It’s No Holiday for Arizona : Voters’ Rejection of King Day Causes More Than Just a Lot of Hot Air in the State


Is the caller there?

The lines are jammed at KFYI, an all-talk radio station here. Callers from around the state are waiting in an electronic line to talk to show host Bob Mohan. And Mohan has no doubt as to today’s topic. It’s the same thing callers have been talking about since the election Nov. 6.

Dave from Glendale: “How dare anybody ask me, when I’m done voting, to justify my vote, to prove it. Let alone, have anybody tell me I have made a mistake and I might do better with another chance. I think King is a joke. I don’t want any day, that I have anything to say about, associated with him.”


Cathy from Phoenix: “I’m sick and tired of talking about Martin Luther King. We voted and let’s get on with our lives.”

One woman calls to say there is no “prejudicism” in Arizona. A man calls demanding to know why sports and politics should be mixed. Another caller suggests a holiday for Sammy Davis Jr.

The talk-show host is working a crossword puzzle. The phone bank in front of him sparkles with red blinking lights, each light an Arizonan hopping mad.

Dennis from Scottsdale: “In your face Tagliabue. Tuesday’s vote was the state’s finest hour. We would have never caved in to the NFL.”

Mohan is nodding, nodding. He sighs and says, “And the rest of the country thinks we’re a bunch of Neanderthal apes dragging our knuckles.”

It has been like this since Arizona voters failed to support a proposition that would have created a state paid holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That the measure failed narrowly, 50.8% to 49.2%, is not the point. That Arizona already sets aside a day to commemorate King and the civil rights movement doesn’t seem to be the point, either.

The point is that Arizona has become the focus of the worst kind of national attention: the “60 Minutes,” “Geraldo” kind of attention. The butt-of-jokes, Johnny Carson monologue kind. The point is, also, that Arizonans are angry, hurt and not at all ready to accept their title as a racist symbol of the Southwest.

In the midst of this, the NFL is considering relocating the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix, at Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s recommendation. The Fiesta Bowl will not be moved, but its organizers had to scramble for teams to play in it. College athletic recruiters are already rehearsing their anti-Arizona pitches to recruits.

Conventions are avoiding the state, and other states, California in particular, are actively wooing Arizona’s tourist business. Think of the state as a dying creature with its neighbors, like vultures, perched on its borders.

To all this Arizonans are saying, via radio call-in shows, letters to the editor and bumper stickers, “Leave us alone! We are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore!”

The idea of a holiday to honor King has confounded the state legislature since debate began in 1975. The Arizona legislature has voted against a paid King holiday 30 times.

The fight for a King holiday in Arizona has a long and often-misunderstood history. In recent years the controversy reached a boiling point in May of 1986, when then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt proclaimed the third Monday in January a paid state holiday.

On Nov. 6, 1986, Gov.-elect Evan Mecham announced that he would rescind the paid holiday, saying the state attorney general had ruled Babbitt’s proclamation unlawful. Upon taking office, Mecham declared an unpaid Sunday commemoration called the King/Civil Rights Day.

That act set in motion events that at first bewildered and then angered Arizonans. Although Arizona, New Hampshire and Montana are the only three states that don’t have a paid state holiday honoring King, people here are quick to point out that 21 cities in the state have some form of observance for King.

Their protests, though, were not enough to blunt national condemnation and boycotts.

The Arizona legislature, aware of the state’s deteriorating image, acted and on Sept. 21, 1989, approved a swap--a paid state holiday for King and the elimination of a paid Columbus Day holiday.

That, however, didn’t solve anything:

--Outraged Italian-Americans swung into action, calling for the restoration of the holiday honoring Columbus.

--Three days later, a Tempe architect, Julian Sanders, began a petition drive to put the King-Columbus matter on the ballot. The group obtained enough signatures and the King Day enacted by the legislature was put on hold.

--In October, Sanders, a Mormon, sent a letter to a church official calling King a “Communist anti-Christ” who was “a liar, adulterer and thief.”

--In March, Phoenix was awarded the 1993 Super Bowl. Business leaders pressured legislators to pass some kind of King holiday. On May 16, the Arizona legislature agreed to a paid King holiday and restored the Columbus Day holiday.

--In August, Mecham spearheaded a successful referendum drive to put that legislative action on the ballot. The law was put on hold. Again.

Many who voted against the King holiday said they did so for economic reasons. Arizona has 10 paid state holidays. The cost of adding another is estimated at millions.

But to the chagrin of many, the failure of the King-day measure may cost the state millions more in lost revenue.

According to the Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the fallout from the pre-election King controversy--dating back to Mecham’s rescinding of the holiday--has been enormous. Since 1987, the Phoenix area has lost 58 conventions, representing 46,000 visitors and an estimated $30 million.

To get an idea of the potential economic impact on Arizona, keep in mind that the figures represent losses in one city, in one segment of the economy, before the election.

Tourism is Arizona’s No. 2 industry, behind manufacturing. And it is tourism that would be hardest hit by consumer boycotts and negative images of the state. Phoenix alone makes $3 billion a year on tourism and relies on a successful Fiesta Bowl for additional income. The New Year’s Day game last year generated $30 million statewide.

And although the Fiesta Bowl will be played, as scheduled, in neighboring Tempe, organizers have little doubt that revenues will be down.

Since the election, the threat of state boycotts has snowballed. Among the possible boycotters:

--The NFL. The 1993 Super Bowl will likely be moved from Phoenix. Lost revenue is estimated at $200 million.

--The NBA. Phoenix is a candidate for the 1994 All-Star game but is not likely to get it under the current circumstances. In 1987, the NBA pulled its annual general meetings out of Phoenix because of the King-holiday controversy. NBA Commissioner David Stern said last week that he doubted the league would hold major events in Arizona.

“It just doesn’t seem to be a place that we would find particularly hospitable,” Stern said.

--The Harlem Globetrotters, who canceled two scheduled games in the state, with a potential loss of thousands of dollars.

“There are some issues dollars can’t measure,” a team official said.

--Martin Stone, a businessman from Lake Placid, N.Y. Stone has given up his 5 1/2-year attempt to get a major league baseball expansion team for Phoenix. He has spent $2 million on the effort but said, in light of the King vote, the National League would not belikely to put a team in Arizona.

--The entertainment industry. A widespread boycott is expected. The state has already been boycotted by such performers as Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder, who either canceled appearances or said they would not perform in Arizona until a paid King holiday was a fact.

Other groups, such as U2, Kool and the Gang, and Peter, Paul and Mary performed but protested by donating some concert proceeds to the campaign to recall Mecham.

--The National League of Cities. That group, whose convention is expected to bring $6.9 million to Phoenix, will decide next month whether to relocate.

Dozens of similarly-sized conventions are expected to relocate.

By most measures, it was a tough election for Arizonans. Propositions 301 and 302 were among a jumble of 13 measures on the ballot. Combinations of yes and no votes on the propositions presented to voters various possibilities:

--Approve both measures and the one with the most affirmative votes wins.

--Approve Proposition 301 and reject 302, creating a paid King Day and eliminating a paid Columbus Day.

--Approve Proposition 302 and reject 301, creating a paid King Day and preserving the paid Columbus Day.

--Reject both and retain the status quo, a paid Columbus Day and no paid King Day.

(Arizona does not follow the federal model that combines Washington and Lincoln birthdays into Presidents Day, thus adding another holiday.)

To the surprise of no one, the results of a poll conducted a week after the election revealed that voters had been confused.

Polling organizations are perhaps the one business group not considering pulling out of Arizona. To the contrary, their business is booming.

One poll released last week to much attention was one that suggested that the NFL’s threat to move the Super Bowl if the King measure failed had caused a large number of Arizonans to change their yes vote to a no.

The statewide poll, conducted by Earl DeBerge, concluded that 60,000 voters shifted their vote on Proposition 302 after hearing Greg Gumbel’s report on CBS-TV’s “The NFL Today” on the Sunday before the election that the NFL was poised to pull the Super Bowl.

According to DeBerge, 63% of those polled who had changed their vote from yes to no said they had done so because they “Resented the National Football League threat to move the Super Bowl.”

Another pollster, Michael O'Neil, reached the same conclusion, reporting, “We believe that there can be no doubt that (without the) impact of the CBS sports report two days before the election that Proposition 302 would have passed.”

The perception of a last-minute threat from the NFL is one explanation for still other polls that showed the King Day measure passing with ease. One factor to consider--people often lie to pollsters and give what they think will be the acceptable answer.

Said O'Neil: “The recent examples of people not telling the truth in polls has been with racial issues.”

So many Arizona voters had no intention of voting for the holiday but told parades of pollsters they were planning to out of fear of being labeled racists?

“This has been the rallying point of racism,” said Lincoln Ragsdale, a Phoenix businessman and civil rights activist. Arizona’s blacks make up only 3% of the state’s population. “The NFL gave people the excuse they had been looking for to vote against it.

“Look, a fellow goes out on a Saturday night packing a gun. He walks around, brushing up against people to start a fight. He wants to use the gun. Someone punches him and he finally has the excuse he needs to shoot someone. The NFL threat only gave people the reason they needed to vote no.”

For whatever reason, there is no doubt that outrage over Tagliabue’s statements was widespread. A Mesa man sued the NFL and CBS Friday, accusing them of violating state laws prohibiting “changing the vote of an elector by corrupt means or inducement.”

Mecham said the CBS report was planted by the “power brokers” of Arizona.

Mecham, who held a news conference Thursday to announce the creation of the Preserve Our Vote Legal Defense Fund, railed against the NFL and professional sports in general.

“We are not going to grovel at the feet of the NFL and the NBA and all the alphabet put together,” he said.

Mecham said Tagliabue was “guilty of extortion.”

The Fiesta Bowl likes to bill itself as the bowl game that extends the warmest hospitality to its teams. That will be amplified this year, as Fiesta Bowl officials will no doubt lavish the teams with remarkable levels of kindness and Western hospitality.

After a scramble--and a rejection from Notre Dame and Virginia--the Fiesta Bowl will pit No. 20 Louisville against the Southeastern Conference runner-up.

In a bid to offset King Day criticism, Fiesta officials plan a pregame ceremony honoring the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, a halftime presentation honoring King and the civil rights movement, the establishment of a $100,000 Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship fund for each participating team, and the establishment of a scholarship fund to benefit local students in the name of King.

A Fiesta Bowl official, asked if these steps had been taken to soothe national opinion, said, “There is no appeasement in the recipe whatsoever.”

Mecham, whose political lives seem endless, is at the center of the King Day controversy.

A former car dealer, Mecham’s political lives have seemed endless. He has run for governor six times.

As governor, he frequently got in trouble for blurting out whatever came into his head. For instance, he defended the use of the word pickaninny to describe black children in a history book used in Arizona schools. He joked about Japanese becoming “round-eyed” with delight after seeing the state’s golf courses. And he told a Jewish group that the United States is a Christian nation.

Among Mecham’s 147 appointees were the governor’s education adviser, who said that teachers have no right to contradict parents who tell their children the Earth is flat, and an elderly woman he appointed to the State Board of Education who lacks a college degree and considers the equal rights amendment a lesbian plot.

Given his history, few state leaders are thrilled that Mecham has taken the lead in the anti-King-Day drive.

Elsewhere, damage control here has been problematic.

Rose Mofford, the current governor, said on national television that she felt Arizona was somewhat a racist state. A sports columnist in Tucson suggested that the NFL’s Phoenix Cardinals offer a Klan Night promotion with the marching band at halftime honoring former Gov. Mecham by spelling out pickaninny.

Even as Mofford called a special session of the legislature to organize a gubernatorial runoff election, she was saying she might ask lawmakers to put together a two-thirds-vote requirement to override the people’s vote and install a holiday.

Before the day was out, a group had formed, held a news conference, and announced that it would circulate recall petitions against any legislator who voted for a King holiday.

Few can say just what the impact the controversy will have on the state, other than that the damage may be limitless.

Ragsdale, the Phoenix civil rights activist, summed up the state’s image this way: “Arizona is the South Africa of the United States, like it or not.”

Mecham, ever the smiling optimist, saw the fallout in another light.

“Look at it the other way,” he said. “There are just a lot of people across this country that say, ‘Boy, there’s a state for you. There’s Arizona. They’re not a racist state. They’re a great state. And they have got guts enough to make up their own mind on something. I believe I’ll go live in that state.’ ”