A stormy year in office for a conservative outsider

April 4, 1988

Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) — When Evan Mecham became governor of Arizona in January 1987 he was on top of the world: a millionaire auto dealer who finally had become king of the political hill on his fifth try.

Fifteen months later the first-term Republican’s career is in ruins after he was impeached and ousted from office.

His term was marked by a firestorm of controversy that began even before he took office.

He was criticized for cancelling a holiday for state workers in honor of slain civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr., making racially insensitive remarks and alienating blacks, homosexuals and feminists.

He did not begin to fall, however, until he was accused of failing to list $350,000 in campaign contributions. Then he was accused of trying to thwart an investigation of a death threat against a witness in the campaign fund probe.

He was also accused of lending $80,000 in state money to his own auto dealership, Mecham Pontiac.

Those accusations became the basis of the impeachment charges that resulted in his removal from office Monday; he also faces a criminal trial in April.

Mecham, 63, son of Mormon farming parents in Utah and a World War II fighter pilot, was an extreme conservative and perennial political outsider who tried and tried again, eventually running for governor five times.

He finally took office in 1986 over opposition from the state Republican establishment, the media and many Phoenix business leaders.

Being a dairy farmer’s son during the Depression and early war years forged Mecham’s character, including those traits responsible for both his rise and his fall.

“He’s never been a quitter,” said his cousin, Ona Rust, in an interview in Altamont, Utah, earlier this year.

In 1942, 18-year-old Evan took over most duties on his father’s farm when his father became incapacitated by arthritis. Evan was forced to cut back on schoolwork, but kept up his grades and earned a scholarship to Utah State University.

He had a reputation as someone who always worked hard, said another former neighbor, Harry Fieldsted, who added, “I don’t know if he was any smarter, but he seemed to apply himself more.”

Mecham sang and danced at Mormon Church functions and was elected student body president his junior year at Altamont High School, though he was kidded about his shyness in the 1941 yearbook.

Mecham’s date at the Altamont junior prom, Florence Lambert, became his wife, and they ended up having seven children. The couple settled in Arizona after World War II and Mecham started to study business at Arizona State University.

He put himself through college by selling cars in rural Ajo; in 1950, he moved his Pontiac dealership to Glendale, a Phoenix suburb. He published his own newspaper during the 1960s to provide an alternative to the Phoenix press.

Mecham became interested in politics during the 1950s and won his only previous term in office — as a state senator — in 1960. Two years later he lost a U.S. Senate race, then ran unsuccessfully for governor four times, including a 1978 loss to Democrat Bruce Babbitt by about 41,000 votes.

Mecham wasn’t planning to run for governor in 1986 until confidante Max Hawkins launched a one-man draft. He won the office with only 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

Mecham ran into his first controversy the day after the election when he announced he would cancel the King holiday on grounds Babbitt illegally created it by executive order.

By the time Mecham was inaugurated on Jan. 5, 1987, Ed Buck and a few other members of the Mecham Watchdog Committee were marching in the background and announced plans to recall him from office.

By the time the renamed Mecham Recall Committee kicked off its campaign on July 5, Mecham had:

-Made good on his promise to cancel the King holiday.

— Defended the use of the word “pickaninny” to describe black children in an essay in a book by his mentor, Utah “constitutionalist” W. Cleon Skousen.

— Made what some considered a string of substandard nominations, including a proposed liquor department head who was under investigation in a 1955 slaying and a revenue department head who had filed his own income taxes late.

— Claimed that working women cause divorce and that homosexuality is an unacceptable lifestyle.

The controversy escalated in late September when Mecham’s backers mailed a nationwide fund-raising letter urging conservative Republicans to “sell your house, pack your belongings” and move to Arizona to help him battle the “militant liberals and the homosexual lobby.”

The letter led to the first public calls for his resignation, including one from Arizona GOP patriarch Barry Goldwater.

Then Garry Trudeau’s nationally syndicated comic strip “Doonesbury” portrayed him as saying that charges against him were lies “spread by queers and pickaninnies.”

Mecham constantly warred with the media, claiming reporters felt no obligation to tell the truth and accusing the news media of spreading the “cancerous lie” that he was a bigot.

Mecham’s legal problems surfaced in October, when it was revealed that he had failed to list a $350,000 campaign loan in his financial reports. Attorney General Bob Corbin and House Speaker Joe Lane launched investigations as the governor claimed the failure was an “honest mistake” and that the loan was lumped with others to save time.

Then, a few days before the state grand jury was to open its probe of the loan, a state official told the Department of Public Safety that another state official, Lee Watkins, had threatened the life of grand jury witness and former Mecham legislative aide Donna Carlson if she didn’t keep her mouth shut about the loan.

When DPS Director Ralph Milstead told Mecham his office was going to cooperate with the attorney general’s investigation of the alleged threat, the governor allegedly ordered him not to do so.

It also was revealed in late fall that Mecham had loaned his auto dealership $80,000 from a protocol fund created from money raised by his inaugural committee.

Mecham Pontiac, which bore the sign, “If you can’t deal with Mecham, you just can’t deal,” had to be sold last week due to poor sales blamed on an “avalanche of negative publicity.”

Only the $350,000 campaign loan was cited when Mecham was indicted by the state grand jury on Jan. 8, but the House impeached him on all three charges.

Mecham still faces an April 21 criminal trial on the $350,000 loan charge. The Senate dismissed that impeachment article in an effort to guarantee him a fair trial and ensure an early impeachment vote.

Through it all Mecham steadfastly refused to resign and insisted he would be found innocent in both courts and would be re-elected in the May recall election.

The governor often quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying he would be happy if he eventually were vindicated but if he weren’t, “Ten angels swearing I was right won’t make any difference.”