Arizona’s experience with controversial laws and boycotts

February 26, 2014

Nearly 250 gay rights supporters protested Arizona’s controversial bill at the state capitol last Friday. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The state of Arizona is in the news right now because of a controversial bill that would let businesses refuse service to gay people.

This bill has drawn opposition from the host committee of next year’s Super Bowl (set to take place in Glendale, Ariz.), a variety of big companies (including Apple, Delta and American Airlines), several business groups and numerous politicians. All of these folks have asked Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to veto the legislation (it’s unclear what she will do, though NBC News reported Tuesday that she was likely to veto it).

But this is just the latest high-profile controversy in Arizona to draw widespread criticism and gobs of negative attention. (Aaron Blake outlined some of the recent controversies over at The Fix, along with several theories explaining why this is happening in Arizona.) Two of these situations drew nationwide coverage and prompted boycotts that cost the state millions of dollars.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Nah, we’re good.

The state’s resistance to a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a big issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1986, the same year a federal holiday honoring King was first observed, Arizona’s House of Representatives voted down a measure observing the holiday (the state Senate passed the bill). So, outgoing Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat who was about to leave office and run for president in 1988, proclaimed the holiday on his own.

This became part of the election to succeed Babbitt. Candidate Evan Mecham said during his campaign that he would overturn Babbitt’s order if he won. Mecham was elected, and shortly after being sworn in the Republican followed through on his pledge.

The move resulted in big tourism losses, with officials saying at the time that dozens of groups had canceled conventions in Phoenix and that the state lost millions of dollars in business (get used to this idea, because we’re going to revisit it a few times). Numerous popular musicians also publicly opposed the change: Stevie Wonder refused to perform in the state until it observed the MLK holiday, while the Doobie Brothers moved a reunion concert that had been scheduled for Phoenix. U2 kicked off a national tour in Tempe in 1987, but before that concert the group issued a statement saying they were “outraged” by Mecham’s action.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but in the ’90s? Nah, we’re still good. 

Oh, you thought the lost revenue, cancellations and statements from Bono would have done the trick? Apparently not. Even after Mecham left office — the Arizona governor was indicted, impeached and removed from office over some issues involving state funds — the debate continued, eventually making its way to a statewide vote in 1990. And voters rejected the holiday.

This wound up costing Arizona a chance to host its first Super Bowl. The 1993 game was originally set for Tempe, but the NFL had warned that the game would be moved if the state didn’t create a King holiday. (In a weird twist, the NFL’s warning may have contributed to voters spurning the holiday. A pollster told The Washington Post shortly after the the vote that the “threat was what defeated King Day,” because thousands of voters shifted from supporting the holiday to opposing it after reports came out that the NFL would move the game.) The NFL owners gave the game to Pasadena, Calif., but added that they would give the 1996 game to Arizona if the state adopted the King holiday.

Losing the 1993 game may have cost the state up to $200 million, according to some estimates. The ongoing refusal to create a King holiday also cost Arizona scores of additional conventions and business. Not long after the vote, the NCAA turned down Arizona State’s attempt to host some of the 1994 men’s basketball tournament. Public Enemy released a song called “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (two decades later, Chuck D spoke of “the Wild West mentality out there” in the state).

It took until November 1992 for the state to finally create the King holiday, after it had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in business over the five years leading up to that point.

Another bill, another round of boycotts

An immigration crackdown signed into law in 2010 sparked a campaign to ostracize Arizona. The state lost thousands of hotel bookings, millions of dollars and, yet again, the support of popular musicians (this time around, they included Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Kill, Kanye West and Lady Gaga, who declined to cancel a concert in Phoenix but did speak out against the bill).

This round of boycotts drew a lot of attention and affected the state’s tourism industry (according to one study, the crackdown cost Arizona $140 million), though in some cases it wasn’t quite as damaging as the boycotts from two decades earlier. For instance, during the boycotts over the King holiday, the NFL took away its flagship game and the NBA opted to move its league meetings out of the state. During the immigration debate in 2010, there were calls to move Major League Baseball’s 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona, but baseball commissioner Bud Selig kept the game in Phoenix.

It’s unclear what will happen to next year’s Super Bowl if Brewer signs the bill into law. The host committee said they are against the law, while the NFL said they are “following the issue.” If the bill becomes law, it remains to be seen if the NFL will follow Major League Baseball’s example and keep the game there — or if the league will pull its second Super Bowl out of Arizona in the last quarter-century.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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