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.

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