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Evan Mecham

the first Governor of any state ever to face ouster from office due to recall, criminal conviction, and impeachment all at the same time

Evan Mecham

Evan Mecham was born in Duchesne, Utah, on May 12, 1924, and was raised on the family farm. He left Utah State Agricultural College to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. On March 7, 1945, he was shot down while flying escort on a photo reconnaissance mission and held prisoner for 22 days. He received the Air Medal and a Purple Heart for his service, and was discharged in 1945. He subsequently majored in management and economics at Arizona State College (now Arizona State University).

Business and Early Political Career

In 1954, Mecham moved to Glendale, where he owned a Pontiac dealership until 1988. In addition to the dealership, Mecham owned a succession of small newspapers.

Mecham's political career began in 1952, when he ran as a Republican for the Arizona House of Representatives; he was unsuccessful. After a stint in the Arizona Senate (1960-1962), he ran for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Carl Hayden. His campaign platform included a demand that the United States withdraw from the United Nations and criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling limiting school prayer. He received 45% of the vote, but was defeated. He subsequently made four unsuccessful runs for the governorship of Arizona -- in 1964, 1974, 1978, and 1982.

Governor of Arizona, 1987-1988

In 1986, Mecham ran as a political outsider advocating political reform and tax relief. An unusual rain on the day of primary elections led to the lowest voter turnout in forty years, and Mecham overcame a fifteen-point deficit in the polls to win the Republican nomination, and subsequently won the general election. (During the campaign, the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association placed his dealership on probation for being chronically tardy in responding to complaints.) He and his administration were steeped in controversy almost from the very beginning of his term.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Ironically, the first major controversy of Mecham's administration was not initially created by him. The previous administration had declared Martin Luther King's birthday an official state holiday, but the State Attorney General declared the paid holiday to be illegal because it had not been approved by the Legislature and threatened to sue the incoming Governor if the holiday was not rescinded. Mecham did indeed comply with the Attorney General's demand, and was thereafter labeled as a racist for refusing to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr's. birthday as a state holiday.

Political Faux Pas Mecham seemed to have a penchant for making statements that made him less than popular with his constituents. During what would prove to be a short tenure he defened the use of the word pickaninny to describe black children, stood before a Jewish audience and claimed that America is a Christian nation, and blamed the nation's high divorce rate on working women.

Poor Media Relations Not surprisingly, Mecham was an easy target for the media, a target he made even bigger by blaming the Arizona media for all of his previous political defeats. He once tried to ban a reporter from his press conferences because he had written unflattering articles about him, and had another declared "persona non grata" following a column critical of his performance at a meeting of the National Governors Association. In 1987, the comic strip Doonesbury did a six-strip series lampooning him.

Recall Effort Mecham's public perception and publicity over his perceived racism led to a serious decline in the state's tourism business and made it increasingly difficult for Arizona to entice new businesses. He had only been in office a few months when many of Arizona's political leaders, including Congressman John Kyl and Senator John McCain, called upon him to step down. His steadfast refusal led to a well-organized recall effort, the supporters of which he called "a band of homosexuals and dissident Democrats." On November 2, 1987, the recall committee turned in 32,401 petitions containing 388,988 signatures calling for a recall election (he had only received 343,913 votes in the general election). Mecham refused to waive verification of the signatures, forcing them to be sent to the counties for verification. On January 26, 1988, Secretary of State Rose Perica Mofford declared that 301,302 signatures had been verified, enough to force a recall election, which was scheduled for May 17, 1988.

Criminal Investigation On October 21, 1987, the Arizona Republican ran a story claiming that Mecham had failed to report a $350,000 loan from real estate developer Barry Wolfson to his election campaign as required by campaign financing laws. That claim was subsequently added to a grand jury investigation into allegations that he had loaned $80,000 in state funds to help his auto dealership, an investigation which itself had been prompted by a claim that Secretary of Public Safety Horace Lee Watkins, a Mecham appointee, had made a death threat to a government official, and that, when informed of the threat, Mecham had instructed him not to provide information on the incident to the Attorney General's investigation. On January 8, 1988, the grand jury issued indictments against Evan Mecham and Willard Mecham (his brother and campaign finance manager) charging them with three counts of perjury, two counts of fraud, and one count of failing to report a campaign contribution; both men faced 22 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

Impeachment Meanwhile, the Arizona House of Representatives voted to impeach Mecham on charges of obstruction of justice, filing a false statement, and misuse of government funds. (This put Mecham in the unenviable position of being the first Governor of any state ever to face ouster from office due to recall, criminal conviction, and impeachment all at the same time.) During the impeachment process his powers as Governor were suspended and Secretary of State Mofford became Acting Governor. On April 4, 1988, the Senate found him guilty of obstruction (by a vote of 21 to 9) and misuse of funds (26 to 4); the 17-to-12 vote to disqualify him from holding state office again fell short of the required two-thirds majority. Mecham was removed from office, and Mofford became Governor.

Mecham was subsequently acquitted of all criminal charges, on June 10.

Later Life

Mecham served as an at-large delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention, and made an unsuccessful bid to return to the governorship in 1990. He also spent several years trying to start a new newspaper, but was unable to secure sufficient financial backing for the venture. Health issues forced him to retire from public life in 2004. He died in Phoenix on February 22, 2008.

His Writings

Come Back America (1982)--discusses his earlier life and political view
Wrongful Impeachment (1999)--memoir

Carl Hayden

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This page was last updated on January 27, 2018.