Evan the Terrible, Wall Street Journal editorial

Wall Street Journal
March 2, 1988

REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial)

Evan the Terrible is a certifiable oaf, but he was the elected head of state. The coup that deposed him was mounted by local mandarins offended by precisely the policies and rhetoric that won him election, and they installed a regent who promptly moved to reverse his most controversial appointments and actions. Though still supported by fellow members of a religious minority, he’s now on trial for vague offenses with heavy penalties. And some of the mandarins are ready to call off an impending election.

That’s how events in the Great State of Arizona look to us. This week the state Senate opened its trial of Gov. Evan Mecham, a redneck Republican who won election with 40% of the vote in a three-way race. When the impeachment resolution picked up enough Republican votes to pass the GOP-controlled House, Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat, became acting governor. The state attorney general, a Republican, has indicted the governor on criminal charges, for campaign-disclosure violations. And a petitioning group has succeeded in forcing a recall election on May 17.

In the Senate, Gov. Mecham is charged with three offenses.

The disclosure violation: His campaign lumped two large contributions together in its financial reports, perhaps to conceal the identity of one contributor, a real-estate developer. He raised an inaugural fund from private contributions, and upon finding he could not spend it for this purpose, loaned the fund (at interest) to his car dealership. Told of what could be construed as a death threat from one aide to another, he apparently said to cool it.

The reporting violations are a felony, the loans are a diversion of state funds, and the death-threat episode is an obstruction of justice, we are told. Therefore his election is overruled.

Whether or not these offenses look like felonies, they certainly do look boneheaded. Similarly, Gov. Mecham is guilty of revoking the Martin Luther King holiday, of some truly bizarre appointments, of tasteless remarks about blacks, women, homosexuals, Jews and Asians — as well as general ineptitude in his attempts to defend himself. Still, the American system generally has allowed state electorates wide latitude in their taste in governors — from Huey Long to George Wallace to Jerry Brown.

And when Arizona voters elected him, they knew from four previous gubernatorial campaigns what they were getting. His appeal was explicitly anti-establishment — in particular castigating the “Phoenix 40,” an elite group of business and media leaders. He pledged not to traffic with real-estate developers — the apparent motive for concealing a developer’s loan. Flagstaff city Councilman Murray Feldstein, a registered independent, sums up the race, “Mecham had everything against him except that he opposed the higher taxes all of his establishment rivals favored.” In most reports of the impeachment, two words seem to us conspicuously missing. One taboo is “Republic,” as in the Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. In these events, Republic publisher Pat Murphy, a leading member of the Phoenix 40, has been coming on like Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men.” The other taboo word is “Mormon,” the religious affiliation of Mr. Mecham and about 15% of Arizona voters. With his co-religionists and others circulating petitions to recall the legislators who voted in favor of impeachment, he still retains a solid core of support in the state.

So much so, indeed, that Mr. Mecham’s adversaries fear he or an ally might win all over again in the May 17 election.

The recall laws provide an open field, and it will be badly splintered. The Senate Judiciary Committee has — albeit narrowly — voted a bill specifying that if Mr. Mecham is permanently removed, the recall election will be stopped.

“Auntie Rose,” who would then remain as governor for three years, has said she would sign the bill if the legislature passes it. She’s said the same thing about tax increases.

We don’t particularly care whether Evan Mecham goes or stays, but a couple of things are of broader interest. For one thing, the chasm in the Arizona GOP is not a good omen for the Republicans’ national challenge of holding the allegiance of both the country club and Christian fundamentalist sets.

More important, we worry when scandal is used to overrule elections. The interpretation of complex laws, decisions about selective prosecution, the control and manipulation of the media — these are the skills of political elites. Since Watergate, it has become increasingly fashionable to use these skills to overrule the ballot box. Over the same period, voting participation by the masses has plummeted and anti-establishment rhetoric has soared on both the right and left. These are not healthy trends.

Whoever ends up as governor of Arizona, we would be a lot more comfortable if the impeachers and the prosecutors and the Arizona Republic all waited another 11 weeks to give the voters their say.