Folksy Mecham Target of Bitter Recall Effort

Times Staff Writer

The 40 years Evan Mecham spent selling Pontiacs shine through in his wide-as-the-grille-of-a-Bonneville smile, and the Arizona governor can prove downright disarming when he interrupts himself to point out a double rainbow through the porthole of his Beechcraft. In his suite at the Capitol, pink bouquets of fake tulips testify further to his homespun cheeriness.

So why is Evan Mecham hanging in pinata effigy in a bustling storefront office across town? Why are angry voters by the thousands signing petitions demanding that he be replaced three years and two months before his four-year term is up? Why are conventioneers and outraged rock groups boycotting the state.?

Still Smiling

And why is Evan Mecham still smiling?

It doesn’t take long to realize that one of the country’s most fascinating political fights is rapidly unfolding in Arizona.


“It is a dirty war and it’s getting to be dirtier and dirtier,” observed Bruce Mason, a political science professor at Arizona State University who is preparing a paper on the conflict.

Hostility began building during Mecham’s gubernatorial campaign, when the conservative Republican announced that he would rescind the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday if elected, on grounds that former Gov. Bruce Babbitt had no authority to create one without legislative approval.

Mecham, who had already annoyed Arizona’s Establishment Republicans by eliminating their handpicked candidate in the primary, won a three-way race last November, with 39.6% of the vote.

Within weeks after he took office in January, the movement to recall him was launched by Ed Buck, a wealthy, 34-year-old Phoenix businessman who describes himself as a gay, conservative Republican. Buck, who charges that “Mecham has a very regressive, 1940s-1950s mentality,” set up shop in downtown Phoenix, hung the Mecham pinata from the ceiling, seeded the movement with $5,000 of his own money and turned it into a full-time job.

By summer, the 63-year-old Mormon governor had handed the recall effort some unwitting help by managing to offend large groups of minorities, women, homosexuals, journalists, Roman Catholics and educators. He offered no apologies, and insisted that his only regret was asking a reporter if the Pope spoke English--a mistake he said at least 200,000 Americans could have made.

At first, political observers gave the recall drive virtually no chance of success. Mecham shrugged it off as “an exercise in futility” by “dissident Democrats and homosexuals.”

But the pundits have changed their minds. And though he insists that he is “not under siege,” so, apparently, has Mecham.

Now, Buck is proclaiming that the Mecham Recall Committee, which needed 216,746 signatures to force a recall election as early as next spring, has more than 250,000. And, with three weeks to go to the Nov. 3 deadline, an army of 10,000 to 15,000 deputy registrars is still gathering signatures at airports, swap meets, the state fair, concerts, football games and even intersections. It is aiming for 350,000 names--more Arizonans than voted for Mecham last November. “Gov buster” messages have appeared on bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs and even in the blue desert sky, where a sympathetic pilot scrawled a recall ad for free.

There are plenty of dark hints from both sides of espionage and fraud, slander and cover-up, and some incidents have proved unnerving.

Mecham’s house--Arizona has no governor’s mansion--has been broken into twice, once while the Mechams slept. Mecham found a ski mask by the front door and a hole through his kitchen ceiling. Nothing was taken and no arrests were made.

Publicly, Mecham remains composed and confident, claiming that left-wing zealots, homosexuals and a biased press are promoting the recall drive and insisting that very large numbers of signatures on the recall petitions will be found invalid.

“We have hundreds of reports of the people they’re signing up--high school children, tourists,” the governor said, adding that one supporter “told one of our people” he had signed bogus names to recall petitions “over 1,200 times.”

Mecham’s former press secretary, Ron Bellus, said before being transferred to another post that someone in the governor’s office had “knowledge of” at least one recall worker who left the movement after purportedly seeing fellow workers forging names on petitions. Bellus said the woman would not come forward “because she fears castigation from the press.”

Bellus also claimed the recall movement is backed by national gay groups and is using imported help, and the governor’s older brother, Wayne, charged that petitioners were signing up “wetbacks” in one town by misrepresenting the petition to Spanish-speakers as an endorsement of amnesty for illegal aliens.

Because he has been a perennial candidate who won the office on his fifth try, Mecham’s right-wing views did not come as a surprise to Arizonans--they were well-known.

“I think I’ve got a great image with the people that count,” Mecham said in an interview. “What they see is what they get, and that’s me.”

But to his detractors, that is precisely the problem.

They say that what they see is an arrogant, incompetent bigot, a man who belittled the civil rights movement, who defends use of the word “pickaninny,” a leader who described America during the 200th anniversary of the Constitution as “a little bit too much a democracy.”

They charge that Mecham’s decision to rescind the King holiday has cost Arizona an estimated $25 million in cancelled conventions, although Mecham asserts that tourism overall is actually up.

Some of Mecham’s 147 appointments have also come under heavy fire. One nominee was accused but never charged in a 1950s murder. Another had been court-martialed for theft. The governor’s educational adviser has said that teachers have no right to contradict parents who tell their children the Earth is flat. The elderly woman he appointed to the state Board of Education lacks a college degree and considers the equal rights amendment a lesbian plot.

“Not only is he racist, but he is myopic, paternalistic, condescending, insensitive, arrogant and bigoted. The evidence comes out of his mouth,” said the Rev. Warren Stewart, a black community leader in Phoenix.

The governor’s supporters complain that the controversies are primarily creations of the news media.

Karl Eller, chairman of the Circle K Corp., thinks Mecham is “misunderstood and misinterpreted. He has a tendency to say things from the hip without thinking it through. He’s got a lot of integrity. He’s honest, sincere, he means well and tries to do the job.”

Despite Mecham’s serene car-lot smile, signs of anxiety in his camp are growing. When 25,000 conservatives across the country opened their mail recently, they found a curious SOS. Mecham implored them to sell their houses, quit their jobs and move to “the most beautiful state in the Union.” Arizona, the letter said “needs the help of a few more good, solid conservative leaders like you.”

If they couldn’t move, Mecham asked, could they send him $1.2 million--fast?

Without “outside help,” the letter said, the governor risked being crushed by militant leftists and homosexuals. The appeal, on the governor’s stationery, was sent by an Illinois direct-mail firm hired by the private Mecham Finance Committee, which is raising money to pay off the governor’s campaign debt and fight the recall.

When a copy found its way to the recall movement, Mecham sought in the ensuing uproar to distance himself from the letter and ordered that the remaining 20,000 copies not be mailed.

“Is Mr. Mecham trying to set Arizona up as the far-right conservative resort?” Buck asked. “It’s a little bit scary.”

The aftershocks continued Thursday when former Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had been considered an important Mecham supporter, urged the governor to resign.

Goldwater told Arizona State University students that Mecham’s problems may be rooted in his deep faith. “I think until you understand the man better you can’t understand why he does these things. He’s a very, very religious man and I think he honestly feels that he has an 800 line straight up to God,” Goldwater said.

And on Saturday, Arizona’s second-largest newspaper, the Phoenix Gazette, joined Goldwater in calling for Mecham’s resignation, and publisher Pat Murphy said the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, would carry a similar editorial today .

As Goldwater’s defection suggests, the brouhaha has confused traditional party lines, sending some Republicans into the recall camp and more than a few Democrats into the pro-Mecham ranks. Mecham is popular in rural areas of the state and among the elderly. Many agree with his outspoken stands against abortion and homosexuality.

Mecham, after all, is not accused of any crime or impeachable offense. He is not considered a liar or a cheat. He is a fan of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Lindbergh, Louis L’Amour and Dagwood Bumstead.

To prove he is not a racist, he points to his affirmative action record, saying he has hired more blacks than any previous administration. At the same time, he baldly declares: “There is no known discrimination in Arizona. I have yet, in my nine months as governor, have called to my attention a case of racial discrimination or sexual discrimination in our state.”

The Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission disagrees.

“Currently, we have about 20 cases under litigation involving race, sex, age and/or religion,” said Edward Valenzuela, the deputy district director in Phoenix.

“We get between 1,000 and 1,500 complaints a year,” he added. “My only guess as to why the governor isn’t aware of these cases is that he doesn’t have a feel or touch for these issues.”

The Mecham camp so far has spent nearly $250,000 resisting the recall--double what Buck’s group says it has raised. The governor says his strategy now is “taking my message directly to the people,” a move he considers his only weapon against a powerful local press that, he says, turned against him for refusing to “take orders from newspapers or anybody else.”

His own version of events are contained in a tabloid published by Wayne Mecham under the auspices of a nonprofit corporation. It offers 36 pages of gubernatorial chest-thumping--his war against drugs, his support of the 65-m.p.h. speed limit, and his unprecedented appointment of a black and a Native American to top Cabinet posts.

Even if there is a recall, political analysts and pundits agree that Mecham’s ouster is not a foregone conclusion. “He can count on a hard-core support base of 25%-28%,” said Arizona State University’s Mason, who gives the governor a 50-50 chance at serving out his term.

In the hilltop home where he watches a collage of newscasts about the recall on the movie screen in his media room, Buck ponders a question about what he would do if Mecham prevails.

“I’d be crushed,” he said. “I’ve devoted a year of my life to this. If he stays, I’ll rent this place out and leave. Go to California or some beach in Australia. I don’t like things the way they are.”

Mecham, questioned about why he has gained so much notoriety in so short a time, gropes for words. “I think I’m . . . just a small businessman,” he said, “who ran for an office and won it. . . . “