A Holy Political War in Arizona

This is the final version of an article I wrote for the National Review. An edited version was published in May 1989 with the title “The Resurrection of Evan Mecham”. I had some disputes and arguments with the staff of the National Review because earlier versions of my article discussed the role of the news media in the ouster of Evan Mecham, and I was told that I was too critical of newspapers and television. Well, hummmph. I think my final version of this article as sent to the magazine is better than what was published, and my earlier versions were better still.

– Ken Smith


A Holy Political War In Arizona

By Kenneth V. Smith

Evan Mecham, the nation’s first governor to be impeached in 60 years, has begun his sixth race for governor of Arizona. He is easily the most energetic, experienced, recognizable and determined political campaigner in Arizona today and his candidacy is being taken seriously by both friends and enemies.

Mecham’s national image is that of a bumbling bigot who got what he deserved last year when a state senate court of impeachment removed him from office. But, in Arizona, he remains a formidable political force. Potentially strong Republicans who might run against Mecham fear not only the possibility of losing but also dread being forever tarnished in a primary campaign that will make trench warfare look like a tea party.

Last month (April 4) on the first anniversary of his removal from office by a state senate court of impeachment and eight months before the traditional starting date for Arizona campaigns, Mecham announced he would be a candidate in the September 1990 primary for governor. Mecham, frequently confrontational but for the moment comparatively conciliatory, said he wanted a “kinder, gentler” Arizona and promised to campaign on issues instead of personalities.

One week later, the antithesis of Mecham also entered the race. J. Fife Symington III, a real estate developer who was the first Phoenix business leader to publicly ask for Mecham’s resignation, offered himself to Arizona Republicans because “Evan Mecham must be stopped.” Symington, acknowledging his underdog position in his first campaign for elective office, expressed the antipathy many Republicans hold toward Mecham.

“He likes to run around and taunt the good guys and intimidate them with his attacks,” Symington said. “The one way you stand up to the schoolyard bully is to poke him in the nose and call his bluff. And I intend to do that.” After his frontal assault, Symington then said he hoped Mecham “doesn’t get into a personal attack” during the campaign. Mecham has several layers of scar tissue from many political battle wounds (most of which were self-inflicted), but he feigned injury and said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” by Symington’s comments.

The contrast between Mecham and Symington reflects the clash of cultures in the Arizona Republican Party. Mecham was born dirt poor and was raised on a farm in rural Utah during the Depression. After decades of hard work and a spartan life style, he owned a large auto dealership and other profitable investments. Despite a net worth of several million, Mecham is personally more comfortable with good ol’ working class boys. For his inaugural ball, Mecham bought his tuxedo at Sears. Symington may own stock in Sears, but he buys his clothes elsewhere. His great-grandfather was Henry Clay Frick, founder of U. S. Steel. His father, a cousin of the late U. S. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, was socially prominent and influential in Maryland Republican politics. He is a product of Gilman Country Day School (which may explain the quaint phrase “schoolyard bully”) and Harvard where he organized students for Goldwater in 1964, thus exhibiting an early courage to take on unpopular causes.

Symington’s wealth and heritage could be a handicap in Arizona where there are far more bowling alleys than sushi bars. But, the current mood in Arizona might offer some hope for a transplanted old money easterner as an alternative to the Wild West political shoot-outs in recent years.

It will take a massive effort by Symington or any other candidate to beat Mecham in the Republican primary. Because there will likely be four or more candidates on the ballot, Mecham probably will win the Republican nomination and advance to the general election. The November election will be an emotional, dirty and demagogic effort on both sides, but Mecham ultimately will lose to a Democrat in a state with one of the nation’s highest percentages of Republican voter registration.

Mecham will lose in the general election because he is personally detested by enough Republicans who would rather see a Democrat elected than have him returned to office. Symington, for example, said he will not vote for Mecham if the former governor wins the primary. These anti-Mecham Republicans may agree with impeached governor on economic issues, but they have been embarrassed by his demeanor in constant appearances on local and national television, by his insensitive remarks about minorities, by his stooping to argue with journalists, and by his injection of religion into the affairs of state.

In September 1987, eight months into his turbulent administration, I was recruited to replace Gov. Mecham’s press secretary. At the time, as a freshman governor, he was generating more national news coverage than the other 49 governors combined. Republican leaders were very blunt in their advice to me on how to handle the job, which they saw more as damage control than traditional political public relations. “Just get Mecham to keep his mouth shut,” they counseled.

For as many as one-fourth of Arizona’s voters, Evan Mecham is a catalytic leader who has fought the combined evil forces of big government and the hidden power structure. The war is against communists, abortionists, atheists, influence peddlers, weak-kneed judges, crooked politicians, drug dealers, pornographers, conspirators, sex educators, liberal reporters, and anyone who does not accept that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the United States Constitution was divinely inspired.

Above all, this is a holy war. The Arizona Republican Party has become the vehicle to move this battle forward. For the Christian right, there are no shades of grey. Strategic compromise and political accommodation are worse than defeat. As a gauge of the current political climate in Arizona, a majority of Republican precinct committeeman and party officers now consider Barry Goldwater as having moved to far to the left.

Lest citizens of the other 49 states look with detached pity or envy, it should be said that in Arizona both those who are thrilled and those who are appalled by recent developments agree there are similar fundamentalist Christian movements to take over the Republican parties in other states. There have been other defeats or victories (depending on your view) in Nevada, Colorado, Washington State, Hawaii and North Carolina, with more states to come. The extra spin to the Arizona story is that Governor Mecham, respected and appreciated by the evangelical right, was impeached by a Republican-controlled legislature.

Joe Lane, who as speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives started the impeachment proceedings against Mecham, had a hard lesson in voters’ wrath when he sought re-election. Although he had a state-wide reputation as an influential and experienced Republican legislator, he finished third in his district primary.

“There are 25 to 35 percent of those Republicans out there who are going to vote for Ev no matter who else is on the ticket,” Lane said. “So, the more names on the ballot, the better chance Ev has to win. But, if Ev is the party standard-bearer, droves of Republicans are going to vote Democrat or just stay home. That’s just flat all there is to it.”

The lines are fuzzy, but Arizona Republicans can be divided into various camps. Mecham’s supporters have formed a tenuous coalition with Pat Robertson’s 1988 Arizona Presidential campaign organization. The combined strength of these two groups has, in the past six months, captured a dozen additional seats in the state legislature, a clear majority of Republican precinct committeemen positions and control of the hierarchy of all county, district and state units of the Arizona Republican Party. A common thread of these two groups is the belief that Mecham was the victim an anti-democratic, political lynch mob which wanted a duly elected, God-fearing governor recalled, impeached, or thrown in jail — or all three.

Mecham is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a mouthful of an organizational name which is shortened to “LDS” by members of the church and referred to as “Mormon” by others. His religion is shared by about 15 percent of Arizona’s population, most of whom (but certainly not all) have been unwavering supporters of Mecham in his many races for the state senate, governor and the United States Senate.

The Mechamites, as his followers are derisively labeled, also include many non-religious blue-collar workers, farmers and small business owners, especially in the rural areas. The non-drinking Mecham even has some support among the raucous, anti-establishment beer bar crowds. He is liked, if not admired, in Arizona’s numerous retirement communities whose voters generally support any politician who promises not to increase taxes. Many of Mecham’s long-term supporters are politically naive, generally older and poorer, suspicious of conspicuous wealth, and far more willing to donate labor than money to a political campaign. A key factor in this demographic profile is that Mecham supporters are among those voters most likely to go to the polls.

In contrast to the Mecham faction, the Robertson group is more homogeneous in that almost all come from fundamentalist churches and describe themselves as born-again Christians. Many of the Robertson followers were elected to Republican precinct committeeman positions after being encouraged to run by the charismatic ministers of their evangelical churches. The current favorite phrase of the Robertson faction is “grass roots organization.” They are more sophisticated politically, generally more affluent, and even more convinced of the righteousness of their cause than the Mecham wing. They view “establishment Republicans” as being arrogant and aristocratic country club members who discriminate against Christians and who are cowards when dealing with difficult moral issues.

While there are overlapping beliefs of these two groups, there are also distinct differences. Among Robertson’s followers, there is a whispered uneasiness about the Mormon belief that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are equal as the word of God. Conversely, the Mormons are a bit leery of the passion and zeal with which the evangelicals approach worldly politics. This could cause a split in the alliance if the Robertson backers are able to find an acceptable fundamentalist, born-again Christian who would run against Mecham in the primary. However, Mecham’s momentum and campaign experience probably will gain him an additional 10 or 12 percent or so of the voters on top of his core support of 20 percent, all of which could give him a plurality over several other opponents.

Zane Smith is only 25, but he has a decade of political campaign experience. As a high school student, he worked on Barry Goldwater’s last campaign, then went on to be a Young Republican National Committeeman. He is credited, even by his detractors, for a masterful organizational effort in Arizona last year on behalf of Pat Robertson.

“Some say we are right wing,” Smith said, “but I challenge them to find where my views are out of touch with the Republican party platform. We may not use a mainstream approach to solving problems, but our political views are without question mainstream. We are not status quo and we are willing to rock the boat.”

Smith also gets a large share of the credit or blame for winning nearly all chairmanships of Republican district committees. “Sure, we are very well organized,” he said. “We play a good numbers game. The establishment people cannot get anyone excited about being involved because they are not interested in issues. They are interested in being involved in the Republican party only for the social aspect of it.”

Following the Mecham and Robertson factions, the third largest group of Arizona Republicans includes those who wanted Mecham removed from office by recall, resignation, impeachment or conviction of a felony. They have been standing still in gape-jawed confusion, waiting for a leader to emerge to restore the traditional direction of the party. They now use the term “moderate Goldwater Republicans” as a method of distinguishing themselves from the Mecham and Robertson groups who have not only taken over the party hierarchy but also have taken title to the “conservative” label.

There is a fourth group of Republicans, probably small but significant in swing-vote electoral importance. This group includes those who see Mecham as a certifiable political buffoon who has embarrassed both the state and the party, but who is nevertheless smarter than the legislators who impeached him and less corrupt than the power brokers who pushed the elected officials. This group sees Mecham as a substitute for “None Of The Above” on the ballot.

The continuing chaos in Arizona politics started about three years ago when perennial candidate Evan Mecham once again entered the race for governor and was not taken seriously by the establishment. Two decades earlier he had been elected to one term in the state senate. He had then run unsuccessfully for governor four times and once for the U. S. Senate. He was most famous for his starring role in amateurish television commercials promoting his Pontiac dealership. His sales slogan was: “If you can’t deal with Mecham, you just can’t deal,” which some wags said was also his management style as governor.

Mecham’s opponent in the 1986 primary was Burton Barr, the veteran state House majority leader who was supported by party leaders, the news media, and the Phoenix 40, a group of business leaders whose very name implies elitism. Insider Barr and his backers made the mistake of assuming that being respected by Arizona’s Brahmins would translate into votes. Barr did not even schedule his television commercials to begin until the day after the primary.

Mecham is extraordinarily skilled at using the news media to generate free publicity to promote his views and causes. Journalists may think they are scoring direct hits on an amusing redneck, but Mecham takes every opportunity to “talk to the people,” even if that means being filtered by “liberal reporters.” With each new public statement, he may anger those who would never have supported him in the first place, but he also reassures his solid core of supporters and possibly gains a few more votes and some campaign contributions.

In a stunning upset, Mecham won the 1986 primary. In the general election, the Democrat candidate for governor was gravel-voiced and haughty Carolyn Warner whose husband was a member of the Phoenix 40. A third candidate, real estate developer Bill Schulz, a Democrat turned independent, entered the gubernatorial race with hopes of pulling enough votes away from both Mecham and Warner. On his fifth try, Mecham was elected governor with 40 percent of the vote.

Mecham’s major problem was that once he was elected he never quit campaigning. He is like a dog who chased cars for years, but did not know what to do when his teeth were finally sunk into a tire. He never realized that what gets politicians into office is frequently not the same thing as what keeps them there. Mecham was impeached not only on specious charges which would have been swept under the rug for a more popular governor, but also because he volunteered as bait for a national media feeding frenzy.

Lane, the former house speaker, said that if Mecham “had just kept his damn mouth shut, and used his brain and not been so stubborn, he would be still be governor today.” Lane bristled when asked about the sentiment held by some that Mecham may have been incompetent and obnoxious but there were insufficient grounds for impeachment. “Oh yes, there are a lot of people who feel that way,” he said. “What I tell these folks is that Ev Mecham was tried in a constituted court. The legislators obeyed the law. They did everything right. If that’s a raw deal, then it’s a raw deal.”

Mecham thrived on controversy and relished opportunities for television interviews, press conferences and radio talk shows. But, he seemed oblivious to the dangers of overexposure. In addition, he had a very short attention span when quietly working on state issues. For example, during the impeachment process, Mecham once closed the door to his office and told his secretary he would be studying the state budget and did not want to be disturbed. Within ten minutes, he had called a radio talk show and was complaining over the air about the legislature.

Mecham has a stage presence which would be the envy of many actors, and he can work a crowd better than most politicians. Although he fractures standard English with his convoluted syntax, Mecham is a spellbinding and entertaining public speaker. He can hold an audience not so much by his subject matter but rather by the subtle building of tension that the next few words out of his mouth will be another gaffe or bombastic attack on a corrupt public official.

There is a remarkable sameness at Mecham’s many speeches and rallies. His audiences have more of the electricity of a fan club than a gathering of political activists. The atmosphere is also like that of a revival as hundreds of true believers hurry to find a place to sit in the neatly lined rows of folding chairs. Clustered against a side wall will be a least a dozen reporters, looking smugly uninfected by the nearby enthusiasm.

The reporters were present, of course, last month when Mecham announced he was running again. The keynote speaker for the evening was Joe Drake, the eloquent chair of the Arizona Black Republican Caucus. Drake had originally been appointed to a state position by Democrat Gov. Bruce Babbitt. He was then promoted by Mecham, then fired by Democrat Gov. Rose Mofford.

Drake acknowledged that Mecham has made insensitive comments about minorities, but praised him for being the first governor in Arizona history to appoint a black and an Indian to cabinet level positions, and many other minorities to lower state positions. (The Indian Mecham brought into his cabinet, Eddie Brown, was nominated by the Bush Administration last month to be the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.) Drake decried the lip service given to minority issues by Democrats and said he was more comfortable with the straightforward, no nonsense approach of Mecham. Drake’s impassioned speech in support of Mecham was interrupted four times by standing ovations from the mostly white audience. When Drake’s name and praise of Mecham were omitted from nearly all news accounts, the supporters took it as further evidence of a conspiracy not to publish or broadcast anything favorable about Mecham, especially on racial issues.

Although he is a gifted campaigner, Mecham had nothing in his background which prepared him to be the chief constitutional officer of a state. He simply was not comfortable in the governor’s chair and he demonstrated a startling sense of personal relief when he was finally removed from office.

No heroes emerged from this historic affair. Both the Republican and Democrat parties in Arizona are led by drab politicians who struggle to inspire any interest among the voters. The sad truth is that Mecham is more articulate and more intelligent than most Arizona legislators. His removal from office was not really for high crimes and misdemeanors, as the bill of impeachment stated, but rather was a battle of personalities between 90 clumsy legislators and one ill-suited governor.

Rather than being shamed by the impeachment, Mecham will have some success basing his campaign on what he sees as the unfairness of the assault on him. Mecham was convicted in the Senate on two charges. The first charge was that he obstructed an investigation into a death threat on a state employee. No one was ever arrested, let alone prosecuted and convicted, on the alleged threat. The second charge was that he loaned state funds to his auto dealership. Mecham may admit the loan was foolish, but he will continue his claim it was not illegal because the money was from his campaign fund and was not part of the state treasury. Today, the money sits in Mecham’s private campaign bank account, despite efforts for the past year by Attorney General Bob Corbin to take control of the fund.

In the criminal courts, Mecham was acquitted of six felony counts of violating campaign laws. The jury returned the verdict in three hours. Several jurors hugged Mecham in court after acquitting him. The next day, one juror publicly donated $100 to Mecham’s legal defense fund.

Mecham’s legal troubles have given him a new campaign plank. In recent speeches, he has said that if re-elected he will review the cases of all prisoners because he believes one in five are “perfectly innocent” but could not afford a good lawyer. He also wants attorneys to be required to take an oath to tell the truth in court because “prosecutors don’t give a doodly-darn about justice.”

One of Mecham’s most widely publicized gaffes was when he told a Jewish congregation in Phoenix that the United States is a great Christian nation. At the time, this was taken as just one more sign of why Mecham did not deserve to be governor.

At last January’s state Republican convention, the delegates re-elected Burton Kruglick, who is Jewish, as state chairman. He had not supported the impeachment of Mecham. There were muffled protests from the old guard that Kruglick must not be a practicing Jew because he had cut deals with the Robertson and Mecham factions to continue in office. Besides, his opponents observed, Mrs. Kruglick is a Mormon.

Later that day, a resolution was introduced from the floor and passed by a voice vote declaring this to be a Christian nation, just as Mecham had said a year before. Another round of media silliness and public tongue clucking ensued. The Republican leadership spent weeks drafting and passing an emergency substitute resolution which said the party is open to persons of all faiths.

But the controversy would not remain dead. Within days after the second resolution was passed, a Mecham supporter produced a letter from a former member of the Arizona State Senate, United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, citing high court cases to prove that this is, indeed, a Christian nation.

Although he no longer has the luster of the speakership, Lane is a frequent speaker at political gatherings where “some people will tear your head off if you say anything against the Christian resolution. They look at me like I am not a Christian and that I am some kind of communist. But, we don’t gain one damn additional vote by passing resolutions like this and we lose a train load. If we can’t gain votes, we ought to keep our mouths shut.”

Kit Mehrtens, Arizona’s Republican National Committeewoman, is frustrated and angry about Mecham’s continuing political activism. “If there are more than two in the primary, Mr. Mecham will walk away with it,” she said. “This will kill us for the governorship because there is no way he can win a general election. It’s obvious to me that Mr. Mecham doesn’t give a damn about the Republican Party.”

She has even stronger views about the increased party involvement of “born-again Christians. These people are very dangerous.” In her meetings with Republicans from other states, she said she has learned evangelical Christians are getting more active throughout the country. She said she has discussed this issue with Frank Fahrenkopf then Lee Atwater, “but they have to tread lightly because there are some evangelists who are sincere, some who do not have their own agenda and really want to help the party. But, it’s very difficult to weed out the others because some of these evangelists do lie.”

This is the atmosphere in which Mecham will campaign. He has a score to settle against people who snickered when Barry Goldwater said it was impossible to give Evan any advice because he had an 800 line direct to God. Mecham, like most faithful who pray regularly, does believe he can talk to the Almighty and he considers it heresy to make jokes about it. Additionally, Mecham knows that at least some of the opposition to him has been because of his Mormon religion.

The moderate Republicans are dumbfounded. They don’t know how to prevent Mecham from running for governor again. They know he will destroy the party in the process. They fear another Mecham controversy will give the governor’s office and possibly the legislature to the Democrats. This would mean Democrat control of reapportionment following the 1990 census when Arizona will gain two or three more seats in Congress. It will take decades to get things back to normal. Mecham not only takes no prisoners, he shoots his own troops. Yes, there are hard times ahead.

Contrary to prevailing mainstream beliefs, Mecham was not merely an electoral aberration. Many voters feel disenfranchised from governmental and political processes. Mecham is perceived by many as an outsider who is not part of the established order. He satisfies an emotional need. The harsh fact is that many people do not trust government, politicians or the news media and for these people Mecham became and remains a hero.

Evan Mecham, weighing in at 132 pounds, is going to take on the heavyweight establishment once again. He has been punched, kicked, gouged and spat upon, but he has not been knocked out. As he said between rounds last year, “This impeachment thing will be just one line in my obituary.”

Mecham loves the fight. It’s the winning he doesn’t yet know how to handle.