Fmr. Arizona governor Mecham dies

February 22, 2008 8:17:01 PM PST
Evan Mecham, a firebrand conservative who served 15 months as Arizona's governor before a dramatic impeachment trial removed him from office in 1988, has died, his son said Friday. He was 83.

Mecham had been in deteriorating health with symptoms of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases for years and died Thursday of circumstances consistent with his age, son Dennis Mecham said.

The former governor, who always blamed his downfall on political enemies, had been at the Arizona State Veteran Home in Phoenix until recent weeks, when he went into hospice care, friends and family said.

"I just think Evan was a visionary, perhaps a little bit ahead of his time for some people and a great, great patriot and constitutionalist," said state Sen. Karen Johnson, who was Mecham's aide while he was governor.

"He had such a drive to return state's rights to Arizona and the country and it will be a great celebration at his funeral to honor such a great man."

Mecham, a millionaire automobile dealer who served in the state Senate for two years in the 1960s, ran for governor four times before he finally won a three-way race in November 1986 with 40 percent of the vote.

Some said Mecham, a Republican, brought out the worst in Arizonans - racism, bigotry, intolerance. After taking office in January 1987, Mecham rescinded a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday, saying its creation had been illegal.

In addition to canceling the holiday, Mecham said working women cause divorce and that he saw nothing wrong with calling black children "pickaninnies."

Others called him one of the last politicians gutsy enough to stand up for traditional family values and turn the state from liberal government interference. Mecham said his primary goal was to "return government to the people."

Mecham became the first U.S. governor impeached and removed from office in 59 years when, in April 1988, the state Senate convicted him of obstructing justice and misusing $80,000 in state funds allegedly funneled to his Pontiac dealership to keep it afloat. Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat, became acting governor.

Mecham claimed the funds were the proceeds of his inaugural ball, which had been intended as campaign contributions. He insisted it was his money to spend as he saw fit, except for political purposes.

In a privately printed 1988 book titled "Impeachment: The Arizona Conspiracy," Mecham claimed the real reason he was impeached and convicted was "pure and simple raw political power exercised by those groups who wanted to remain in control."

"In the final analysis, my error was not in what I did with the (protocol) funds, but in thinking I was dealing with people who had honor, integrity and the best interest of the state at heart," Mecham wrote.

Mecham's demise as governor began in January 1988 when he was indicted by a state grand jury on six felony charges of fraud, perjury and filing false documents alleging he concealed a $350,000 campaign loan. Weeks later, more than 300,000 signatures were certified on a petition for a recall election and the vote was set for May 17.

But events in the Legislature moved so swiftly, the recall was never held. The House voted 46-14 on Feb. 5 to impeach Mecham and later approved charges in connection with the $350,000 loan, the $80,000 protocol fund loan and an alleged effort to stop the investigation of a death threat against a former Mecham lobbyist.

The Senate dismissed the campaign loan coverup charge, but on April 4, it voted 21-9 to convict Mecham on the death threat obstruction charge, removing him from office. The Senate also convicted him of the charge involving the $80,000 protocol fund.

Johnson, Mecham's aide, said Friday she thought the allegations against the governor were "all proven bogus."

"Even the legislators for the most part that took part in that regretted and felt terrible about what they had done - or they should have," Johnson said.

Two months after his impeachment, Mecham was acquitted in criminal court of six felony counts of violating campaign finance laws by allegedly concealing a $350,000 loan.

Through it all, Mecham maintained he was the victim of a widespread conspiracy.

"I was in their way when I came in and followed through on my campaign promises," Mecham said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press. "It didn't take me too long to find out how this state operated."

On the anniversary of his conviction in 1990, Mecham announced he would run for governor again - his sixth and last time. After he lost in the GOP primary, Mecham briefly tried publishing his own newspaper and then concentrated on varied business interests.

Stan Turley, a fellow Mormon and one-time state Senate president, said Friday that he and Mecham were good friends, despite disagreements over the years, and that he opposed Mecham's impeachment, saying he was ethical and honorable.

"Ev was a hustler and he was a worker, and he really upheld what he believed in," he said. "His downfall I think was Ev felt a little bit anointed rather than elected. He felt like he could almost do no wrong."

Mecham, born in Duchesne, Utah, began selling cars to put himself through college. He attended Utah State University, Creighton University and Arizona State University, but did not get a degree.

A fighter pilot during World War II, he was shot down over Europe in March, 1945 and spent 22 days as a prisoner of war.

Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered flags at state buildings be flown at half-staff through Mecham's funeral.

Survivors include his wife, Florence, and seven children.

Funeral plans were incomplete Friday.

Associated Press Writer Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this story.