Evan Mecham, Please Go Home

  • Archconservative Pontiac Dealer Evan Mecham needed five tries to become Governor of Arizona. Now, just ten months after taking his oath, the grandfatherly Mormon is under siege. He has been ridiculed in the comic strip Doonesbury, faces a formidable recall campaign, and is the target of a grand jury investigation that could lead to impeachment.

    This week the recall campaign will present Arizona's secretary of state with more than 350,000 signatures demanding a recall vote on Mecham; fewer than 220,000 would be enough to force another election by next May. By contrast, Mecham squeaked into office with only 344,000 votes, a 40% plurality in a three-way race that split the Democratic vote. Former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who campaigned for Mecham, has called for his resignation. Congressman Morris Udall and former Governor Bruce Babbitt have signed the recall petition. Says Ed Buck, a gay Phoenix businessman and conservative Republican who launched the recall movement last July: "Perhaps their support finally drove the point home to Evan Mecham that this is not a band of homosexuals and dissident Republicans."

    Why all the fuss? For starters, Mecham, 63, has a daunting image problem. A veritable faux pas factory sporting a constant smirk and a vindictive manner, Mecham strikes many voters as a simpleminded ideologue who is giving a bad name to the nation's second-fastest-growing state. After rescinding the Jan. 19 holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Mecham defended the use of the term "pickaninnies" for blacks. In February he asked for a list of state employees who are gay. Says Republican State Representative Jane Hull: "This state has had enough. It's just getting too damaging."

    If the buffoon factor has crippled Mecham's governorship, charges of incompetence and corruption could kill it. Apart from spearheading the change to a 65-m.p.h. speed limit, the Governor's biggest accomplishment to date may be the opening of an Arizona tourism office in Taiwan. Says Republican State Senator Tony West: "Mecham has neglected the day-to-day administration of the government, and a number of his appointments have been catastrophic." Mecham's nominee for a state investigator's post was 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."

    A Phoenix-area convention bureau reports that because of Mecham's policies, 45 conventions have been canceled, costing some $25 million in lost revenue. "I think he's had a really adverse effect on the business climate," complains J. Fife Symington III, a major Phoenix developer. "You'd have to live here to appreciate this comedy of errors."

    More serious is a state attorney general's probe of a previously undisclosed $350,000 loan to the Mecham campaign from a local developer, and questions about whether the loan influenced two Mecham appointments. While the Governor denies any wrongdoing, the legislature has hired a special counsel to investigate, and Mecham has been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury this week.

    Despite the growing tempest, Mecham continues to blame a hostile press and left-wing radicals for most of his problems. Few expect him to return to selling cars without a fight. "He will quit the day hell freezes over," says Udall. Adds Jane Hull: "There will be fistfights in the street." Or more likely, a second volume of Mecham jokes.