Evan Mecham, Governor

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Evan Mecham, Governor

Birthplace: Duchesne, Duchesne, UT, United States
Death: February 21, 2008 (83)
Phoenix, Maricopa, AZ, United States
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Son of Adelbert Mecham and Ina Lizzie Mecham
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About Evan Mecham, Governor


Evan Mecham (May 12, 1924 – February 21, 2008) was the 17th Governor of Arizona. A decorated veteran of World War II, Mecham earned his living as an automotive dealership owner and occasional newspaper publisher. Periodic runs for political office earned him a reputation as a perennial candidate along with the nickname of "The Harold Stassen of Arizona" before he was elected governor, under the Republican banner. As governor, Mecham was plagued by controversy and became the first U.S. governor to simultaneously face removal from office through impeachment, a scheduled recall election, and a felony indictment. He was the first Arizona governor to be impeached.

Mecham served one term as a state senator before beginning a string of unsuccessful runs for public office. His victory during the 1986 election began with a surprise win of the Republican nomination, followed by a split of the Democratic party during the general election, resulting in a 3-way race. While governor, Mecham became known for statements and actions that were widely perceived as insensitive to minorities. Among these actions were the cancellation of the state's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, attributing high divorce rates to working women, and his defense of the word "pickaninny", in describing African American children. In reaction to these events, a boycott of Arizona was organized, damaging the state's tourism industry by the cancellation of multiple conventions. A rift between the governor and fellow Republicans in the Arizona Legislature developed after a series of questionable political appointments prompted accusations of cronyism against the governor.

Having served from January 6, 1987, to April 4, 1988, Mecham was removed from office following conviction in his impeachment trial of charges of the obstruction of justice and the misuse of government funds. A later criminal trial acquitted Mecham of related charges. Following his removal from office, Mecham remained active in politics for nearly a decade. During this time, he served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention and made his final runs for Governor and for the U.S. Senate.

Early life and business career

Evan Mecham was born to Mormon parents in Mountain Home, Utah, and raised on his family's farm. The youngest of five boys, with one younger sister, he graduated as salutatorian from Altamont High School in 1942 and enrolled in Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) on an agricultural scholarship. Mecham left college and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in January 1943. He was trained as a P-38 Lightning fighter pilot before being transferred to England, where he flew P-51 Mustangs. Mecham was shot down on March 7, 1945, while flying escort on a photo reconnaissance mission and was held as a prisoner of war for 22 days. Mecham returned to the United States after recovering from injuries sustained in the lead-up to his capture, and received an Air Medal and Purple Heart for his service. Mecham married Florence Lambert in May 1945 and was discharged in December of the same year. Together, the couple raised seven children: Suzanne, Dennis, Christine, Eric, Teresa, Kyle and Lance.

As a result of his Mormon upbringing, Mecham developed and maintained a strong religious faith. He taught Sunday school and served as a lay bishop in the LDS church from 1957 to 1961. Part of his faith was that God would guide his actions and provide him the strength needed to endure. These beliefs were in part demonstrated during his time as Governor when one staff member reported hearing a conversation in Mecham's office before entering the room to find the Governor alone. Another staff member, Donna Carlson, reported that Mecham believed he had obtained office by divine right and was thus not overly concerned about the feelings of others.

Mecham enrolled at Arizona State College (now Arizona State University) in 1947 and majored in management and economics. In 1950, he left school 16 credit hours short of a degree to start Mecham Pontiac and Rambler in Ajo. Mecham relocated to Glendale in 1954 where he acquired and operated a Pontiac dealership until he sold it in March 1988. As a dealer, he appeared regularly in local television commercials and adopted his trademark motto of "If you can't deal with Mecham, you just can't deal." The Glendale dealership served as a base for other family-owned businesses, including Mecham Racing, Hauahaupan Mining Company and several auto dealerships in other states.

In addition to his auto dealership, Mecham owned several short-lived newspapers. One of his papers, the Evening American, was printed as a Phoenix daily with maximum circulation of 27,000 before being becoming a weekly journal. As a newspaper publisher trying to break into the Phoenix and Tucson markets, Mecham testified before the U.S. Senate Antitrust and Monopoly subcommittee on July 13, 1967. This testimony was in response to a bill sponsored by U.S. Senator Carl Hayden that provided partial immunity from the Sherman Antitrust Act, allowing an economically healthy newspaper and one that was failing to form a joint venture combining advertising, printing, and distribution operations while maintaining separate reporting and editorial functions. While supporters of the bill claimed it would prevent newspaper failures, Mecham opposed the bill claiming "The major reason that this bill has been presented is because of the power of the press over the decisions of voters at the polls, and the desire of politicians to court the favor of those who control these monopolistic presses." He also added that "the tools of monopoly are in the common advertising and the common circulation department."

Political career

Mecham first sought elected office in 1952, while still living in Ajo, with an unsuccessful run for the Arizona House of Representatives. After moving to Glendale, Mecham used the recognition gained from his television appearances to be elected to the Arizona Senate during the 1960 election. After one term as a state senator, in 1962 Mecham attempted to capture the U.S. Senate seat held by Carl Hayden, running on a platform demanding the United States withdraw from the United Nations and critical of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling limiting school prayer. The campaign first saw Mecham win a victory in the Republican primary over Stephen Shadegg, a former campaign manager for Barry Goldwater, as Goldwater remained neutral. In the general election, Mecham received only tepid support from his party due to the value of Hayden's Senate seniority in passing legislation for the proposed Central Arizona Project. Mecham was defeated in the general election with 45% of the vote.

Following his campaign against Hayden, Mecham made an unsuccessful run for state chairman of the Republican party in 1963 and unsuccessful runs for governor of Arizona in 1964, 1974, 1978 and 1982. In these four runs, Mecham only gained the Republican nomination for the 1978 election. He developed a political doctrine supporting Jeffersonian democracy and advocating elimination of income taxes, return of federal lands to state control, removing federal involvement in education, and putting welfare under state control. In 1982, Mecham wrote his first book, Come Back America, in which he discusses his earlier life and political views.

In his fifth try for governor, Mecham ran as a political outsider using his standard platform advocating political reform and tax relief. Mecham's opponent in the Republican primary, Burton Barr, had served as the Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. Barr had the support of the state GOP leadership, including Barry Goldwater and John McCain. Mecham's core support came from fellow Mormons and the ultraconservative John Birch Society. A sizable portion of the state's retired population joined this core support with Mecham's promises of tax cuts. Because of Arizona's substantial transient population—only about half of the registered voters in 1986 were living in the state in 1980—Mecham's record of previous attempts to gain elected office was not widely known by the voters. The primary election also saw the lowest voter turnout in nearly forty years due to unusual rain. Mecham overcame a fifteen-point deficit in the polls to win the Republican nomination with 54% of the vote. Barr failed to spend much of his campaign warchest in the primary, ending his campaign with over a million dollars on hand.

The general election of 1986 saw a three-way race for governor. The Democratic Party had selected the state Superintendent of Public Education, Carolyn Warner, as its candidate. Dissatisfaction among the state's business and political leadership with both candidates allowed Bill Schulz, a real estate developer and Democrat who had withdrawn from the Democratic primary due to a family illness, to obtain enough petition signatures to run as an independent candidate. Six years earlier, Schulz had nearly defeated longtime U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was slow to endorse Mecham in this race, but did so officially at a dinner in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. During the campaign, the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association's ethics committee placed Mecham's dealership on probation for being chronically tardy in responding to complaints. The Democratic split caused by Schulz's re-entry allowed Mecham's campaign to survive. Mecham won the election with a 40% plurality while Warner and Schulz received 34% and 26% respectively.


Mecham was inaugurated on January 6, 1987. Among his successes were the opening of a trade office in Taiwan that allowed for a $63 million cotton export contract and strengthening drug abuse prevention efforts through legislation allowing the governor to appoint pro tem judges to deal with drug-related issues. The governor also spearheaded an effort within the National Governor's Association to raise the speed limit on rural highways from 55 mph (90 km/h) to 65 mph (105 km/h) and supported a legislative bill to prevent takeover of Arizona businesses. During Mecham's term of office, a $157 million budget deficit was eliminated by reductions in state spending.

Despite these accomplishments, Mecham faced difficulties during much of his term. Because he had run as a political outsider, other Republicans only had party loyalty as a reason to follow the new governor. This lack of strong loyalty made it easy for his support to fall as a series of political gaffes damaged Mecham's popularity.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Evan Mecham gained national attention several days after inauguration by fulfilling his campaign promise to cancel a paid Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday (MLK Day) for state employees. The holiday had been created in May 1986 by executive order from the previous governor, Bruce Babbitt, after the state legislature had voted not to create the holiday. Following the creation of the holiday, the state Attorney General's office issued an opinion that the paid holiday was illegal and threatened to sue the incoming governor over the cost of the paid holiday, as it had not been approved by the legislature. Despite the issues of the legality of how the holiday was created, Mecham replied to comments from civil rights activists and the black community after the cancellation by saying "King doesn't deserve a holiday." This was followed by him telling a group of black community leaders, "You folks don't need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs."

In reaction to the cancellation, a protest march to the state capital was held on January 19, 1987, the day the holiday would have occurred. Conventions scheduled to be held in Arizona were canceled, and performer Stevie Wonder and writer Harlan Ellison separately announced that they would boycott the state. The rap group Public Enemy even went as far as writing a song in regard to the cancellation of the MLK holiday entitled "By the Time I Get to Arizona"; in the video for the song, the group was seen assassinating Mecham by planting a bomb underneath his limousine and detonating it by remote control.

After several months of criticism, Mecham declared a non-paid holiday on the third Sunday in January. Reaction in the state to the non-paid holiday was generally poor.

Relations with legislature

Despite both houses of the state legislature being controlled by fellow Republicans, Mecham was on poor terms with state lawmakers. An initial irritant for the lawmakers were some nominations to executive offices by Mecham that were considered low quality and were made without consulting legislative leaders. Among these nominations was Alberto Rodriguez as superintendent of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, while he was under investigation for murder. Other questionable nominations included the director of the Department of Revenue whose company was in arrears by $25,000 on employment compensation payments, an appointee for head of prison construction who had served prison time for armed robbery, and a former Marine, nominated as a state investigator, who had been court-martialled twice. Other political appointees who caused Mecham embarrassment were an education adviser, James Cooper, who told a legislative committee "If a student wants to say the world is flat, the teacher doesn't have the right to prove otherwise," and Sam Steiger, the Governor's special assistant, who was charged with extortion.

Mecham's legislative initiatives suffered due to his poor relations with the legislature. The governor's proposals to cut taxes were foiled when the legislature refused to cut the state's five per cent sales tax by one percentage point. Much of the opposition to this tax cut was due to the governor having no proposals for which programs were to be affected by the reduction in tax revenues when the legislation was introduced, thus preventing individual lawmakers from determining how their constituencies would be affected by the change. When Mecham later proposed a $2.3 billion budget which attempted to reduce spending by cutting education funding and freezing state employee salaries, it was increased by $200 million by the legislature. Mecham helped sour relations by vetoing some bills that had been passed by the legislature. After Senate Majority Leader Bob Usdane saw a bill he had sponsored vetoed, he stated "I'd say that the cooperation was not great...but it's his prerogative". House Majority Leader Jim Ratliff, who had previously been a Mecham supporter, responded to one of his bills being vetoed with "My only message to the governor is, if he thinks that people advising him to veto [my bill] can help him run the state of Arizona better than I can, then let them."

Other incidents

Besides the uproar caused by the MLK Day cancellation, Mecham committed other political faux pas. Claims of prejudice were made against Mecham after he defended the use of the word "pickaninny" to describe black children, claimed that high divorce rates were caused by working women, claimed America is a Christian nation to a Jewish audience, and said a group of visiting Japanese businessmen got "round eyes" after being told of the number of golf courses in Arizona. In response to claims that he was a racist, Mecham said, "I've got black friends. I employ black people. I don't employ them because they are black; I employ them because they are the best people who applied for the cotton-picking job." These and other statements only strengthened the allegations of racism made against the governor following the MLK day cancellation.

Mecham made an issue of his relationship with the press. Claiming that many of his problems were caused by media enemies he had made during previous runs for political office, the governor stated, "The Phoenix newspaper monopoly has had my political destruction as its goal for many years." The governor also claimed, "Every daily newspaper in the state endorsed a different candidate besides me. It's taking them a little time to get used to the idea that I was the people's choice." In response to his perceived mistreatment by the press, Mecham attempted to ban a journalist from his press conferences. John Kolbe, a political columnist for the Phoenix Gazette and brother of Congressman Jim Kolbe, was declared a "non-person" after a February 25, 1987, column critical of Mecham's performance at the National Governors Association. The Governor then refused to acknowledge the presence of the columnist or answer his questions at a press conference. Mecham left the conference after other reporters repeated Kolbe's questions. Another incident occurred during a televised event in which a reporter questioned the governor's integrity, prompting Mecham to reply, "Don't you ever ask me for a true statement again."

In September 1987, Mecham received further national attention when Doonesbury began a six strip series of comics lampooning the governor. The first strip depicted Mecham saying, "My! What a cute little pickaninny!" while patting the head of a black child. Other strips satirized Mecham's tolerance of others, political appointments, and the state's loss of tourism business. For a short time, Mecham considered suing the strip's creator, but later said he had decided to leave the dispute "where it belongs—the funny pages."

Throughout his administration, Mecham expressed concern about possible eavesdropping on his private communications. A senior member of Mecham's staff broke his leg after falling through a false ceiling he had been crawling over, looking for covert listening devices. A private investigator was hired to sweep the governor's offices looking for bugs. The Governor was quoted as saying, "Whenever I'm in my house or my office, I always have a radio on. It keeps the lasers out." After this was reported, a political cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Steve Benson appeared in the Arizona Republic depicting the governor leaving his house outfitted for laser tag. When asked about this by reporters, Attorney General Bob Corbin replied in amusement, "We don't have any ray gun pointed at him."

Economic impact

Publicity over Mecham's faux pas led to the state experiencing adverse economic effects. Tourism suffered when groups and conventions transferred their meetings out of Arizona. In November 1987, a Phoenix-area convention bureau claimed that Mecham's policies on Martin Luther King Day had caused the cancellation of 45 conventions worth over $25 million. One of these cancellations was a National Basketball Association convention in Phoenix. In response to the cancellation, Mecham was quoted to say "Well, the N.B.A. I guess they forget how many white people they get coming to watch them play."

Public perception of Mecham also slowed down economic development outside the tourism industry. Several corporations looking for locations to build new facilities, including US West and SEMATECH, expressed concern that the governor's statements might indicate problems in the local business climate. The executive director of the Phoenix Economic Growth Corp., Ioanna T. Morfessis, stated "When companies look at a state's environment they don't want anything that sounds to them like the state isn't working right." As the controversy surrounding the governor built even the business interests within the state abandoned support for him. As the chairman of the state chamber of commerce, William L. Raby, observed "We usually back Republicans, but he's a different kind of Republican."

Removal efforts

While criticism plagued Governor Mecham for most of his time in office, it was not until he had been in office for six months that his nominal allies began to break ranks with him. In July 1987, the same month the recall effort officially began, a group of thirteen rank-and-file Republican members of the state legislature met to discuss the governor's image problems. Eleven members of the group, dubbed the Dirty Dozen by the local press, issued a joint statement critical of many of the governor's efforts. Calls for the governor's resignation followed several months afterwards, with U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater leading the way on October 9, 1987. As Mecham's problems continued to build, other Arizona political leaders, including Congressman Jon Kyl and Senator John McCain, made appeals for Mecham to step down, but the governor steadfastly refused to leave office.

Recall drive

The Mecham Watchdog Committee was organized in January 1987 and changed its name to the Mecham Recall Committee in May 1987. By Arizona law, recall petitions could not be circulated until an official had been in office 180 days. These petitions needed a number of signatures equal to 25% of votes cast during the official's last election to cause a recall election. On July 6, 1987, the first day that petitions could be circulated, the recall committee began an effort to collect 350,000 signatures, significantly more than the 216,746 signatures required. The recall committee was led by Ed Buck, a registered Republican and gay businessman living in the Phoenix area. In response, Mecham claimed the recall supporters were "a band of homosexuals and dissident Democrats". Mecham supporters printed bumper stickers reading "Queer Ed Buck's Recall" after learning of the recall leader's sexual orientation. Mecham also mailed 25,000 letters during September to conservatives nationwide requesting that they move to Arizona and support him in case a recall election were held.

The recall tended to gather signatures in bursts, with most signatures occurring shortly after some action of the governor offended a segment of the state's voters. Anger toward the governor grew to the point that on August 15, Mecham's appearance at Sun Devil Stadium before an exhibition NFL game resulted in cries of "Recall! Recall!" combined with catcalls. By mid-September, signatures in excess of the minimum required had been collected at roadside locations despite the 115 °F (46 °C) afternoon heat of the Arizona summer. Signature collection continued for the full 120-day period allowed for by state law. On November 2, the recall committee turned in 32,401 petitions containing 388,988 signatures (more than the 343,913 votes Mecham had received during his election). After the Secretary of State's office received the petitions, Mecham refused to waive verification of the signatures, forcing the petitions to be sent to the counties for verification. On January 26, 1988, Secretary of State Rose Mofford reported to Mecham that 301,032 signatures had been verified—a quantity sufficient to force a recall election. A recall election was scheduled for May 17, 1988, and former Republican Congressman John Rhodes agreed to run against Mecham.

Impeachment and criminal charges

On October 21, 1987, the Arizona Republic ran a story claiming that Mecham had failed to report a $350,000 loan from local real-estate developer Barry Wolfson to Mecham's election campaign as required by campaign financing laws. These claims were added to a grand jury investigation into allegations that Mecham had lent $80,000 in public funds to help his auto dealership. Upon learning of the alleged Wolfson loan, the Speaker of Arizona's House of Representatives hired a special counsel to investigate the charges. The third and final impeachment charge involved an alleged death threat to a government official by Horace Lee Watkins, a Mecham appointee, in November 1987. When Mecham was informed of the threat, it was reported that he instructed the head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety not to provide information on the incident to the Attorney General.

On January 8, 1988, the grand jury issued indictments against Evan Mecham and Willard Mecham, the Governor's brother and campaign finance manager, charging three counts of perjury, two counts of fraud, and one count of failing to report a campaign contribution. Mecham and his brother faced 22 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

The special counsel appointed by the Speaker of the House delivered his report to the House on January 15. Based on this report, the House began hearings into possible impeachment proceedings on January 19. These resulted in the passing of House Resolution 2002 on February 8 by a vote of 46 to 14. Upon Mecham's impeachment by the House, his powers as governor were suspended and Secretary of State Mofford became acting governor. Arizona has no lieutenant governor, so the secretary of state stands first in the order of succession if he or she has been popularly elected.

The Arizona State Senate convened as a court of impeachment on February 29. The charges against Mecham in the impeachment trial were obstruction of justice, filing a false statement, and misuse of government funds. The false filings charge was dropped by the Senate on a vote of 16 to 12. On April 4, the Senate convicted Mecham on obstruction of justice by a vote of 21 to 9, and on misusing government funds by a vote of 26 to 4. The Senate then voted 17 to 12 to disqualify Mecham from holding state office again, but that was short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. Upon conviction, Mecham was removed from office and Rose Mofford became Governor of Arizona. The recall election was canceled by the Arizona Supreme Court in a 4 to 1 ruling that the constitutionally mandated order of succession took precedence over the state's recall provisions.

Mecham's criminal trial started on June 2, and he was acquitted on all six felony charges on June 10.

After office

Following his removal from office and acquittal in his criminal trial, Mecham remained active in politics for several years. Mecham served as an at-large delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention and in 1990 he made an unsuccessful attempt to regain the Governor's office. In 1992, he made a run for the U.S. Senate as an independent against incumbent John McCain, receiving 145,361 votes (about 10%). In 1995, Mecham became chairman of the Constitutionalist Networking Center, a group attempting to create a grassroots organization called the Constitutionally Unified Republic for Everybody (CURE). CURE advocated political candidates supporting a strict interpretation of the United States Constitution. Mecham spent several years attempting to start a new newspaper, but was unable to secure sufficient financial backing. In 1999, Mecham wrote his third book, Wrongful Impeachment. Health issues, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, first reported in 2004, forced Mecham's withdrawal from the public arena and his commitment to the dementia unit of the Arizona State Veteran Home. Evan Mecham died on February 21, 2008. He is interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona.

The canceled Martin Luther King Day served as a point of controversy for years following Mecham's removal from office. In 1989, an Arizona law making a MLK holiday by canceling the state's Columbus Day holiday was challenged by two different groups, one opposed to the King holiday due to King's alleged communist ties and the other composed of Italian-Americans opposed to the removal of the Columbus Day holiday, and the new holiday was forced to undergo voter approval. Neither of the two competing ballot initiatives during the 1990 election—one removing the Columbus Day holiday to make way for a new MLK day holiday, the other to add an extra paid holiday—managed to obtain a required majority even though 65% of voters supported at least one form of the holiday. In response to the voters' rejection of a King holiday, Arizona tourist officials estimated that concert and convention business worth $190 million were canceled and the National Football League moved Super Bowl XXVII, worth an estimated US $150 million from the state, to Pasadena, California. Another initiative in 1992 succeeded in creation of a statewide MLK day holiday. Afterwards, the NFL awarded Super Bowl XXX to Arizona.

Arizona's election laws were affected by Mecham's legacy. In 1988, Arizona voters passed an initiative that amended the state constitution to require a runoff election when no candidate received a majority of the votes in a general election. This runoff requirement came into play during the 1990 election of Fife Symington, who defeated Democratic candidate Terry Goddard but fell just shy of a majority due to a minor independent candidate. The amendment requiring the runoff was repealed by the voters in 1992.

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Evan Mecham, Governor's Timeline

May 12, 1924
Duchesne, Duchesne, UT, United States
February 21, 2008
Age 83
Phoenix, Maricopa, AZ, United States