Is anyone equipped to govern Arizona?

The Phoenix Gazette
April 8, 1989

By Kenneth V. Smith

After months of trying to figure out what I got myself into, I have concluded that I have been in the middle of a war in which there is no middle ground. From all sides, I have been exposed to the ugliest aspects of the American character in a social and political conflict where intolerance, deceit, ignorance, prejudice, greed, extremism, myopia, mob rule and mass hysteria are acceptable behavior.

There are no billets for non-combatants nor bunkers for neutral observers. Compromise is worse than defeat and accommodation is seditious. As in most wars, truth has been the first casualty.

Yes, indeed, welcome to Arizona, with its warm winters and hot summers, where there is seldom a frost to kill off the virus of irrational thought. There are, of course, a million or so decent folks in this beautifully barren state who maintain a steady course by not reading local newspapers and by avoiding the war zone of religion and politics, which are inseparable topics to many Arizonans.

In the 18 months I have lived in Arizona, I have had a speed-reading doctoral crash course in the politics of sociology of this state. I hit the ground running when I was recruited to be Gov. Evan Mecham’s second press secretary eight months into his turbulent administration.

The task seemed simple enough: Get Mecham to keep his mouth shut, divert the news media by helping them find some sensational scandal that did not involve Mecham, cut a few deals with the Legislature, and grant sinecure to powerful bureaucrats to prevent their undermining efforts. In short, I thought it would be straightforward, routine political damage control.

For most of his time in office, Mecham was the subject of more national news coverage than the other 49 governors combined. There he was, on the tube or in a newspaper photo, grinning that thin-lipped smile and wearing a toupee so cheap it looked like it needed a chin strap, saying something dumb, outrageous or insensitive about minorities.

Based on his news media image, Mecham is an easy man to dislike. There appears to be a mean streak that runs all the way through him. He has a sanctimonious air about him. And, yes, he can look and sound like the worst kind of bigoted simpleton. At his best, Mecham might share some traits with that cantankerous great-uncle who always says something embarrassing at family gatherings.

Once public opinion starts in one direction it is very difficult to correct. While Mecham is responsible for projecting a poor image, he also was treated unfairly by the news media and much of the public. He was more of a target than a perpetrator of prejudice and intolerance. For example, Mecham is not a racist, despite his national image to the contrary. He did not like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. because he thought King was a womanizing communist. King’s skin color had nothing to do with it.

The easy explanation would be that Mecham was an electoral aberration who could not get along with fair-minded legislators and whose antics and insults were accurately reported by an unbiased press. But it is a mistake to look for easy answers or to find a scapegoat for systemic problems.

Then or today, Arizona’s problems cannot be attributed to one person. As should be evident to nearly everyone by now, the impeachment solved nothing and actually made things worse. Mecham is but a symptom of a much larger malaise.

The problem is lack of leadership. Those who pose as leaders in Arizona are more concerned with protecting their own little pieces of turf than working on state-wide issues. There are many sergeants, and maybe a captain or two, but there are no generals who see the big picture.

Not true, you say? Just look at the political horizon. Is t ere one person, Republican or Democrat, out there with the desire, capability, vision and public support necessary to be governor of Arizona? Sadly, the answer is no.

While there are no strong potential candidates from today’s ranks of politicians, he or she could emerge from the private sector in the months ahead. From either party, this newly public person should be prepared for a back-biting Legislature, contentious party workers, uncaring corporate officers and irresponsible, scandal-mongering reporters.

Mecham would not be at the top of my list to run for governor in 1990, but neither would he be at the bottom. The next governor should be a Republican because a majority of Arizonans are comfortable with the Republican philosophy. My ideal candidate would combine the chief executive qualities of California’s George Deukmejian with the politics of inclusion advocated by New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. Not likely, but it’s a pleasant thought.

Mecham as governor was personally more competent, candid and forthright than his successor has been. Rose Mofford is obviously in over her head and is little more than a puppet whose strings are being pulled by unseen stage managers. Yet Mofford, as ditzy as she is, might be the only person in Arizona who could survive primary and general elections in which Mecham was involved.