THE BLOG
02/14/2017 10:46 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2018

Arizona Once Elected A Governor Like Trump... And Impeached Him

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Thirty years ago last month, Arizona became the laughing stock of the nation when a hair-impaired, executive-order-wielding, right-wing extremist became governor after a surprise victory.

President Trump, meet former Governor Evan Mecham. His ghost still haunts the state -- and today's February 14 anniversary of its admission into the United States -- but his impeachment for "high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance in office" serves as a cautionary tale. A how-to lesson in the times of Trump on what happens when a "circus maximus" takes over the halls of power.

Meacham's election victory in 1986 was his fifth attempt at the Arizona governorship -- indefatigable car salesman that he was. While the endless delivery of the "Harold Stassen of the West" punch line provided some comic relief for the press (Stassen had been a perennial candidate for governor in Minnesota for decades), most cynical observers forgot one important detail: Stassen actually got elected as governor for one term in 1939.

So did Mecham, the Glendale auto-dealer whose primary upset against Republican boss and Statehouse Majority Leader Burton Barr stunned the state.

With President Ronald Reagan's blessing and U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater's endorsement, Mecham's long-shot candidacy turned into a Cinderella story for the nation's right-wing fringe. In a special appeal, Reagan told the voters of Arizona on October 14, 1986: "This year's election could mark a turning point in our country's history."

"Taking advantage of a split vote between the Democrat and a liberal independent candidate, Mecham kept his word as he coasted to victory in the fall of 1986."

He warned voters to choose the "right track" and turn away from policies of "weakness and ridicule abroad." Domestic ridicule would abound.

"With me in the race," Mecham declared, "we're not just going to talk about water and air and nice things like that."

Taking advantage of a split vote between the Democrat and a liberal independent candidate, Mecham kept his word as he coasted to victory in the fall of 1986. In truth, the majority of Arizona voters (more than 60 percent) stayed home. Within days, the car salesman-cum-governor made good on his promise not to talk about "nice things like that" and managed to turn Arizona into a "Circus Maximus," in the words of venerable Arizona Congressman Morris K. Udall.

"Would You Buy a Used Car from This Governor?" The mocking headline by the San Francisco Examiner, nearly a year after Mecham's shocking victory, underscored a level of national scorn and derision that calls to mind the state's more recent debacle over immigration policies. Saturday Night Live would have had a bottomless well of material.

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In Mecham's case, however, the nuttiness of his character somehow tempered the anger -- or at least made it secondary to his nonstop tendency, as his press secretary once noted, "to put his foot in his mouth." Mecham was already known for his B-movie Pontiac car TV commercials; at first, his folksy character and gaffes almost charmed cynics and pundits alike, providing a lifetime of jokes and one-liners. His descent into national buffoonery seemed inevitable -- even welcomed.

Within days of his inauguration, though, the invective in the jokes mirrored the increasing division and extremist overtones in Mecham's train-wreck of an administration. What a shame to waste a $400 toupee on a two-bit head! Did you hear that Mecham ordered the U. of A. School of Agriculture to develop chickens with only right wings and all-white meat? Why did Mecham cancel Easter? He heard the eggs were going to be colored.

Born in rural Utah in 1924, Mecham had a childhood that was fairly typical of the Mormon West. He served in World War II and earned a Purple Heart after being shot down in Europe. He returned to the States, got married, became a lay bishop in his Mormon church, moved to Arizona to raise his large family, and soon launched a car dealership in the remote mining town of Ajo, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

After losing a race for the Arizona House of Representatives, Mecham moved to the Phoenix suburb of Glendale and opened a new Pontiac dealership. Cars may have been his business, but politics was his first love. He finally managed to get elected to the Arizona State Senate in 1960, only to launch an ambitious campaign for the U.S. Senate against the state's (and arguably one of the Senate's) most legendary Democrats, Carl Hayden, in 1962. (Elected as the first Representative from Arizona in 1912, Hayden became the longest-serving member of Congress, lasting a full fifty-seven years, until 1969.) Mecham ran on an anti-communist campaign to get the United States out of the United Nations; he was trounced, but the loss opened the chute for a twenty-five-year escapade of nonstop losing campaigns.

Until 1986. Running largely to get payback for the "ambush" of an earlier run for governor, Mecham targeted the seemingly invincible Republican leader Barr. He blasted Barr for "perfidy" and proclaimed he would bring an end to an era of "hidden and secret government control." To the amazement of the Republican machine, Mecham won.

Not that it surprised Mecham, who reportedly told one of his assistants of his heavenly connections on the eve of the election: "I have assurance that I am going to win."

Mecham's appointees could have done with a bit more secrecy in ushering in a new era on January 6, 1987. Even People magazine couldn't resist running a list of Mecham's eyebrow-raising cabinet assignments: "Appointed to the state Board of Education a woman who reportedly described the ERA campaign as a lesbian plot. . . . Nominated as director of revenue a man whose company was $25,000 in arrears on unemployment compensation payments."

Some appointments were almost uncanny in their contradictions: Mecham's main adviser on education lectured a legislative committee on the failings of schools and declared: "If a student wants to say the world is flat, the teacher doesn't have the right to prove otherwise."

A convicted felon was asked to head up prison construction. The head of Mecham's fan club turned out to be a child molester. Time magazine called Mecham's nominee for a state investigator "a former Marine who had been court-martialed twice. The Governor's special assistant went on leave after being charged with extortion. Such blunders have prompted publication of a hot-selling Evan Mecham joke book. One entry: 'What do Mecham's political appointees have in common? Parole officers.'"

These were pardonable offices compared with Mecham's bullheaded implementation of the religious right wing's extremist ideas. Mecham's insurgent campaign, a precursor to the Tea Party, had railed against the Republican establishment in Phoenix and laid the foundations for a popular revolt "committed to the Constitution, traditional American values, and cleaning up our widespread drug problem and organized crimes," according to the right-wing president of the Arizona Eagle Forum.

This popular revolt launched at his inauguration. With Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints President Ezra Taft Benson standing at the podium, a prodigious moment that recognized Mecham's "divine calling" to the seat of power, Mecham declared that his first major act in office would be to rescind former Governor Bruce Babbitt's last-minute decree to enact an official Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Arizona.

Mecham didn't simply rescind the holiday; he took one step further and declared: "I guess King did a lot for colored people, but I don't think he deserves a national holiday." Before too long, Mecham was also defending the use of the word "pickaninnies" for African American children in Cleon Skousen's book The Making of America.

Whether or not Arizona was fed up with Mecham, national organizations and a host of celebrities led by Stevie Wonder quickly orchestrated a boycott of the state over the governor's unabashed racism and holiday decision, and would even manage to get the National Football League to move the 1993 Super Bowl from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe to Pasadena, California. Public Enemy sized up Arizona's reputation with their single "By the Time I Get to Arizona" mentioning the "fact" that "the whole state's racist."

"A convicted felon was asked to head up prison construction. The head of Mecham's fan club turned out to be a child molester. "

Whether or not they took umbrage at Mecham's reckless appointments or discriminatory policies, it took little for the business community -- still smarting from the defeat of their Republican stalwart Barr -- to jump on the finger-pointing bandwagon.

One of the governor's earliest critics was real estate developer J. Fife Symington III, who claimed that Mecham's holiday debacle had resulted in at least forty-five convention cancellations and the loss of more than $25 million in revenue. He told Time magazine: "I think he's had a really adverse effect on the business climate," adding as an aside, "You'd have to live here to appreciate this comedy of errors." (Symington went on to become governor himself in 1991, only to resign in disgrace for bank fraud.)

"He's got the whole country laughing at us," lamented Udall, "and you just can't have that and attract the kind of new business you need."

Udall's own record aside, his concern that Mecham had "damaged our image" spoke as much to the majority in the state that stayed at home during the elections and now rued Arizona's scarred reputation -- a hauntingly similar situation, in many respects, to today, where empathy for the casualties of the right-wing agenda placed a distant second to the pocketbook and the media's social register.

The coastal media in the Mecham era, as well, thrived on his gaffes and on the sociocultural implications of portraying Arizona as a backwater state. Doonesbury immortalized Mecham as a buffoon. Writing in the pop culture magazine Spin, Bart Bull updated the colorful portraits of New York City- based travel writers from a century ago:

Arizona is where the Old West crawled off to die. Or if not actually to die, then at least to establish a cranky early retirement. Arizona is God's country, wide open spaces of desert so dry and hard and craggy that only the bravest, boldest and most devotedly crooked of developers dares plant a For Sale sign. Arizona is a man's man's No Man's Land, where bikers gripe when they have to check their hogleg pistols before bellying up to the go-go bar to hoot at the tattooed topless cuties. Arizona is where the cactus meets the palm tree at poolside just the way God intended, where the Official State Tie is shaped like a noose, where the Mormons and the Mexicans and the Mercury dealers can all get together to agree on just exactly what kind of people we need less of around here.

Writing in the New York Times, Arizona-based author Alan Weisman transcended such caricatures and focused more on the transient "confusion of a state largely populated by recent arrivals whose self-interests replace roots and loyalties."

He wrote: "In the restless way of the Sun Belt, for every four who arrive in Arizona in search of quick success, three others leave. Although many recall supporters believe all will be solved if they get rid of the Governor, the casual, rootless regard many Arizonans have for their state creates opportunities for someone like him to thrive. Amid the passions of the recall, an unpleasant fact has been mostly overlooked: this year, Arizona's legislature again failed to authorize a King holiday. And few frankly believe that it would pass a statewide referendum, which Mecham has proposed to settle the issue."

Enter Ed Buck, a 33-year-old millionaire entrepreneur in Phoenix, who told the New York Times, "Never before has one man alienated so many people in such a short period of time." Buck was hardly alone. Beyond the Martin Luther King Jr. incident, the African American community didn't know what to think of a governor who said he would willingly employ black people "because they are the best people who applied for the cotton-picking job."

The Mexican-American community took offense at Mecham's rationale for selecting a TV weather anchor as his liaison to the Hispanic community: "I was so dazzled by her beauty," he gushed, "I hired her on the spot." Indeed, Mecham's quip that his Pontiacs were "Mexican Cadillacs" always had people shaking their heads.

His views of those south of the border were not as sweet. Threatening to use the National Guard on the border, Mecham railed against Latin American revolutions and the "idea of communists parked in his nation's back yard." And when Japanese businessmen toured Phoenix with the governor, he remarked that they got "round eyes" when he showed off the city's golf courses.

Among numerous other matters, Buck was personally offended by Mecham's public disparagement of gays. The governor told one radio show, "If you are a member of the same church I am, you have evidently changed your lifestyle, because the church I belong to does not allow homosexuals to participate under any circumstances."

Within seconds of the official 180-day waiting period, Buck decided that derision and shame did little to solve the state's number-one nuisance: the Republican businessman, who happened to be gay, launched a recall campaign that sidestepped political affiliations and challenged Arizona's costly apathy. Buck took no prisoners. He called Mecham a "Neanderthal who breeds paranoia and is a tragedy for this state."

Everyone agreed. The Chamber of Commerce nodded in approval. Democrats turned their heads in glee. Nonetheless, Buck found himself alone on the next step: the Herculean task of collecting 220,000 verified signatures.

"Thirty days ago, when we started the Mecham recall movement, no news- paper, no political pro, no pundit, no columnist--no one except the participants gave us a chance," Buck lectured in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic on August 16, 1987. "We were written off as crackpots."

Within the first thirty days, he and a growing crew of volunteers had already gathered more than 103,000 signatures.

Buck didn't pull any punches. A Republican maverick and an outspoken gay activist at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, he chastised state leaders for their "lack of courage." The business community was too timid, and couldn't get beyond "discussing" the recall to actually join it. The Democrats, paradoxically leery of losing Mecham as their target, were ineffective and "rent by infighting." The rest of the Republican leadership had succumbed to "political prostitution."

Buck issued a warning, which would resonate today in any state arena and certainly foretold a generation of lame Democratic politics in Arizona: "Those leaders who won't lead are in danger of finding that no one pays attention anymore. The recall has done what it has done with grassroots people power--thousands of volunteers, hundreds of thousands of man-hours of work, untold amounts of shoe leather and elbow grease and very little money."

And they always had Mecham for inspiration: "Whenever we think this recall movement may be losing steam," Buck joked, "Ev pulls us through."

The governor didn't just roll over and surrender. He countered every accusation; he defended his fiscal policies and balanced budget; he trumpeted his war on drugs and commitment to funding education. He was typically giddy when discussing the state's new trade office in Taiwan. He took the cartoon depictions and punch lines in stride; he placed himself in good company, in line with the rest of the nation's criticized leaders. "Who am I to be concerned about such attacks?" he told the New York Times. "Washington, a president elected by acclamation, was pilloried by journalists. And Lincoln: Terrible how they treated him. Jefferson's friends begged him to crack down on the press. Nothing that's worth doing ever comes easy. This doesn't surprise me."

Mecham singled out Buck for his wrath -- and his battle strategy. "The homosexuals sought me out," he told the John Birch magazine. "The first element that we know that joined the recall effort was the National Gay Rights Liberation Movement. And the Democrats. And the pornographers. And the drug people, too -- it's a big business in Arizona, too big."

Mechamites, as they were eventually called, got vicious. They distributed bumper stickers with the words "Queer Ed Buck's Recall." They warned Arizonans to watch out for petition gatherers, especially the gay liberation forces: "Be warned, you may get AIDS if the person that offers you the pen and petition to sign is a homosexual with the AIDS virus."

Then they turned desperate. Mecham railed against a left-wing conspiracy and leaned on his hard-line supporters to donate funds to counter the "militant liberals and homosexual lobby" that was leading the recall. He also wanted his followers to consider a radical move, literally: he sent a mailer to 25,000 right-wing patriots asking them to "pick up and move to Arizona." Mecham wasn't kidding: "That's right. I want you to sell your house, pack up your belongings, quit your job, and come to the most beautiful state in the Union."

In the end, Buck pulled off a miracle. His volunteer operation turned in more than 350,000 signatures -- 6,000 more than the votes Mecham had won in the election. He had taught the state an enduring lesson. "It is clear that those to whom Arizonans have traditionally looked for leadership lack the courage of their convictions," he said. "It is clear that those who have captured Arizona -- they of the rabid right -- have used that apathy and lack of opposing leadership to ride their misguided, mean-spirited passions into the governor's office. What should now be dawning on both groups is that something is happening out here. Something stirs deep within the body politic they have so long taken for granted."

Before the scheduled recall election took place in the spring of 1988, the state legislature seized on allegations of improper loans and misappropriated campaign donations, and subsequent perjury charges, and slammed through a special impeachment trial in the spring. It provided an even greater media circus. Putting aside Meacham's egregious record, the House counsel charged Mecham with hiding "a $350,000 campaign loan, of borrowing $80,000 in state funds for his automobile dealership and of trying to thwart investigation of a state official's reported death threat against a former Mecham aide who testified before a grand jury about the loan."

Mecham was convicted for a handful of relatively minor charges, including the misuse of government funds and obstruction of justice. He was kicked out of office, and the recall was canceled. Secretary of State Rose Mofford, best known for her beehive hairdo, became the governor.

"As we work together to bind the wounds of the last few months, let us purge our hearts of suspicion and hate," Mofford declared.

It took Arizona four more years before it finally passed Proposition 300, which made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday. Mecham ran again for governor and the US Senate. He lost both elections.

"Truth be told," concluded Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Steve Benson (the grandson of Mormon leader Ezra Benson), "Mecham was forcibly extracted from the governor's chair after having been in office only 15 months and was later confined to the dementia unit of the Arizona State Veteran Home (suffering from a form of the affliction similar to Alzheimer's disease), before dying in February 2008, a beaten, humiliated and broken man."


This excerpt has been adapted from State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream (Nation Books).

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