Chaos greets new Mecham press aide

October 3, 1987

By DAVID PITTMAN
Tucson Citizen Phoenix Bureau

PHOENIX — Kenneth V. Smith had been Gov. Evan Mecham’s press secretary for about a week when he found himself in the newest storm around his boss.

Welcome to Arizona, Ken.

kentucs180Reporters wanted to know about a fund-raising letter sent out on official gubernatorial stationery with Mecham’s signature.

The letter, which became public Tuesday, said “militant liberals and (the) homosexual lobby” planned to spend millions of dollars to oust Mecham from office and that the Republican governor needed “$1.2 million in the next 45 days.”

First Smith said Mecham signed the letter. Then he said it was signed by a signature machine with the governor’s approval. Finally, Smith and Mecham said the governor had not signed the letter or even approved the wording in it.

It was just the sort of confusion Smith was hired by Mecham to prevent.

(Ron Bellus, Mecham’s first press secretary, was shuffled to the state Tourism Department after repeated public relations problems for the less-than-year-old Mecham administration.)

Smith took responsibility for wrong statements about the letter.

“I’ll take the shots on that,” he said late this week. “I feel I was trying to be to accommodating (to the press). Everything I said was absolutely true, all in one day. The fact of the matter is that I had new information as the events were unfolding. Maybe I should have sat back and just said, ‘Hey, I’m not talking to anybody for three or four hours, folks.'”

Smith also said he has no regrets about joining Mecham’s administration.

“I just did an hour-and-a-half radio talk show and the audience was very supportive of the governor,” he said. “If I had even a grain of doubt before, it’s wiped out now, after listening to people calling in.”

Smith, who draws a $62,500 yearly salary, said he talked to Mecham by phone and read a little bit about him before meeting him in person for the first time eight weeks ago.

“I came here and talked to him for two hours one afternoon,” Smith said. “He’s a very likable guy. Very charming. Very personable. Very honest.”

Most criticism of Mecham is centered in Tucson and Phoenix, he said.

“When he (Mecham) gets outside and travels around the state, people are very, very strongly supportive of the governor,” Smith said.

Smith brought extensive business, public relations and journalistic experience to the job.

For the past three years he had been director of public affairs for the County Supervisors Association of California. Smith, 46, also worked for years for a Los Angeles based newspaper chain in news jobs, and for other papers and a wire service. He also was a systems analyst for Search Group Inc., a criminal justice consulting firm.

He readily admits there are some elements of Arizona politics of which he has little knowledge. “My learning curve is being set by the chain of events,” he said. “I learned a whole lot about signature machines yesterday (Wednesday).”

But in some respects Smith believes his newcomer status will be a help. “I come here with just a couple of friends that I’ve known and no enemies,” he said. “I don’t have any baggage.”

The new press secretary said he has complete access to Mecham, which is something that some observers believed Bellus had lacked. “I probably bug him (Mecham) too much,” Smith said. “But yes, I have access.”

Smith described himself as “fairly conservative.” He said he agrees with Mecham on most issues. “I work for him and when it gets right down to the wire, he wins the argument,” he said. “But if we agreed on everything, I wouldn’t be necessary.”

During the last two months, Mecham has attempted to take a lower profile in his dealings with the media. But Smith said there is talk of Mecham holding regular press conferences again. None are currently scheduled.

Smith said he was prepared for the kind of pressure that goes along with representing the governor.

“I am used to political heat,” he said. “Quite frankly, the Legislature in California generates more heat than this.”