By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Evan Mecham, 83, the Arizona governor impeached, indicted and subjected to a recall campaign in 1988 for misuse of state funds and his inflammatory racial opinions, died Feb. 21 at a Phoenix hospice. He had Alzheimer's disease.
Mr. Mecham (R), a millionaire automobile dealer, was called the Harold Stassen of Arizona because he unsuccessfully ran for governor four times before he won a three-way race in November 1986 with 40 percent of the vote.
The state attorney general quickly began investigating allegations that Mr. Mecham had lent his auto dealership $80,000 from his inauguration fund and had obstructed justice in his efforts to stop the investigation of a death threat against a former lobbyist. He was the first U.S. governor impeached and removed from office in 59 years.
Charges against him did not hold up in court, however. After the impeachment, Mr. Mecham was acquitted of six felony counts of violating campaign finance laws by allegedly concealing a $350,000 loan from his campaign fund to a developer.
Mr. Mecham's archconservative and impolitic opinions, his deep suspicions about government and his willingness to carry grudges against the establishment were as lethal to his political career as the financial charges. Having campaigned for more than two decades as an outsider, he did not alter his perspective upon his arrival in the governor's office.
In a self-published 1988 book, "Impeachment: The Arizona Conspiracy," Mr. Mecham said the real reason he was impeached was "pure and simple raw political power exercised by those groups who wanted to remain in control."
Experienced political hands considered him incompetent and widely ridiculed several of his nominations for state jobs. His choice for a state investigative post was a Marine who had been court-martialed twice, and one of his special assistants was charged with extortion.
Shortly after taking office in 1987, Mr. Mecham rescinded the state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which enraged state workers, prompted public protests and caused organizers of national conventions to steer clear of the state. Mr. Mecham, who said the holiday was implemented illegally and required a public vote, poured fuel on the controversy by opining that King "didn't deserve" the holiday.
Further, he said there was nothing wrong with calling black children "pickaninnies," a statement that prompted an Arizona bumper sticker that said, "Pickaninny: What we did for Governor."
Working women cause divorce, he said, and Jews should face up to the fact that the United States is a Christian nation. When a group began circulating recall petitions, Mr. Mecham said the effort stood little chance of success because its leaders were "a band of homosexuals and a few dissident Democrats." He said a group of visiting Japanese businessmen's "eyes got round" when they heard about Arizona's plentiful golf courses.
Within 18 months of his election, Mr. Mecham faced an unprecedented trifecta of a recall petition, six felony indictments by a grand jury and impeachment proceedings. The recall election was never held, because after the state House impeached him, the state Senate convicted him and removed him from office in April 1988.
Mr. Mecham turned back to his auto dealership and attempted to start a newspaper, but it failed before a single edition was published. He ran again for governor in 1990 -- his sixth and last time -- but lost. In 1992, he launched an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.
Born May 12, 1924, in Duchesne, Utah, Mr. Mecham enlisted in the Army Air Forces during World War II and flew combat missions in P-38 and P-51 fighters. He was shot down over Germany just before the war ended and spent 22 days as a prisoner of war.
Mr. Mecham returned to Utah, married and attended Utah State University, Creighton University and Arizona State University. He began selling cars and bought a franchise in the desert town of Ajo, near the Mexican border. He bought a Glendale, Ariz., auto franchise in 1954 and soon began a political career, winning a state Senate term in 1960.
Survivors include his wife, Florence Lambert Mecham of Phoenix, and seven children.