February 6, 1988
By Paul Nussbaum
PHOENIX — After an emotional debate that left several lawmakers in tears, the Arizona House of Representatives yesterday impeached a defiant Gov. Evan Mecham, forcing him out of office while he awaits a trial by the state Senate.
The impeachment of Mecham, a conservative, outspoken Republican who has been under fire almost since the day he took office 13 months ago, marks only the 16th time in U.S. history and the first time in more than half a century that a governor has been impeached.
The state’s Democratic secretary of state, Rose Mofford, becomes acting governor, and Mecham will be tried by the state Senate. A top Republican legislator said Mecham had assured him he would not contest the provision of the state Constitution that requires him to step down, pending the outcome of the trial.
If convicted by the Senate, he would be permanently removed from office.
The Republican-controlled House voted, 46-14, to pass a resolution of impeachment that said Mecham “has, by his conduct in office, committed high crimes, misdemeanors, or malfeasance in office, and that the state of Arizona would be improved by the removal of Evan Mecham as governor of the state of Arizona.”
The specific charges against him involved allegations that he tried to conceal a $350,000 campaign contribution from a local developer, that he tried to block a witness-tampering investigation involving one of his aides, and that he illegally borrowed $80,000 from a gubernatorial protocol fund to lend to his Pontiac dealership.
Mecham, who had earlier in the day lambasted the impeachment proceedings as a “mockery,” was not in the Capitol when the House voted to remove him from office. Instead, he was in Lake Havasu City, giving a speech, and could not be immediately reached for comment.
Earlier in the day, he had told lawmakers: “If you vote to impeach me here … that’s not the end of the world. I go over to the Senate, and then we really do have an opportunity for a fair trial.
“For my part, I am not personally going to be hurt, because I’m going to be able to go on and acquit myself. … I hope that everybody else recognizes that when they vote here, they’re going to have to live with their vote for the rest of their life.”
Mecham also faces a criminal trial next month and a recall vote May 17.
“If the governor can dodge all three of these trains coming down upon him, he deserves some kind of special medal,” said state Rep. Jack Brown, a Republican who voted against impeachment.
CALLS FOR DELAY IGNORED
Several legislators urged that lawmakers wait until the court trial and the recall election were held until acting on impeachment, but the Republican- dominated House was clearly eager to end a battle that has divided the state and slowed much of state government to a standstill.
So, according to a plan drawn up earlier in the week, an uncontroversial resolution supporting Angolan freedom fighters was gutted and the impeachment measure was brought to the floor in its place.
“This chapter on Arizona history has come to a close,” said Rep. Armando Ruiz. “Future generations will judge whether we were right or wrong.”
Rep. Mark Killian, a young Republican legislator, like Mecham a devout Mormon, made the evening’s most emotional speech, breaking into tears as he explained his decision to vote against impeachment, despite his conviction that Mecham was an “ethical pygmy.”
“I resent Evan Mecham and everything he stands for … but even a common
criminal gets more due process,” Killian said, stopping several times to regain his composure. “The only image this can convey to the public is a slam-dunk railroad.”
Other legislators, though, said they were convinced the governor had broken the law and should be tried in the Senate.
REASONS ARE GIVEN
“I’m voting for impeachment not because I dislike the governor – and he’s not one of my favorite people, because I think he’s set back conservatism about 20 years in this state. I’m voting for impeachment because the evidence says that he has committed impeachable offenses,” Rep. Jim Skelly, chairman of the investigating committee, told reporters.
“My civil rights are being trampled on very much,” Mecham complained to Skelly’s committee before the vote. Mecham warned legislators that voters may retaliate by throwing them out of office.
“People who lie think other people lie. … I begin to wonder who I’m being judged by,” Mecham said.
Before the hearings began, Mecham blasted two of his regular targets, the state attorney general and the state’s largest newspaper.
He accused legislators of being intimidated by the paper, the Arizona Republic. And he renewed his allegations that Attorney General Robert Corbin has used laser eavesdropping devices to monitor his conversations.
In U.S. history, only 15 governors have been impeached; seven were convicted in subsequent legislative trials.
Mecham, 63, was elected governor on his fifth try for the office with 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 1986. Almost at once, he made national headlines by cancelling a state Martin Luther King holiday that he said had been imporperly proclaimed by his predecessor.
In the following months, he outraged blacks, Jews, Catholics, women and homosexuals with comments that were widely viewed as insensitive. In a flap over a controversial history book, he said he considered the term pickaninnies to be an affectionate term for black children.
He said working women were contributing to higher divorce rates. He asked for a list of homosexuals in state government. Before the visit of Pope John Paul II to Arizona, Mecham wondered aloud if he’d be able to converse in English with the pontiff. He said Japanese got so excited discussing golf that they “suddenly got round eyes.” He wrote a fund-raising letter to conservatives nationwide, asking them to send money or move to Arizona to help him defeat a recall effort by “militant liberals and the homosexual lobby.”
The last time a U.S. governor was impeached was in 1931, when Henry Horton of Tennessee was impeached but acquitted. In 1929, Huey P. Long of Louisiana and Henry S. Johnston of Oklahoma were impeached. Charges were quickly dropped against Long. Johnston was convicted and removed from office.