PHOENIX -- In this, the television era of American politics, when candidates for public office everywhere tend to look and sound like refugees from a toothpaste commercial -- chipper, friendly, safe and offensive to nobody -- Arizona's new governor, Republican Evan Mecham, is a throwback to a wilder, less genteel era of public life.
The slender, sad-faced former Pontiac dealer from the strongly conservative "Constitutionalist" arm of the GOP shocked establishment leaders in both parties here last November when he eked out victory with 40 percent of the vote in a three-way election. He has been shocking Arizona on a regular basis ever since.
Most newly elected governors enjoy a honeymoon of sorts; Mecham, in contrast, has experienced what he matter-of-factly refers to as "the firestorm."
He has angered minorities, working women, the legislature, the news media and political leaders in both parties. National black leaders have denounced him for revoking the state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Ordinary citizens have found him such a rich target for humor that Ev Mecham jokes are nearly as common here as Gary Hart jokes are in Washington.
Mecham's rocky start could stunt the growth of the flourishing Arizona Republican Party.
Until Mecham arrived in the governor's office, the GOP had been on a roll; it overtook the Democrats in registered voters last year for the first time and seemed to threaten even the most secure Democratic officeholders. Now the state GOP has had to mount a major damage-control effort around its governor, while Democrats happily contemplate the 1988 legislative elections.
The one Republican who seems serene amidst the turmoil is Mecham (pronounced "MEEK-um"). A 62-year-old Mormon, he forged his political philosophy around the teachings of W. Cleon Skousen, leader of the Constitutionalist school of Republicanism. This body of thought, popular with some members of the Republican Party's evangelical segment, holds that the U.S. Constitution is a revelation from God and that establishment politicians have harmed the country by stripping God from government.
Mecham has the highest praise for Skousen and concurs with his mentor's harsh view of mainstream politicians. "I'm certainly not going to change anything because the establishment is unhappy," Mecham said calmly. "The establishment has never been on my side . . . . They told themselves for so many years that I didn't know what I was doing."
Indeed, this anti-establishment fervor is the core of Mecham's political identity. Among recent governors, he is probably closest in spirit to two southern populists, Alabama's George C. Wallace and Georgia's Lester Maddox. Like them, Mecham has built his own political base among disaffected voters with a throw-the-rascals-out message targeted at the "establishment" in both major parties.
Mecham's victory last November was the product of a political coalition that would seem bizarre, even impossible, in any state east of the Rockies. An amalgam of blue-collar workers unhappy with both parties, rural Mormons and the "Sun City set" -- new residents of the mushrooming retirement communities -- helped him win two upsets.
When Mecham entered the GOP primary last spring -- after a political career consisting of one term in the legislature and four futile campaigns for governor -- almost nobody took him seriously. But he mounted a slashing negative campaign against Burton Barr, a veteran legislator who was widely considered a shoo-in for the nomination. With strong support from newcomers to the state who were unfamiliar with Barr's long career, Mecham emerged triumphant in the primary.
In November, the Democrats handed Mecham the governorship on a platter. In addition to their official nominee, Carolyn Warner, a second well-known Democratic, Bill Schulz, got on the ballot as an independent. "Happiness," Mecham declared on the campaign trail, "is being the only Republican on a ballot with two Democrats."
Sure enough, Warner and Schulz split the Democratic vote and Mecham won, even though 60 percent of the electorate voted against him.
Mecham said he set out to mend differences with those who had opposed him. But this task was hampered by his unyielding stance on some important issues. "Some people in politics . . . will compromise quite readily to help them stay in office," he explained. "But I don't compromise on principles."
The controversy surrounding Mecham took on national dimensions in January, when the new governor announced he would rescind the King holiday. Mecham said he "had no choice," because the state attorney general issued a legal opinion saying the holiday was not legally authorized.
While the King dispute was smoldering -- 10,000 protestors rallied here on what would have been the King holiday, Jan. 20, and some out-of-state groups scrapped plans for conventions in Arizona -- Mecham found himself in trouble because of some impolitic remarks.
In a radio interview, he said that the increase in women taking jobs was a reason for the breakdown of the family. He championed a textbook edited by his mentor, Skousen, that called black children "pickaninnies"; Mecham said he found the term harmless. There were heated battles with the media. Mecham declared one columnist a "non-person" and refused to answer his question at a news conference. Several other reporters then asked the same question, and Mecham stormed out of the room.
The longtime outsider discovered that his campaign promises were hard to keep once he arrived inside. Throughout the primary and general campaigns, he vowed to kill a one percent state sales tax, calling its backers "liars." Three months after taking office, he announced that he would keep the tax until mid-1988 at least.
All of this has made Mecham a rich target for critics. Stan Turley, a GOP titan and former president of the state Senate, called the Republican governor "an ethical pigmy." Pat Murphy, publisher of the state's biggest newspaper, The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, assessed the Mecham administration in a speech to the state Chamber of Commerce as a "brutish ideological juggernaut" characterized by "paranoia . . . isolation from reality . . . small-minded vindictiveness."
Mecham can brush off such attacks as the predictable response of an elite "establishment" when an outsider comes to power. It is harder for him to belittle or ignore the steady beat of ridicule from the general public.
At a baseball game in a Tucson park recently, fans amused themselves between innings by trading Mecham jokes with strangers.
"Ol' Ev talks about pickaninnies," said Glenn Warner, a college student. "And I guess he's right, because we sure picked a ninny for governor."
"You see that sign over there where it says 'No Drinking'?" responded retiree Beaux Clement. "They're going to build a new section for Ev Mecham that says 'No Blacks.' "
An American West Airlines flight attendant was fired this spring for telling passengers: "Did you hear Ev Mecham cancelled the Easter holiday? Yeah, he heard they were going to have colored eggs." The airline said it was not the political content but the "unprofessionalism" of telling a joke on the job that cost the quipster his job.
One thing Mecham seems not to worry about is the recall campaign being run by an ad hoc citizens' group. While this effort has received a good deal of media attention, political pros say it has almost no chance of success. It seems to be the product of a small group of political neophytes; leaders of both parties have rejected the recall idea.
But even without a recall, Mecham is in big political trouble. Although the governor professes unconcern, fellow Republicans are clearly worried. The state party has mounted a "We Love Ev" campaign, complete with rallies and bumper stickers, to try to quell "the firestorm."
Democrats, outnumbered 19 to 11 in the state's Senate and 36 to 24 in its House, hope to ride Mecham's problems to success in future elections. "He is going to be governor for four years," said a pleased Glenn Davis, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "Well, every day we get people coming in to switch their registration to the Democrats."