Arizona's Outspoken New Governor, Evan Mecham, Seems to Enjoy Diving Straight into Political Hot Water

UPDATED 08/24/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/24/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

Stevie Wonder won't sing there at any price. The National Basketball Association and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are among 41 organizations that have canceled plans to hold meetings there, and the National Baptist Convention of America is threatening to do the same. "There" is Arizona, and the boycott—still spreading—is a protest against the policies and actions of the state's new shoot-from-the-lips Governor, Evan Mecham.

Until last year Mecham, an ultra-conservative Glendale car dealer, was a political joke inside the state and a cipher beyond its borders, where no one even knew how to pronounce his name. (It's MEEK-um.) After completing one term as a State Senator in 1962, the self-made millionaire seemed to have settled in as the Grand Canyon State's Harold Stassen, staging one fruitless run for Governor after another. But last year, in a surprising turn of events, Mecham captured the Republican nomination and then slid past two vote-splitting Democrats in a three-way race. The first Republican governor since 1974, Mecham has thrown Arizona into a state of near-constant controversy.

Just days after his swearing-in, Mecham made good on a campaign promise and rescinded the state holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Then, amid mounting charges of insensitivity to women and minorities, he let fly with a string of questionable government appointments and provocative public statements that have sent political tempers in Phoenix soaring as high as the desert heat.

In July, 11 state representatives from Mecham's own party publicly dissociated themselves from the Governor's actions. A few weeks earlier Ed Buck, a Phoenix businessman, had launched a formal recall drive, which has already collected nearly half of the 216,746 signatures needed to put Mecham's tenure to a second vote. The current crop of bumper stickers serves as testimony to the ugly political climate. QUEER ED BUCK'S RECALL, reads one from Mecham's camp, taking its cue from a GOP party leader who dismissed Mecham critics as "homosexual agitators." (Buck is openly gay, but more active in the Republican Party than in homosexual rights groups.) DONT BLAME ME, I DIDN'T VOTE FOR THE BASTARD, counters a pro-recall button.

What began as a nasty little skirmish over the King holiday has now escalated to all-out political war. At first Mecham insisted that his opposition to the holiday was strictly a question of law and "had nothing to do with Martin Luther King or civil rights." Before leaving office Mecham's predecessor, Bruce Babbitt—with an eye to his presidential bid this year—enacted the state holiday by executive order, though the Arizona House had just rejected it by one vote. The Attorney General declared Babbitt's executive fiat illegal, and Mecham set it aside. But as the controversy mounted, the Governor also declared that "King was not of a stature to deserve a holiday."

Ten other states do not observe the King holiday, but Arizona, where less than 3 percent of the population is black, became the first to rescind it. Reaction was immediate. On King's birthday this year, 10,000 demonstrators voiced their protest in Phoenix. Organizations began to cancel convention bookings. Some entertainers dropped their Arizona concert dates; others who did appear, such as U2 and Peter, Paul and Mary, donated a cut of their take to a newly-formed Mecham Watchdog Committee.

The committee has had a lot to watch. In just seven months the combative, 63-year-old Governor—a practicing Mormon and ex-Sunday school teacher whose 43-year marriage has produced seven children and 18 grandchildren—has:

•Declared that working women increase divorce, and appointed to the state Board of Education a woman who reportedly described the ERA campaign as a lesbian plot.

•Defended the use of "pickaninny" in a book as a historical term of affection.

•Threatened to banish John Kolbe of the Phoenix Gazette from the Governor's news conferences because Mecham didn't like the tone of that reporter's column about him; he also canceled his subscription to the state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, for printing a quote describing the clothes Mrs. Florence Mecham wore on a visit to Guatemala as "cheap" and "garish."

•Nominated as director of revenue a man whose company was $25,000 in arrears on unemployment compensation payments.

All of this makes life very difficult for John A. Marks, president of the Phoenix & Valley of the Sun Convention & Visitor's Bureau, who must try to stanch the loss of revenues from Arizona's $300 million-a-year convention industry. The damage—$23 million in canceled business so far—has been done, he says, less by the King rescission than by "the vigor with which it was done and some of the comments that have transpired since." Sen. Greg Lunn of Tucson, urging his fellow Republican senators to disavow the Governor, complained that Mecham makes it seem the state party has "a lock on the bigot vote, the anti-intellectual vote and the homophobic vote."

Party power brokers, though, prefer to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the recall drive. It could fail to meet a Nov. 3 deadline for gathering the necessary signatures. Or it might force a new election that Mecham would win. His initial victory may look like a fluke to those in the political mainstream, but Mecham is confident that his plain-speaking, far-right approach to state government strikes a chord among Arizona voters. Polls show that his job performance ratings have actually improved slightly since spring, though the number of voters rating Mecham good to excellent is still below 25 percent. Even now state legislators are reluctant to rally to the King holiday, which this summer was allowed to die in a State Senate committee.

"I haven't said anything that was out of line," insists Mecham, whose affection for the media is reminiscent of that of Spiro Agnew. "It's what they say I've said that's given me the heat." The Governor claims that he has appointed more blacks to state office than his predecessor and will greatly strengthen state finances with his "war on waste in government."

Yet, with his unerring instinct for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, Mecham may have trouble directing public attention to the bottom line. Just last month he delivered what Hispanic leaders deemed a "slap in the face"—he appointed a local weather reporter as his liaison to Arizona's huge Spanish-speaking community without consulting them and then explained the choice to reporters by saying he was "dazzled by her beauty." Marvels Mecham nemesis Ed Buck: "Whenever we think this recall movement may be losing steam, Ev pulls us through."

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