Arizona governor under fire on three fronts

January 9, 1988

By LARRY LOPEZ
Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) — Evan Mecham, a millionaire auto dealer, former fighter pilot and ex- newspaper publisher who became governor on his fifth try, has been under attack since before he took office.

Mecham, indicted Friday on charges that he concealed a $350,000 campaign loan, has vowed not to resign, and has denied committing any criminal acts. He has persistently battled his critics with gusto, characterizing opponents as homosexuals and dissident Democrats.

Mecham, a state senator from 1961 to 1963, has been proud of his status as a political outsider. He stunned the political establishment by beating then- House Majority Leader Burton Barr for the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination in 1986 and winning the general election with 40 percent of the vote while his opponents split the balance.

The day after the election, Mecham reaffirmed a campaign promise to rescind a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Even before he took office on Jan. 5, 1987, a committee that eventually collected 391,738 signatures began seeking a recall election.

Mecham said the holiday had to go because the state Legislature had not ratified it, and state Attorney General Bob Corbin backed him. But Mecham also refused to ask the Legislature to ratify it and later defended the use of the word “pickaninny” for blacks in a history book.

The governor also drew fire for saying that working women caused divorce and that homosexuals should not hold jobs in state government.

In addition he was criticized for nominations for state posts, including a revenue director nominee who hadn’t filed his tax return on time and a proposed liquor department head who was the subject of a murder probe.

When the recall drive was officially launched, Mecham labeled its leaders a “a band of homosexuals and a few dissident Democrats,” apparently in reference to the committee’s founder, Ed Buck, who acknowledges being gay but denies he is a Democrat.

The full firestorm broke out Oct. 21, when the Arizona Republic reported that Mecham had received a $350,000 campaign loan and had failed to report it to the secretary of state.

Mecham insisted “there was no secret loan,” but he amended his personal and campaign financial statements in November, saying that his failure to itemize the loan was an “honest mistake” by his brother and campaign treasurer, Willard Mecham.

Reports of the loan led to the first serious talk of impeaching Mecham, and a growing number of Republicans called on their governor to resign.

Mecham was born in 1924 in Duchesne, Utah, and raised on a farm. He served as an Army fighter pilot during World War II and was shot down over Germany. He spent 22 days as a prisoner of war.

After the war, he began selling cars to put himself through college in Arizona. He later started a dealership in Ajo, then transferred to the Phoenix suburb of Glendale where his car lot still bears the sign “If you can’t deal with Mecham, you just can’t deal.”

As governor, Mecham has 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. Some of the ill-feeling may go back to the 1960s, when he published his own daily newspaper because of disatisfaction with the main Phoenix newspapers.