Governor Orders Halt To Controversial Fund-Raising Letter

Please read my comment following this news article.


September 30, 1987

By LAURIE ASSEO, Associated Press Writer

Gov. Evan Mecham has ordered a halt to a nationwide fund-raising letter that urged conservatives to pack up and move to Arizona and said “militant liberals” and homosexuals were trying to destroy him.

The governor said Tuesday he ordered that the remaining 20,000 letters not be mailed because it “isn’t like I’d say it.” He said it had been signed by a signature machine without his authorization.

Earlier Tuesday, his press secretary, Ken Smith, said that Mecham had said he approved the letter and signed it personally. “I made a mistake,” Smith said later.

The letter, mailed to 25,000 conservatives around the country, asked them to help the Mecham Finance Committee raise $1.2 million.

“Without your contribution I will risk being crushed by the millions of dollars the militant liberals and the homosexual lobby plan to spend against me,” it said.

“You see, right now, I’m under attack from some of the most powerful and dangerous liberal groups in the nation,” the letter said. “If they destroy me it will be a sad day for conservatives everywhere and most of all for America.”

The letter opened with what it called an “unprecedented invitation” asking the recipient to move to Arizona.

“That’s right, I want you to sell your house, pack your belongings, quit your job and come to the most beautiful state in the Union,” it said.

That prompted Ed Buck, a founder of the Mecham Recall Committee, to say: “Is Mr. Mecham trying to set Arizona up as the far-right conservative resort? … It’s a little bit scary.”

The recall campaign began shortly after Mecham rescinded the state’s holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The first-term Republican governor rescinded the holiday in January.

Buck, an acknowledged homosexual, apparently sparked Mecham’s initial references to the recall movement as “a band of homosexual agitators and dissident Democrats.” Mecham and his staff disparaged the movement at first, but Buck said last week his supporters had gathered more than the 216,518 signatures it needs by Nov. 3 to force a recall election. Mecham said about 25,000 letters had been mailed, and Smith said 20,000 more copies had been scheduled to be sent.

The governor’s office gave three versions of how the letter was signed. Smith first told reporters that he had checked with Mecham and that the governor had confirmed he signed the letter.

Later, Smith said the letter was signed with Mecham’s signature machine and that the governor had authorized the use of the machine. Minutes later, in a telephone conversation with reporters, Mecham denied approving the letter.

“I don’t know who approved using the signature machine but we’ll look into that,” Mecham said. “I didn’t write the letter and I don’t remember, as I read the letter, I don’t remember having seen the content before. That’s all the answers I’ve got for you.”

House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, a Democrat, said the letter was “some of the most bizarre literature I have had the good fortune to read in my 15 years in office.”

But House Speaker Joe Lane, a Republican, called the letter “standard campaign puff.”

Smith said he did not know how much the letter cost. Bill Long, a leader of the Mecham Finance Committee, was not available for comment Tuesday, said a secretary in his office.


Comment:

This is just one of many different versions of the story about the fund-raising letter and the signature machine. As with many major events, I learned of the existence of this letter by a phone call from a reporter. Within a couple of minutes after the first phone call, I walked into the governor’s office where Mecham and Chief of Staff Jim Colter were talking.

At first, Mecham told me he didn’t know anything about the letter. Then, he told me that some his campaign people were working on a letter to be sent nationally. But, it developed the next day that there was a second letter of which Mecham was completely unaware. See ABCDEF.

I started to receive more phone calls from reporters, and asked one of them to please bring me a photocopy of the letter so I could learn what the fuss was about. Within a half-hour or so, I went into Colter’s office, interrupting a meeting between the governor and Colter, and showed a copy of the letter to Mecham and asked him if it were legitimate and if it contained his signature.

Mecham was perturbed that I was asking more questions about the letter. (At this early stage, Mecham seemed to view me more as pest reporter than as a member of his staff.) He said simply, “Yes, that’s my letter. What’s the problem?” Before I could respond, he walked back through the private door from Colter’s office to his office.

While I stood there debating whether to follow Mecham into his office, Colter had left the room through the other door. I looked all over the ninth floor for Jim, and finally found him in the men’s room. He was standing in front of the mirror, sweating, folding and unfolding paper towels. He opened his mouth a couple of times as if he were going to speak, but said nothing.

I asked him if he were ill, and he shook his head, indicating he was not. I have no medical training, but I had seen both heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. I figured that Jim was fine physically but he had had more than he could handle emotionally on Mecham’s staff. From that minute forward, I never asked Jim a difficult question.

I walked straight from the men’s room to the ninth floor lobby to meet with a gang of reporters. I told them that yes, indeed, the governor had signed the letter.

Even though I had been on the job in Arizona only several weeks at this point, it was instantly obvious during this press conference that I would not be able to make this into a one-day story. The interview lasted far longer than I would have like and I told reporters I would get more information from Mecham and get back to them within a couple of hours.

Mecham had been promised me that I would have complete access to him. But, the events of this day soon after I began the job showed me I would have to force the issue. I asked Mecham’s secretary, Doris Stafford, to walk into his meeting (I have forgotten with whom) and hand him a note saying that I had to speak to him immediately regarding this fund-raising letter.

Mecham dodged me for at least an hour, and I finally caught him again in Jim’s office. He was evasive, but did tell me that he had approved the concept of the letter, had not seen the final draft, and that the signature machine had been used to sign the letter. He emphasized that he did not see anything wrong with it and told me not to discuss it any further with reporters, a directive that was impossible to follow.

With this new information, I met with the reporters again and told them that I had made mistake. Of course, I did not tell them about the hassle I had been having with Mecham or that Jim Colter had just gone off the deep end. I tried to explain that while I thought the letter was “a little rough” (a phrase which many reporters quoted) it was fairly standard in political fund-raising.

That this was standard fund-raising practice was echoed by Joe Lane, Mecham’s arch enemy, who was quoted as saying the letter was “standard political puff.”

While Mecham’s handling of this letter was greatly disappointing, the behavior of the press corps was disgusting. It seemed to me, in the total scheme of things, that whether or not a signature machine had been used was trivial. There was more focus on how the letter was signed than its contents or its intended readers.

To this day, I am amazed that no reporter asked me the real tough questions. For example: To what audience was Mecham appealing in this letter? Had I been a reporter covering this, I would have wanted to know what emotions Mecham was trying to touch across the nation. I would have wanted to know where the mailing list had been obtained. By knowing what type of person Mecham and his fundraisers thought would contribute money based on such a letter, it would have been possible to draw a portrait of who Mecham saw as his philosophical and political brethren.

Although that day was grueling enough, I was fortunate on this one story that the reporters collectively were not very bright or sophisticated. Press relations then went from bad to worse.

The reporters were behaving as if they were at a pre-game beer party, each trying to out do the other in aggressive, offensive questioning. It became a game. For several weeks, questions were posed to me about the signature machine in serious tones of voice while other reporters would start giggling and laughing.

The news coverage reflected the continuing questions. Despite my repeated comments, no reporter wrote or broadcast that virtually every governor and every major corporate official in the country uses signature machines. This particular signature machine was left over from the Babbitt administration, a fact that sparked zero interest by the reporters. The news coverage of this presented the issue as if it were some bizarre contraption Mecham had brought into government with his election. I believe this attitude set the stage for later coverage of the laser bugging.