Six months after impeachment conviction, Mecham still defiant

October 2, 1988

By LAURIE ASSEO
Associated Press

PHOENIX — Evan Mecham was thrown out of office six months ago, but the former Arizona governor remains a defiant political force whose supporters have shown strength at the polls and whose thoughts of a possible gubernatorial challenge in 1990 remain alive.

Mecham says he is doing fine and feels he is winning his war against the political establishment.

“It doesn’t bother me at all not to be there (in the governor’s office),” he said in an interview. Besides weighing a run two years from now for the governorship, he said he is still considering a federal court appeal of his impeachment conviction.

The April 4 removal of Mecham, a Republican, by the state Senate put a Democrat, Rose Mofford, in the governor’s chair and began a period of political turmoil that some politicians say could reverberate for years.

In a bitter GOP primary Sept. 13, Senate President Carl Kunasek and House Speaker Joe Lane lost their seats to Mecham backers. Seven other incumbent lawmakers also were defeated.

“The Republican Party is devastated,” said Senate Minority Leader Alan Stephens, who hopes his Democrats can capitalize on the troubles to take over the Senate in the Nov. 8 election.

Although Meacham insists he is not motivated by a thirst for revenge against the lawmakers who voted to impeach or convict him, he has predicted a “revolution at the ballot box” this fall that would turn many incumbents out of office.

The ex-governor formed a group that has provided advice and literature to GOP candidates who backed him.

But among those who lost their primaries, according to House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, a Democrat, were many Republicans who tried to accommodate Mecham’s policies early in his governorship.

“The fact of the matter is the Mecham forces do not accept 95 percent support, 99 percent support,” Hamilton said. “Either you live and die with him all the way or they try to see that you die.”

“It isn’t a matter of getting even,” Mecham said, but one of seeing the Legislature “controlled by the people instead of the power brokers.”

“Whether I’m in the office or not isn’t the most important thing in the world,” he said. “I have no real regrets.”

Many of the legislators who removed Mecham after 15 months in office say they don’t have any regrets either.

“I would vote the same way, even knowing what was coming,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jim Skelly, a Republican who headed the impeachment committee.

“Philosophically, I liked what he was trying to do, namely stop state spending,” said Skelly, like Mecham a strong conservative. But he added that the impeachment evidence against Mecham was “absolutely overwhelming.”

“Let us not forget the chaos that existed when he was governor,” Stephens added. “The state was going down the tubes quickly. If I had it to do over again I’d convict him again.”

Mecham was convicted of misusing $80,000 from a special “protocol fund” by loaning it to his auto dealership, and of trying to thwart an investigation of an alleged death threat. The fund was created through private donations to a Mecham inaugural committee and was subsequently pledged for protocol purposes, such as buying gifts for visiting dignitaries.

Gov. Mofford and Attorney General Bob Corbin have filed a civil suit seeking to force Mecham to turn the protocol fund over to the state. Mecham, still maintaining it isn’t public money, tried to return it to those who donated it. A bank refused to honor the checks, however, till the legal issue was settled.

The impeachment conviction itself was the finale to a governorship in which he was accused of appointing incompetent cronies to state jobs and of making statements offensive to women, blacks, Jews, homosexuals and the Japanese.

In June, however, Mecham was acquitted in criminal court on six felony charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan – a verdict he considered a major vindication. That trial required stronger proof than the “clear and convincing evidence” required for the Senate conviction.

The conviction propelled Mrs. Mofford, the popular longtime secretary of state, into the governor’s chair, and she has been widely credited with returning stability and competence to state government.

Lane, the defeated House speaker, said one of the former governor’s main problems was that he refused to work with the Legislature.

But Mecham appointee Max Hawkins insisted that the governor “leaned over backwards to work with them.” Hawkins still contends there was no valid reason for the impeachment.

“There was a faction in the Republican party that was vehemently opposed to Mecham,” said Mecham’s former press secretary, Ron Bellus. “It was very deep and very mean and very angry. That group was out to discredit and destroy Evan Mecham at any cost.”

The new governor wishes the political turmoil would quiet down. “I have a good feeling out there with the public. We cannot wave a magic wand here and solve all of the problems, but we’re facing them,” Mrs. Mofford said.

“I think too much attention is focused on Evan Mecham.”