Controversial former Arizona governor Evan Mecham dies

Rescinded King holiday; only Arizona governor to be impeached

Evan Mecham

Evan Mecham

PHOENIX -- Evan Mecham, the only Arizona governor to be impeached, tried and ejected from office, died late Thursday at the Arizona State Veteran Home following a lengthy illness.

The 83-year-old Mecham, who served as the state's chief executive for less than 16 months, brought Arizona a great deal of national attention during his brief stint, much of it unwanted. He was at the center of a controversy over a paid state holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and drew raised eyebrows with some of his comments that were considered racially insensitive.

But it was two unrelated incidents that led legislators to vote for his removal: a charge of obstruction of justice for telling the director of the Department of Public Safety not to cooperate into an investigation of death threats involving two aides, and loaning $850,000 of inaugural ball receipts which had been in a "protocol fund' to his own Pontiac dealership.

While the Senate voted to convict him on April 4, 1988, they did not impose a "dracula' clause which would have barred him from ever again seeking public office.

That freed Mecham to make an unsuccessful bid as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 1992, losing to John McCain. And he spent many of his final years trying to convince others that he was illegally ousted from office, even self-publishing a book "Wrongful Impeachment' and hawking copies himself at a booth he rented annually at the Arizona State Fair.

His time in politics, which also included a brief stint as a state legislator in the 1960s, had broad effects on the state's political landscape and the futures of those with whom he came in contact.

Rose Mofford, the Democrat secretary of state when the Republican was ousted, ended up serving out his term.

Fife Symington, then just a developer with political aspirations, gained prominence in 1987 as being the first major Republican to call for Mecham's resignation. At that time, Mecham faced a criminal grand jury probe for failing to report a $350,000 loan made by developers to his gubernatorial campaign.

Symington, who was elected governor in 1991, later had to swallow his words a week after he was indicted on criminal charges of lying to creditors about his assets to obtain a loan for one of his partnerships. He called the former governor and apologized, an apology Mecham told Capitol Media Service he accepted.

Joe Lane, a Willcox lawmaker who was House speaker during the impeachment hearings, had his political career cut short when Mecham supporters activated to specifically target his re-election bid.

Jane Hull, who later was to become governor after Symington's own resignation, was majority leader at the time. And long before there were openly gay legislators, Ed Buck became the first gay political activist in Arizona by leading a recall against Mecham.

Mecham's election itself as governor in 1986 was a precursor of schisms that still occur within the Republican party.

House Majority Leader Burton Barr had been the favorite of the state GOP organization to be the party's standard bearer. But Mecham capitalized on that fact, calling him a tool of special interests.

Mecham also pointed out that Barr had led the battle in 1983 for what was supposed to be a "temporary' one-cent hike in the state sales tax to balance the budget, a tax that was never repealed.

And Barr, in a flip moment, when asked about the promise to do away with the new levy, responded, "I lied.'

Mecham then benefitted from a three-way general election against Democrat Carolyn Warner, who had been state school superintendent, and Democrat-turned-independent Bill Schulz, pulling a plurality of the vote to get elected.

State lawmakers subsequently moved to amend the state Constitution to impose a 50-plus-one requirement for election. But that was repealed after a three-way 1990 election gubernatorial vote which forced a 1991 runoff between Symington and former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard.

Mecham considered one of his legacies putting an end to tax increases. But it was one of his first actions that created headlines and became one of the hallmarks of his administration: Repeal of an executive order issued by Bruce Babbitt, his predecessor, to create a state-paid King holiday.

Mecham said, correctly, that state law prohibited the governor from making such a move, pointing to an opinion by Attorney General Bob Corbin. But by making that decision so early in his tenure set the stage the tenor of his administration.

He again gained national headlines by defending the use of the term "pickaninnies' in a book, saying black children do not mind that term. There were marches on the Capitol and various groups began canceling national conventions they had scheduled for Arizona.

The media frenzy continued to be fed by a contentious press conference where Mecham was questioned about the campaign and business loans. As Mecham was on his way out of the room, Arizona Republic reporter Sam Stanton asked which of his statements was true.

Mecham spun around, went up to Stanton, stuck his finger in the reporter's face and said "Don't you ever ask me for a true statement again,' creating a piece of videotape that was shown repeatedly on local and national TV.

The governor also drew raised eyebrows with his claim that Corbin had microwaves trained on Mecham's ninth floor offices in an effort to overhear the governor's conversations. Mecham responded by having a radio near the window to block the eavesdropping that Corbin insisted never occurred.

Mecham's claim of wrongful impeachment was fed by the fact that a jury acquitted him of the criminal charges relating to the campaign loan -- an issue legislators chose not to take up during his impeachment.

The book was published 11 years after his removal from office. Mecham said he wasn't trying to explain his impeachment, conviction and removal from office in 1988. He said the "honest people' of Arizona knew what was happening.

Instead, he said he was trying to write a history of the state "to show how a state gets so corrupt, little by little, and the voters don't even know it's happening.'

Mecham spent $25,000 of his own funds to publish his book. "We shipped them to the distributors and the distributors didn't do anything with them,' he told Capitol Media Services.

"I couldn't afford on one book to go nationally and advertise,' Mecham continued. "So I just pulled them back in' and for years sold them from space he rented at the State Fair.

Even in releasing the book in 1999, Mecham remained adamant that he was the only honest man in state government.

"The same problems in Arizona exist today as when I came in to correct them' he said at the time. "The same special interests that ran the state when he was governor are still pulling the strings of power.'

Some of those involved in the Mecham administration are still around and active in politics. One of those is state Sen. Karen Johnson. The Mesa Republican, who has been in the Legislature since 1998 worked for Mecham both during his term as governor and later.

"I would hope that, in many ways, I was trying to carry on the legacy of Evan who always wanted to do what was right and wanted government to be smaller and constitutional,' she said.

And Ron Bellus, who was Mecham's press aide, now handles the television services for the Legislature.

Mecham spent his last years at the state Veteran Home, a fact disclosed by a relative who said he was suffering from some form of dementia.

In response to a question from an Arizona Republic reporter, Mecham said, "Don't you ever ask me for a true statement again.'

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