flown at half-staff.

Even today, former House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, a Phoenix Democrat, counts his February 1988 vote to impeach Mecham as the one among thousands cast in his legislative career that he would like to take back. There was good cause to impeach Mecham, Hamilton said Friday, but by the time the House voted for impeachment, the fiery governor was facing a voter-led recall election.

It would have been easier for the state to heal if lawmakers had left it to voters to decide Mecham's fate, Hamilton said.

"I really do believe the facts indicated that the vote I cast was the correct one," Hamilton said. "I just think, in terms of the political reality of it all, we would have been better off to let the recall proceed. The voters would have done it themselves. It would have removed, at least from those who saw it as a political lynching, the taint that this was simply, 'Let's get Evan Mecham.' "

His political rise and fall was the most stunning in state history. Making his fifth run for governor in 1986, Mecham pulled off upsets in both the Republican primary and the general election, which he won with 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

A year later, Mecham was facing the triple threat of impeachment, recall and criminal indictment.

In April 1988, he became the only governor in Arizona history to be removed from office through impeachment. He later beat criminal charges brought by the state attorney general's office alleging he illegally concealed a $350,000 loan to his campaign.

While in office, Mecham sharply divided Arizonans and became a beacon for national scorn over remarks about homosexuals, blacks, Jews, Asians and other minorities.

To his supporters, he was an ideological purist, an honest man who was willing to take on the special interests as he pressed his conservative political and social agenda.

To his enemies, Mecham was an intolerant buffoon seeking to impose his moral beliefs on the rest of the state.

To those who fell in the middle, Mecham was a man who bent the rules out of his own sense of self-righteousness, and brought disrepute to the state through his political tone-deafness.

"We saw Arizona divided," former Rep. Mark Killian, a Mesa Republican, said Friday of the Mecham era. "What we were experiencing was the anger of those who opposed the governor and the anger of those who supported the governor."

Killian voted against impeachment in the House. What is lost in the controversy about Mecham is that he reversed the trend of annual tax increases and brought control to state spending during his brief time in office, Killian said.

"All of the controversies that surrounded Governor Mecham overshadowed all of the good things that he was doing," Killian said.

Former Gov. Jane Hull is among those glad the era is 20 years behind us. The impeachment was not without political consequences for Republicans who voted to impeach, with both the House speaker and Senate president losing in GOP primaries that fall. Hull, then majority leader, became House speaker.

"It was a very difficult time for everybody, and I'm just glad to see it gone," she said. "More than anything, I feel bad for his family."

Mesa Sen. Karen Johnson, a former Mecham aide, said he was targeted from the moment he took office because he was an outsider and a strict constitutionalist.

"I never looked at Evan as a politician. He was a statesman through and through, and a consummate family man," she said. "I think his (political) demise was planned. They knew he would not put up with their funny business."

Political insiders scoffed at Mecham's candidacy when he announced he would make his fifth run for governor in July 1986. The Glendale car dealer and World War II fighter pilot had enjoyed just one prior electoral success, a single two-year term in the state Senate that began in 1961.

Mecham took on House Majority Leader Burton Barr of Phoenix, then considered the most powerful Republican in Arizona. Barr was the ultimate political wheeler-dealer who controlled the state House and negotiated deals with Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat.

Barr was backed by Arizona's political, corporate and media elite. He led Mecham by a 2-to-1 ratio in public opinion polls and outspent him tenfold.

But Mecham masterfully turned Barr's own resume against him, alleging that the longtime legislative insider was doing the bidding of the Phoenix 40, a secretive and influential group of business and political leaders at the time. Mecham also claimed in tabloids he published and news conferences he held that Barr had used inside knowledge to buy key parcels of land in the path of a planned Valley freeway, and used his position to protect corrupt special interests.

Mecham's upset win over Barr in the September 1986 primary sent political shock waves through Arizona. As stunning as that was, it was surpassed two months later when Mecham emerged as victor in the three-way general election.

POLITICAL PLUNGE

Mecham's downfall began the day he took office in January 1987.

In his first week as governor, Mecham repealed the state holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., saying at one point its supporters just wanted a day off with pay.

Mecham stated, correctly, that the attorney general's office had determined the state holiday created through an executive order by Babbitt was illegal. But Mecham's blunt handling of the repeal enraged many minorities, Democrats and Republicans, and caused a national backlash. Conventions were canceled, and tourism suffered.

"He might very well have been right in terms of the legality of it," said Hamilton, a longtime champion of the King holiday. "What ultimately caused the response to him was not merely what he did, but what in fact he said - that this was going to be his first official act as governor. It simply indicated an insensitivity to this issue and a failure to realize that we had paid a very high price for letting this become the divisive issue that it was."

Mecham further stoked the fires by declaring that homosexuality was not a legitimate lifestyle, and that gays and lesbians had no place in government. He told a Jewish audience that the United States was a "Christian nation." He said referring to black children as "pickaninnies" was a term of endearment, and that Japanese businessmen get "round eyes" when they see Arizona's golf courses.

Phoenix lawyer Paul Eckstein, part of the legal team hired to make the impeachment case against Mecham in the Senate, said much of what the former governor said and did was rooted in his upbringing in rural Utah in the 1920s and '30s. The "pickaninny" flub was a prime example.

"That's just emblematic of how he viewed the world," Eckstein said. "I don't think he grew politically."

In the ensuing months, Mecham fought a series of bitter battles with legislators he deemed disloyal, and media members he deemed hostile. Mecham declared a conservative columnist a "nonperson" and snapped at a reporter never to ask him for a "true statement" again.

But Mecham also claimed success during the single legislative session of his term. He held the line on state spending while blocking tax increases. Mecham is credited with resurrecting the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures. He signed a series of bills aimed at reforming the civil court system and expanding the state's health care program for the poor to provide long-term care for the elderly and disabled.

Mecham was alsoa driving force in getting the nation's governors to pressure Congress to repeal the 55 mph speed limit.

In July 1987, Ed Buck, a gay Republican and self-made millionaire, launched a recall drive against Mecham, declaring that his insensitive remarks and appointment of unqualified zealots to state offices had brought disrepute to the state and hurt its economy.

Mecham dismissed the recall supporters as "a band of homosexuals and a few disgruntled Democrats." But after just a few months of circulating petitions, the recall committee in November filed nearly 400,000 signatures, more than enough to force Mecham into a new election. A third of those who signed the petitions were Republicans.

Even so, some political observers say Mecham might have won a recall election on a crowded ballot with support from his conservative GOP base.

But by the time the recall petitions were certified, Mecham's troubles were mounting on other fronts. In January 1988, Attorney General Bob Corbin, a Republican, announced the indictment of the governor on six felony counts alleging he conspired to hide a $350,000 loan from Tempe lawyer Barry Wolfson.

Mecham secured the loan to help finance his campaign but did not report it on either his campaign or personal financial disclosure statements, according to the indictment.

He claimed he never intended to hide the loan and had lumped it in with other loans made to his campaign on the disclosure statements.

IMPEACHMENT LOOMS

Within days of the indictment, a special counsel hired by the state House of Representatives to investigate whether Mecham should face impeachment delivered a report outlining three potential grounds.

Aside from the Wolfson loan, special counsel William French said Mecham had improperly loaned $80,000 in quasi-state funds to his Glendale Pontiac dealership, and that he had tried to block a criminal investigation of death threats made against his legislative liaison shortly before she testified to the state grand jury.

The loan had come from Mecham's "protocol fund," which he set up with money raised from his inaugural ball. Mecham said he repaid the loan, with interest, and that the only restriction on the fund was that it could not be used for campaign purposes.

Mecham also denied covering up any investigation of the alleged death threats made by a staff member.

Former Rep. Jim Skelly, a Scottsdale Republican, said there was much to admire about Mecham. Skelly became the face of the House impeachment proceedings as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which held investigative hearings prior to the impeachment vote.

"It was our constitutional duty," said Skelly, who voted for impeachment. "He was a good family man and a man who stood up for his beliefs. He tried his best and just didn't do it properly."

On Feb. 5, 1988, the House voted to impeach Mecham on all three counts. After a trial in the Senate, Mecham was convicted and removed from office two months later. The Senate convicted Mecham on the charges involving the protocol fund and the so-called death threat. Because of the pending criminal charges, the Senate did not vote on the Wolfson loan.

Mecham was later acquitted on all criminal charges.

The Senate decided against invoking a so-called "Dracula clause," which would have prevented Mecham from running for office again. He made an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 1992, running as an independent.

Those involved in Mecham's impeachment say his tenure changed the nature of Arizona politics and increased power among conservative Republicans. Several moderate Republican lawmakers who voted against the governor were defeated in GOP primaries.

"The impeachment and the conviction were a political earthquake," Eckstein said. "All wasn't peaches and cream during the Babbitt years. But it was pretty darn civil compared to what it is today."

Tribune writer Mary K. Reinhart contributed to this report.

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