January 12, 1988
By Charlotte-Anne Lucas
PHOENIX — A year ago, Evan Mecham took his first step into national controversy by abolishing Arizona’s holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yesterday, the embattled governor stood before a joint session of the Arizona Legislature trying to downplay the fact that he faces a six-count indictment, a probable impeachment and an almost certain recall election.
It was hardly the smoothest way to step into his second State of the State address.
“Yes, this has not been just another ordinary year in our history,” Mecham acknowledged as he submitted his new $2.4 billion state budget and explained his priorities for the new year.
“Let me take just a moment longer to say that I know that mistakes were made during my first year in office,” Mecham told the packed hall. ” . . . If I had it to do over, I would have realized earlier that style is sometimes as important as substance. How things are said is as important as what is said.
“Yes, I have made mistakes,” he said.
It was a rare admission for a man known for coming up punching whenever criticized, and it perhaps was ironically prophetic as well. Less than two hours later, his aides were busy explaining to reporters that his new budget was accidentally out of balance by about $103 million, and that revisions would be made to correct the errors.
It wasn’t Evan Mecham’s day.
His speech came just three days after he was indicted on six felony charges involving a $350,000 campaign loan, which a state grand jury says he lied about on his campaign finance reports.
And the speech took place four days before an investigator for the Arizona House of Representatives is to issue his impeachment report on the governor’s activities.
Because an arsonist tried to set fire to the investigator’s files on Friday, the investigator, the Arizona attorney general and the chief assistant attorney general are now accompanied by bodyguards.
Adding to the general tension are plans by protesters to hold a rally of as many as 30,000 people at the state capitol next week, on what in other states is recognized as the King holiday.
Mecham’s supporters – a small band of whom came out to the capitol to cheer the governor’s address – are countering calls for his resignation by insisting that he is the victim of a political vendetta and vindictive media.
Mecham has accused Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin — a man known primarily for his weekend treks into the nearby Superstition Mountains in search of the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine — of being a “political opportunist” and of engaging in an “unbridled and flagrant abuse of the secret grand jury hearing.”
If Mecham does leave office, his supporters said yesterday, they will run his wife, Flo, for governor and make Mecham chief of staff. But his supporters are fast dwindling, recent polls suggest.
Even those closest to the governor are backing away. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, the governor’s former spokesman, Ron Bellus, announced he was leaving state government to write a book about his experiences in the Arizona State House. The tentative title: Silence Cannot Be Misquoted.
Gov. Mecham’s seemingly consistent ability to say precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time prompted Bellus to say that his ideal client in the future would be Marcel Marceau, the French mime.
From saying he believed the word pickaninnies was a “term of endearment,” to calling his opponents a band of “homosexuals and a few dissident Democrats,” Mecham has attracted criticism from all corners as being insensitive to blacks and other minorities, women, Jews and even the people of China.
Last week, the controversy entered a new phase, when the state grand jury accused Mecham and his brother, Willard, of lying on campaign reports about a $350,000 loan from a suburban developer.
Mecham has insisted that his brother inadvertently “lumped” together several items on the report. However, published reports indicate he wrote a letter to the developer promising to keep the loan confidential.
The governor’s woes will not be over soon. On Jan. 25, the Arizona secretary of state is expected to announce a recall election, after opponents collected almost 389,000 signatures on petitions — nearly twice the number needed for such a vote. Mecham then will have five days to resign or announce that he will run in the recall.
Yesterday, the events prompted some to applaud Mecham simply for appearing in person to give his session-launching address.
“I have to admire his courage and guts for coming here,” said House Majority Whip Jane Hull, one of the first legislative leaders to ask Mecham to resign.
House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, a vocal Mecham critic over the King holiday, called Mecham’s relatively moderate speech “an attempt to pour oil on the waters … to convey to people a sense of calm. I think he achieved it for the moment.”