The Cautionary Tale of Evan Mecham

Last Tuesday, Arizona Republicans nominated Kari Lake to run for governor of Arizona. The centerpiece of her campaign has been an extension of the former president’s sustained tantrum about his 2020 loss. This nomination reminds me a bit of another figure who ran for governor and proved at minimum a PR disaster for Arizona: Evan Mecham (1924-2008).

Evan Mecham was a successful Pontiac dealer in Arizona who became politically active in the 1950s. He was both extremely conservative and highly religious, being both a member of the John Birch Society and the Church of Latter Day Saints. In 1962, Mecham ambitiously ran against longtime Democratic incumbent Carl Hayden, whose incredible career I have previously written about. The Republican Party gave him nominal support but didn’t work hard for him as Hayden was viewed as critical for securing the long-desired Central Arizona Project, which would be signed into law in 1968. Mecham, who ran on a campaign of opposition to the UN and for school prayer, nonetheless got 45% of the vote, a sign of the rising GOP. He ran in the Republican primary four times for governor in 1964, 1974, 1978, and 1982. Mecham won the 1978 nomination but lost to Democrat Bruce Babbitt, who had assumed the office after the death of his predecessor. Mecham was not done, though.


The election of 1986 had low turnout and Mecham again ran, winning the GOP nomination. He won a three-way gubernatorial race as former Democrat Bill Schulz opted to run as an Independent and with just under 40% of the vote. By this time, Mecham appears to have no longer been a member of the John Birch Society, but he continued to support the organization. From the start, Mecham faced opposition, including from Ed Buck, a gay man who at the time was a Republican who protested his inauguration and would start the recall campaign against him. His time as governor was not without accomplishments. He opened a trade office with Taiwan to export Arizona’s cotton, raised the speed limit from 55 to 65 miles per hour, and eliminated the state’s $157 million deficit. However, the first major issue arose over a figure that to say the John Birch Society opposed him would be a major understatement: Martin Luther King Jr.


The MLK Holiday Controversy

Mecham’s predecessor as governor, Democrat Bruce Babbitt, had enacted the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for public employees after the Arizona State Legislature failed to pass the legislation enacting the day by one vote. The Secretary of State had found the holiday illegal as it had not been approved by the legislature in 1986. One of Mecham’s first actions was to cancel the holiday, which met with strong disapproval by civil rights groups. Mecham could have simply cited the Secretary of State’s legal opinion in support of his action, but he decided to go a step further when he stated, “King doesn’t deserve a holiday” and he further went on to say to a group of black community leaders, “You folks don’t need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs” (Hawkins). Mecham would later declare an unpaid holiday on the third Sunday of January, which was widely regarded as a weak substitute. Several public figures declared a boycott of the state and numerous conventions to be held in the state were canceled. He compounded the damage when he stated, “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” (Hawkins).

Governance Problems

Mecham’s attitude toward governance was unfortunately a non-starter. Despite having a Republican state legislature, his relations with them were poor as he asserted that he had no obligation to cooperate with the state legislature, holding that he was only accountable to God and the United States Constitution. This resulted in numerous vetoes, frustrating his fellow Republicans. State Senator Tony West said of him, “Mecham has neglected the day-to-day administration of the government, and a number of his appointments have been catastrophic” (Hull). Indeed, he made a few embarrassing appointments. Mecham appointed Albert Rodriguez, a man under investigation for a 1955 murder in Mexico to head the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, Lee Watkins, who had been convicted of armed robbery as the supervisor of prison construction, Russell Richey, who had filed his tax return ten months late as tax collector, and Bill Heisler, a former Marine as state investigator who had been court-martialed twice, and former Congressman Sam Steiger as his special assistant, who would be indicted for extortion which resulted in a conviction followed by an overturn on appeal (Watkins, 77, 158-59). A popular joke at the time was, “What do Mecham’s political appointees have in common? Parole officers” (Hull).

Mechamisms

Evan Mecham was notorious for gaffes, and these, all from a January 9, 1988 AP article, included,

″If you continue to push in this manner and you continue to push people who have willingly said ‘we want equal rights for all people,’ the time does come when the majority says, ’we’re not going to take it any more.” – On supporters of the MLK Day.

″That’s right, I want you to sell your house, pack your belongings, quit your job and come to the most beautiful state in the Union. … Without your contribution I will risk being crushed by the millions of dollars the militant liberals and the homosexual lobby plan to spend against me. … If they destroy me it will be a sad day for conservatives everywhere and most of all for America.″ – From Mecham’s fundraising letter sent to 25,000 conservatives across the nation, which included his signature.

″As I was a boy growing up, blacks themselves referred to their children as pickaninnies. That was never intended to be an ethnic slur with anybody.″ – In defending his refusal to disavow a historical textbook by his mentor W. Cleon Skousen that included a 1930s essay that used the word “pickaninny”.

″In fact, I would welcome a recall election – next week, next month. At least a recall election I think would shut ’em all up. … I’ll tell you what, if a band of homosexuals and a few dissident Democrats can get me out of office, why heavens, the state deserves what else they can get.″ – On a recall petition.

As the aforementioned recall petition was underway, bumper stickers in his defense began being released included “Queer Buck’s Recall”. Another embarrassment occurred when Kip Shippy, the 17-year-old head of the “Evan Mecham Fan Club” and unpaid volunteer for Mecham who helped organize opposition to the recall was discovered to have been convicted three years before hand in juvenile court of molesting an eight-year-old girl. On October 9th, former Senator Barry Goldwater called for him to resign, and calls for him to step down increased from there. On January 8th, 1988, both he and his campaign manager brother Willard were indicted on three counts of perjury, two counts of fraud, and one count of not reporting a $350,000 loan to the campaign. The Arizona State Legislature subsequently impeached him for obstruction of justice and allegedly diverting $80,000 in state funds to his Pontiac dealership (NBC News). This action nullified the recall election, in which if it would have happened, he would have faced former Congressman John Rhodes. Mecham held in his 1988 book, Impeachment: The Arizona Conspiracy that he was impeached because of “pure and simple raw political power exercised by those groups who wanted to remain in control. In the final analysis, my error was not in what I did with the (protocol) funds, but in thinking that I was dealing with people who had honor, integrity and the best interest of the state at heart” (NBC News). Mecham and his brother were found not guilty. In 1999, he published Wrongful Impeachment, which as you might have guessed was an indictment of his impeachment. He was forced to withdraw from public life in 2004 due to his failing health, being afflicted with both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Mecham died four years later in a nursing home.

Mecham failed as governor because of his attitude towards governing. He was disconnected from reality, highly opinionated, and lacked caution in his words to the press. Mecham blamed the press and certain powers in the state for the popularity problems befalling his administration, when much of his problems were self-inflicted. Most notable was his turning an issue in which he had a simple defense in legality into a major blowup when he decided to opine further on the MLK holiday. Mecham’s impeachment does seem in retrospect to have the goal of ending the career of an inconvenient politician, which he certainly was. Mecham subsequently left the GOP, running unsuccessful campaigns for governor and the Senate.

His former press secretary defended him, holding that Mecham was treated unfairly, “The tragic fact … is that Mecham will be remembered as an incompetent, bumbling bigot who got what he deserved. But … he had some charming personal qualities. He had a genuine interest in helping the disadvantaged. He understood economic development far better than his predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, or his successor, Rose Mofford. He believed in economic equality for all races and minorities, arguing this would be necessary before political and social equality could be achieved. He was deeply troubled by rampant drug abuse. And, his pet project this year [1988] would have been a statewide campaign to help illiterate adults learn to read. This side of Mecham was lost in a fog of controversy that he helped create” (Smith).


References

Asseo, L. (1988, June 11). Defense Rests In Mecham Criminal Trial. Associated Press.

Retrieved from

https://apnews.com/article/4f829366d541e85954d79f1b7b585711

Asseo, L. (1987, January 12). Governor Rescinds Martin Luther King Holiday. Associated Press.

Retrieved from

https://apnews.com/article/cb26fd4075729c57a963657ff2030a42

Evan Mecham Era in Arizona. Jim Heath Channel.

Retrieved from

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B50SBxVKUvo

Former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham dies at 83. NBC News.

Retrieved from

https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna23297084

Gov. Evan Mecham. National Governors Association.

Retrieved from

https://www.nga.org/governor/evan-mecham/

Hall, C. (1987, September 2). In Arizona, a Dust-Up Over ‘Doonesbury’. The Washington Post.

Retrieved from

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1987/09/02/in-arizona-a-dust-up-over-doonesbury/c934f1cd-35dd-4623-9ada-7c72e41e4767/

Hawkins, S.L. (1988, February 22). Inside the wacky world of Evan Mecham. U.S. News and World Report. 104: 29-30.

Hull, J.D. (1987, November 9). Evan Mecham, Please Go Home. TIME.

Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20071103082858/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,965917,00.html

Langeveld, D. (2009, May 14). Evan Mecham: the faux pas factory. The Downfall Dictionary.

Retrieved from

http://downfalldictionary.blogspot.com/2009/05/evan-mecham-faux-pas-factory.html

Quotes From Ariz. Governor Evan Mecham With PM-Mecham Indicted, Bjt. Associated Press.

Retrieved from

https://apnews.com/article/3f526f42ac9b6777534dee7980562f18

Smith, K.V. (1988, May 15). Mecham ignored advice, created own road to ruin. Mesa Tribune, B1.

Watkins, R.J. (1990). High crimes and misdemeanors: the term and trials of former Governor Evan Mecham. New York: William Morrow & Co.

Our Political Leadership is the Oldest Its Been in At Least 100 Years


Old age is given some good marks in society. These include wisdom and experience. However, there are some ways in which society gives old age bad marks, including a loss of touch with the issues impacting younger generations and the health problems of the body and mind that accompany age. Today we have the oldest president in American history and at the end of the 113th Congress (2013-15), the Democratic leadership hit a landmark average age of 70. Over the last two Congresses the Democrats have averaged over 75 among their leaders, with only Kamala Harris being under 70. All three of the House leaders on the Democratic side are over 80…Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 83, and Majority Whip James Clyburn is 82. This is a development raises questions such as who is waiting in the wings? It isn’t Hoyer and Clyburn. Katherine Harris of Massachusetts as Assistant Speaker and Hakeem Jeffries of New York as Democratic Conference Chairman are young enough, but they haven’t been getting a whole lot of attention, so their ascendency will not be an anticipated thing. Worse yet, in 2017 a former pharmacist for a D.C. pharmacy reported that he was filling prescriptions for elderly politicians for serious ailments, possibly those impacting the mind (Singman).


I have gone back one hundred years and found that the current Democratic leadership of the last Congress and the last is the oldest Congressional leadership from a party we’ve had in that time and in truth, ever in American history (Harwood). The Republicans are on a rather high end at 64 by the end of the year, with the oldest average being 65 over the last 100 years. It would be even higher if the former President Trump was counted. He is currently 76 and if he chooses to run for president, its’ going to be an ironic campaign if the GOP tries to pull the age card on Biden again. I think both are too old to give the presidency a run for 2024 and for the record, if both are the nominees in 2024 it will stand as a major indictment of our primary system. I could go on about the troubles of the existing primary system, but that will have to wait for another time. The average for this Congress will be 72 by the end of the year. Below I have a chart of the average age of politicians at the end of every Congress since the 67th (1921-1923). This counts presidents, vice presidents, speakers, and majority and minority leaders and whips.

This chart demonstrates that starting with the first Congressional session during Obama’s presidency, the age of the Democratic leadership has only climbed up. The current leadership among them is old and uninspiring to many voters, certainly some Democrats included. This problem is not just one I’ve observed, just search “aging Democratic leadership” and you will get a bevy of articles discussing it.

References

Harwood, J. (2021, September 26). Democrats’ aging leaders need all their skills for the task ahead. CNN.

Retrieved from

https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/26/politics/democrats-leadership-age/index.html

Singman, B. (2017, October 12). Uproar as Capitol Hill pharmacist dishes on Alzheimer’s prescriptions for the powerful. Fox News.

Retrieved from

https://www.foxnews.com/politics/uproar-as-capitol-hill-pharmacist-dishes-on-alzheimers-prescriptions-for-the-powerful

Challenging Prohibition: The Legend of “Johnfillup”

I am posting a bit early this time as I will be in a place soon for the next few days that I’m not sure has a stable internet connection.

Prohibition was one of America’s grand social experiments, and like many grand social experiments, there were many who opposed it. Certain cities never accepted Prohibition, among them Chicago and Baltimore. In 1920, the latter elected to Congress the perfect representative for their tastes: Republican John Philip Hill (1879-1941). Hill had as an attorney advised the American Express Company in 1914 that the Webb-Kenyon Act was constitutional as it was sufficiently respectful of state’s rights in providing Federal support for individual state decisions on alcohol regulation. This being said, he thought Prohibition went way too far. Hill became known in Congress as “the wettest wet” for his opposition to anything that furthered or could serve to further Prohibition. He was a major publicity hound in his cause as well. Correspondent Clinton W. Gilbert wrote of Hill, “He lives by headlines. If newspapers were abolished, he would curl up and die. I know he will read this with delight and paste it away in his scrapbook. That’s why I am writing it” (TIME). He regularly ridiculed Wayne A. Wheeler and his Anti-Saloon League to the delight of his constituents. Hill was also unafraid to take unpopular stances, two examples being his vote against the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act in 1921, the popular support which had pushed many rock-ribbed conservatives into voting for, and against the Immigration Act of 1924 that established national origins quotas for immigration. His opposition to Prohibition would go beyond voting against measures furthering it, however.


Hill decided to provide a legal challenge to Prohibition in 1923. He saw the law as unfairly discriminating in favor of farmers given an allowance for them to grow “nonintoxicating” fruit beverages while people in the cities lacked the same allowance on their properties. Hill thus decided to grow grape vines and apple trees in his backyard and called it “Franklin Farms”. In 1924, he threw a party with 500 in attendance in which in his Baltimore basement they drank his cider. That year, Hill was indicted under the Volstead Act for the production of “intoxicating” liquors. Before his trial ended, however, traditionally Democratic Baltimore reelected him with over 60% of the vote. At the trial, numerous witnesses came forward stating that they hadn’t been intoxicated from drinking Hill’s wine and cider. He had also never sold any of his product, and he was acquitted. The result of the trial was a success for him and the foes of Prohibition. This verdict established that people could make wine and cider on their own property as long as they dubbed it a “farm” and that the definition of “intoxicating” liquors was dependent on opinion. There was even a poem written celebrating his acquittal,

“Twelve honest men and true the court did choose
To try Johnfillup for his jest with booze,
Twelve honest men heard learned doctors Say
A single drop of wine will make you gay,
Twelve honest men discussed for weary hours
The arrant nonsense of the Volstead powers.
Twelve honest men who knew the strength of thirst,
Gave their opinion and were then dispersed.
They ruled a townsman, and a farmer too,
Were not intoxicated by home brew,
A simple wine, of merely ten per cent,
Was just and fair and was the law’s intent.
My flat is tiny, there’s no home brew space,
But if some friend will Send to me a case,
An ancient beaker to the brim I’ll fill
And drink the glory of Johnfillup Hill” (Lewis).

In 1925, Hill wrote an article condemning the Volstead Act, regarding it as a failure given its increasing number of busts of illegal distilleries and distilling apparatuses, implying that more were created as a consequence of Prohibition than there had been before. He also held that based on the verdict of his trial, the Volstead Act “…establishes a definition for “intoxicating liquors” which is artificial and untrue. It prohibits beer with one-half of one per cent, of alcohol, but permits cider and home-made wine with as much alcohol in them as the individual jury may consider non-intoxicating in fact” (Hill, 639). He proposed a substitute, which respected state’s rights to define what beverages were “intoxicating” and have the Federal government support whatever each state decided on the question.


In 1926, Hill ran for the Republican primary for the Senate, but lost to incumbent Ovington Weller, who would lose reelection to wet Democrat Millard Tydings. His political career would only slide down from there. In 1928, Hill lost a bid to return to Congress by less than a point. His 1930 bid went worse with the Great Depression, losing by eight points. Hill attempted one more time in 1936, losing by over 20 points. By this time his signature issue of Prohibition was resolved in his favor, and thus the motivation of Baltimoreans to vote for him was largely gone. He then moved to New York City to practice law. In 1937, Hill’s wife divorced him, asserting that he had left her in 1932. Hill died four years later on May 23, 1941. No Republican has represented Maryland’s 3rd district since he departed Congress in 1927, but his legend lives on.

References

Hill, J.P. (1925). A State’s Rights Remedy for Volsteadism. The North American Review, 221(827), 635-640.

Retrieved from

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25113427.pdf

Lewis, W. (1961, June). The Battle of Franklin Farms: John Philip’s Jest With Booze. The Atlantic.

Retrieved from

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1961/06/the-battle-of-franklin-farms-john-philips-jest-with-booze/657894/

Prohibition. U.S. House of Representatives.

Retrieved from

https://history.house.gov/Education/NHD/NHD-Prohibition/

Prohibition: Not Guilty. (1924, November 24). Time Magazine.

Retrieved from

https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,719465,00.html