Mecham changing his image, observers say

November 28, 1987

By LAURIE ASSEO
Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX — With the possibility of recall, impeachment or indictment staring him in the face, Gov. Evan Mecham has markedly changed the way he presents his public image, Capitol observers say.

Gone are the days when Mecham would make a string of public appearances almost every day, casually bantering with reporters and responding to almost every question he was asked, lawmakers and others say. His news conferences were not frequent, but they were freewheeling affairs that covered many subjects.

In recent weeks, Mecham has appeared in public much less often, and when he does, he often rushes right past the gaggle of media representatives that inevitably awaits him. It has been months since he held a news conference at which he would answer questions on any subject.

The governor has made it clear he will talk. in public only under his own terms, say legislators and GOP leaders who disagree on whether it is a change for the better. The new policy almost always has meant a refusal to discuss his $350,000 loan, the possibility that the House will impeach him or that he will be indicted by the state grand jury, or the allegation that a state official made a death threat against a grand jury witness.

Senate Minority Leader Alan Stephens, D-Phoenix, said the new policy “protects the governor from himself. He has the reputation of putting his foot in his mouth at every opportunity, so they’re trying to reduce the opportunities.”

“He calls himself the people’s governor,” Stephens added. “It seems ironic that he’s trying to insulate himself from the public. What he’s really doing is limiting himself from having to answer or talk about issues that he doesn’t want to talk about, and God knows there are lots of those.”

But Arizona Republican Party Chairman Burton Kruglick said the change will help Mecham concentrate more on running state government.

Mecham has discussed his political troubles only in handpicked situations — usually in television interviews with reporters who don’t cover him regularly.

The governor still talks to Capitol reporters about non-controversial topics, such as at a Veterans’ Day ceremony. That day, reporters didn’t ask him about his political troubles and instead listened to his nostalgic stories about his days as an Army Air Corps fighter pilot.

Mecham spokesman Kenneth V. Smith said the situation won’t change, as long as reporters insist on asking Mecham questions he does not want to answer — particularly those about his political troubles.

“It’s to the point now where if I think it’s going to turn into another media event about (questions) having nothing to do with the ceremony at hand, I’m recommending that the governor not go,” Smith said. “We very carefully choose how he is to be involved.”

Last week, the governor spent several days at the Republican Governors’ Conference in Santa Fe, N.M., and said little to the media while he was there.

He canceled his bi-monthly radio call-in program on Saturday — the only regular public forum in which Mecham takes on all questions and his only other public appearance last week involved plans to attend the Arizona-Arizona State football game.

Citing a lack of time, Mecham also dropped a weekly newspaper column he had been writing since last spring.

“Ultimately, it has to hurt,” said House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, D-Phoenix, a frequent Mecham critic. “It is never helpful for public officials to absent themselves from the public.”

The change has been coming for months. Mecham often was warned to talk less in public, because he tended to get himself in trouble. But the public Mecham finally clammed up at the end of September, observers say.

Two things happened then: He hired Smith, and the first of the major fall controversies broke when reporters got hold of a Mecham fund-raising letter that blamed the recall on “militant liberals and the homosexual lobby.” The fund-raising letter flap led to the first spurt of GOP calls for the governor to resign.

Smith immediately put out the word that he thought Mecham was overloading his schedule with too many public events. Soon, it became apparent that Smith also had orchestrated the end of the free-wheeling news conferences.

Kruglick attributed the change to the hirings of Smith and of Mecham’s new chief of staff, Richard Burke, who assumed his position Oct. 10.

“They probably felt he was overexposing himself; in other words, he was too readily available,” Kruglick said. “I think he was trying to be too many things to too many people.”

Kruglick said he generally approves of Mecham’s lighter public schedule. He said Mecham and Burke need to spend more time reviewing the operations of state government and the agency heads Mecham has chosen.

“He needs to go forward with the affairs of state,” Kruglick said.

Senate Majority Leader Robert B. Usdane, R-Scottsdale, said the governor remains accessible to legislative leaders whenever they need to reach him on business.

But Smith said the governor doesn’t intend to hold news conferences again until there is some way to avoid what the press secretary claimed was a circus atmosphere.

When Burke was hired, he told reporters he planned to shoulder some of the burden himself by holding biweekly news conferences.

However, Burke has yet to hold one news conference, and he did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment last week.

Stephens said the governor’s attitude isn’t surprising. “If I were him, I wouldn’t want to answer some of these questions also. They’re embarrassing,” Stephens said. “You can only smile so long.”