February 22, 2008
By Pat Flannery
The Arizona Republic
Evan Mecham, the feisty, ultra-conservative Pontiac dealer whose turbulent tenure as governor deeply divided Arizona and prompted his impeachment in 1988, died Feb. 22, 2008, after a long illness. He was 83.
Mecham’s death closes a chapter of Arizona history that many members of the state’s political establishment would just as soon forget. That period during the late 1980s was rife with bitter political infighting, public name-calling, blaring headlines, citizen outrage and, finally, campaign repercussions that lasted well into the 1990s as Mecham and his supporters continued to run against, and sometimes unseat, political enemies.
“It was sad for many of us,” former Gov. Rose Mofford said of the impeachment.
The onetime Democratic secretary of state ascended to the state’s top office when the Republican Mecham was impeached.
“I don’t think it should have happened,” Mofford says now, remembering Mecham as a “wonderful” if misunderstood man who treated her with dignity at the most difficult time in both their lives.
Some members of the state’s political tribes remain less forgiving, though time and the former governor’s long illness have softened views of the man denounced in 1986 as “an ethical pygmy” by fellow Mormon and onetime state Senate President Stan Turley, who took exception to Mecham’s rough-and-tumble campaign style.
Even some leaders of the impeachment effort now say they harbored reservations about unseating Mecham but were powerless to stop it as his own combative nature and his unwillingness to make peace with political rivals fanned the flames. But one of his chief prosecutors in the 1988 Senate impeachment trial is resolute in his estimation that the historic act was necessary.
“He had gotten money for his inauguration, and the county attorney and he had agreed it was improper for him to use it personally,” said Phoenix attorney Paul Eckstein, who made the case against Mecham with former Superior Court Judge William French.
Mecham nonetheless loaned his auto dealership $80,000 from the inaugural fund, forming the basis for one of two impeachment charges on which the Senate convicted him.
“He was arrogant and he had a mean streak in him,” Eckstein said. “He impeached himself and convicted himself.”
Mecham was a short, wiry bulldog of a man with a direct gaze, a blunt style and deep suspicions about government and its elected elite. He spent most of his 40 years in politics speaking out against the political establishment, from utility barons and newspaper executives to government careerists and the business elite.
Said Fred Craft, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represented Mecham, “Evan, somehow, went to the beat of his own drum, and a lot of the time he was out of rhythm. He was a throwback to a different era.” But Craft said Mecham was best understood by recognizing his religious faith.
He, in his own mind, was doing right,” Craft said. “I know he felt he was being guided in the things that he was doing. He had a remarkable capacity to want to do right, and he had a reservoir of belief that (sustained) him.”
Former Arizona Republic publisher Pat Murphy, a man with whom Mecham frequently clashed, was less charitable, believing Mecham to be driven by “a resentment for anything that had stature or influence greater than his.”
When he was finally elected governor in 1986 after four previously unsuccessful tries and a failed stab at a U.S. Senate seat, Mecham set out with a vengeance to remake state government, and he intended to do it with or without the traditional political alliances on which most governors rely.
He thumbed his nose at lawmakers, attacked critics, appointed kindred spirits and friends and ignored well-meant advice, leaving few allies to ward off impeachment.
Ever after, he attributed his downfall to a conspiracy of the same powerful interests he’d long denounced. “One of the reasons that I won the 1986 election to become the 17th governor of Arizona was my promise to take the power in government back from the Phoenix 40 and govern in behalf of all of the people,” Mecham wrote in his 1998 self-published memoirs, Wrongful Impeachment.
“That promise made me a lot of powerful secret enemies … (and) I was to find out that it is control, not fairness, that is the bedrock foundation of government by power brokers.”
Yet Mecham never publicly acknowledged the snowball effect that a series of misstatements, gaffes and controversial decisions and appointments had in triggering the turmoil, bad press and a statewide recall campaign that foreshadowed his unseating.
In the end, his unwillingness to compromise — or to heed even the advice of allies – cost him the job he’d spent years seeking. And while he ran for office twice without success after his impeachment, his last years were spent not in the automobile business, where he’d earned a good living, or in the political arena, but in writing about his life and seeking some measure of redemption.
He would probably be surprised by what some of his former rivals say about him now.
“I had to admire the man for relentlessly pursuing what he believed in,” Los Angeles businessman Ed Buck said in late 2004.
Buck led a statewide recall campaign that would have gone on the ballot had Mecham not been impeached. “Mecham believed with all his heart and soul in what he was doing,” Buck said.
Mecham’s health had been deteriorating since early 2004, when he was placed in nursing care at the Arizona State Veteran Home after suffering symptoms of dementia similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease.
His family, which reported on his condition from time to time, said his physical health long remained good because Mecham had been an avid recreational runner as an adult.
Born May 12, 1924, in the northeastern Utah town of Mountain Home, Mecham was a devout Mormon, one of six children and the youngest of five boys reared on a country farm. According to his brother Wayne, “It was a farm where we raised sheep for a few years and then dairy cows, and we raised crops. It’s a pretty rough life.”
At 18, with World War II under way, Mecham enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and earned his pilot’s wings at what was then Williams Field in Mesa. He eventually flew combat missions in P-38 and P-51 fighters, and was shot down over Germany near the end of the war in Europe.
“A fella in a German jet came up under him and got him from underneath,” Wayne Mecham recalled. “He was in a spin — he could barely get out. He said he could see Mother and Dad going down with him in the plane. But he decided to give it one more try.”
Evan Mecham recalled that moment in his 1998 memoirs: “Miraculously, I got out of the wreckage. My parachute worked, and I became a POW with no injuries more serious than a fractured knee. Being face to face with the Germans in that camp made me realize that our enemies were simply people like us, with many of the same needs and aspirations.”
The war ended shortly thereafter. Mecham went home, married his high school sweetheart, Florence Lambert, and moved 18 months later to Arizona to attend Arizona State College as a business major. To make ends meet, he sold cars and partnered in a Van Buren Street car lot, he wrote.
“I found I liked selling cars,” Mecham said in his memoirs. “Cars were solid things that people needed and wanted.”
In 1950, with a semester left before graduation, Mecham bought a Pontiac franchise in Ajo with $6,500 he’d saved and a like amount borrowed from his mother, his memoirs show.
It was there that his interest in politics was cultivated. Wayne Mecham recalled, “He sold more Pontiacs than you can imagine there. And it wasn’t long (before) he was up here in Glendale.”
After Evan Mecham was awarded a Glendale auto franchise in 1954, he began to pursue his political ambitions. In 1960, he won a close Arizona Senate race and served one term before his political ambitions led him to challenge longtime U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden for his seat.
Hayden won. Mecham attributed his loss in part to editorial opposition from Eugene Pulliam, then publisher of The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette. For the rest of his life, Mecham would blame the newspapers for his political woes as well as the problems facing Arizona. He even competed with Pulliam by publishing his own newspaper, the Evening American, from 1963 to 1973.
Mecham’s gubernatorial win in 1986 was a shock to the political establishment, one few election handicappers could have predicted. First he knocked off longtime GOP lawmaker Burton Barr in a bitter primary in which Barr was accused of being in the pocket of downtown Phoenix business interests and having conflicts of interest involving freeway land purchases.
“Arizona is being bought and sold by insiders and special interests like you wouldn’t believe,” Mecham said then.
Mecham later bested Democrat Carolyn Warner and independent Bill Schulz in a three-way general election in which Warner and Schulz split the non-conservative vote. Mecham took office with just 40 percent of the popular vote.
Straight out of the gate, Mecham ran into fundraising troubles, prompting then-Attorney General Bob Corbin to launch an investigation only a few weeks into his governorship.
Then Mecham rescinded the state holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying his predecessor, Democrat Bruce Babbitt, had illegally enacted it and that the issue deserved a public vote. The King holiday imbroglio prompted public protests and, eventually, a national convention boycott. By March 1987, a recall campaign began taking shape against Mecham.
Murphy, publisher of The Republic and The Gazette, publicly denounced Mecham’s administration as a “brutish ideological juggernaut” in a Chamber of Commerce speech, deepening the governor’s mistrust of the political establishment and the Pulliam newspapers. The newspapers had to take a strong editorial position, given the growing furor over Mecham, Murphy says now. Mecham added to his woes by refusing to guard his public comments. A succession of controversial statements sunk him deeper into a public-relations quagmire.
For example, he publicly defended a book that used the term “pickaninny” to describe African-American children, suggesting it was a term of endearment. And in defending himself against racism charges for rescinding the King holiday, Mecham told Arizona Trend magazine, “I’ve got Black friends. I employ Black people. I don’t employ them because they’re Black. I employ them because they are the best people who applied for the cotton-picking job.”
As successive faux pas deepened his PR woes, he accused his critics of conspiring to unseat him. At one point, he declared the late news columnist John Kolbe a “non-person” for his critical coverage, banning the conservative pundit from news conferences.
Republic editorial cartoonist Steve Benson’s gibes so angered Mecham and his supporters that some local Mormons sought the intervention of Benson’s grandfather, then the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The cartoonist eventually left the church, in part over differences he’d had with it over Mecham’s coverage.
As battles over gubernatorial appointments continued to heat up, even some GOP lawmakers began to question Mecham’s leadership. By the fall of 1987, Corbin was conducting a grand jury investigation of a Tempe developer’s $350,000 loan to Mecham and the Arizona House was investigating Mecham’s activities with an eye toward impeaching him.
In January 1988, Mecham and a brother, Willard, were indicted by a state grand jury on charges that they tried to conceal the developer’s loan. Arizona’s Republican congressmen called on Mecham to resign. At the same time, more than 300,000 petition signatures were submitted to the secretary of state seeking a recall election.
Mecham and his brother later were acquitted of the criminal charges, but the perfect storm of political woes led the House to impeach Evan Mecham on Feb. 5, 1988. After a month-long Senate trial, he was convicted April 4, 1988, on two impeachment counts, forcing him from office.
Carl Kunasek, then Arizona’s Senate president, said he believed then that the House had acted too quickly. But once it acted, he was bound to plow on with a trial. “‘m sorry for what happened . . . (but) there was nothing I could do to stop it,” he said.
As a representative of an East Valley district full of Mecham fans, he too paid a price: “My career was scuttled.”
Kunasek was in tune with Mecham’s conservative philosophy, but “most of my problem with Governor Mecham was his style.”
For example, he begged Mecham to ease into plans to cut taxes and scuttle social programs. He also thought Mecham was too inflexible in rescinding the King holiday.
“That really was not a good move,” Kunasek said. “He should have turned it over to the attorney general and had him look at whether Babbitt had been authorized to create the holiday to begin with.”
Still, when Kunasek was appointed to a federal commission after the impeachment, Mecham wrote a letter of endorsement for him.
“I thought that spoke highly of him,” Kunasek said. Mecham’s post-impeachment election forays — for governor in 1990 and for U.S. Senate in 1992 — never lived up to his famous 1986 effort.
He spent most of his remaining energy and money trying to rebuild his reputation and personal fortune. He tried to launch a new newspaper, Arizona Newsday, but watched in 1992 as creditors auctioned off the newspaper’s assets before a single edition saw ink.
Mecham never smoked, he didn’t drink, he didn’t cuss, he was a multimillionaire … and it (impeachment) nearly cost him everything financially,” Craft concluded.
What remained, said his brother Wayne, was mostly pain, explaining: “He felt he was dealt with very unjustly. He never got over it.”