Advertisement

Arizona's embattled Gov. Evan Mecham

Evan Mecham, a Utah farm boy who grew up to be a fighter pilot and millionaire auto dealer, spent 20 years pursuing Arizona's highest office before realizing his dream in November 1986.

Projecting bright visions of a 'new beginning' -- less crime, no drugs, cleaner air and fiscal responsibility -- he was inaugurated Jan. 5, 1987, as the state's first Republican governor in 12 years.

Advertisement

Only days after the first anniversary of his administration, he faces criminal charges for allegedly concealing a campaign loan and a near-certain recall election if he does not heed demands for his resignation or the Legislature does not impeach him.

The softspoken demeanor and trim, slight build of the bespectacled Mecham, who has endured endless jokes about his hair piece, belie the public outcry that has raged since Mecham upset powerful former legislator Burton Barr, the party's choice for the Republican nomination in the September 1986 primary.

The establishment laughed when Mecham announced his candidacy in the summer of 1986, but his attacks on power brokers struck a chord with Arizonans, particularly new residents unaware of Mecham's past campaigns.

He hammered away at Barr, accusing the politician often called 'the most powerful man in Arizona' of conflict of interest and a lack of integrity. Barr ignored Mecham's railings, and the perennial candidate scored an upset victory.

Advertisement

Mecham, a conservative and self-described constitutionalist making his fifth bid for governor, campaigned as an outsider who would not be beholden to special interests against Democrat Carolyn Warner, whose wealthy husband was tied to a group of elite businessmen.

Mecham's pronouncements seemed even more appealing when millionaire businessman and Democrat Bill Schulz re-entered the race as an independent. Schulz, at one time the Democratic frontrunner, dropped out of the race in 1985 but returned because he was unhappy with the candidates.

Voters split between the Democrats, allowing the underdog Mecham to capture the race with only 40 percent of the vote.

The day after the election, Mecham sent chills through the black community and civil rights supporters when he renewed his campaign promise to abolish a paid state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Wary opponents kept an eye on the governor-elect and began laying the groundwork for the recall movement.

True to his word, Mecham abolished the holiday one week after he was inaugurated. He calmly defended his contention that the holiday had been declared illegally by his predecessor, Democrat Bruce Babbitt, even cooly debating civil rights leader Jesse Jackson on national television.

During the administration's early days, Mecham gained a reputation for speaking his mind and shooting from the lip. When criticized, he would lash back with little worry. At one point, he declared the political columnist for a Phoenix newspaper a 'non-person.'

Advertisement

When blacks took offense to Mecham's defense of the word 'pickaninny' as a term of endearment, Mecham said he would call blacks whatever they wanted to be called. When Jews were appalled by Mecham's statement that Jesus Christ was 'lord of the land,' Mecham said he was sorry Jews were offended but would not apologize for making the comment.

Mecham is quick to lose his temper and is easily exasperated. When tired of reporters' questions, Mecham tells them to 'read my lips.' When asked to explain some discrepancies in a fund-raising letter, a visibly shaken Mecham nearly jabbed a reporter on the chest, saying 'Don't ever ask me for a true statement again.'

His abrasive style and a string of gaffes and blunders drove nearly 400,000 Arizonans to sign recall petitions, all but ensuring a new election this spring. However, Mecham, a Mormon, has a strong core of support among the state's large Mormon population, in the rural areas and among the elderly.

Mecham was born May 12, 1924 in Duchesne, Utah. He joined the Army at 18, becoming a fighter pilot in World War II. He was shot down over Germany and taken prisoner.

After the war, Mecham, who did not graduate from college, established a car dealership in Ajo, Ariz., and became at age 26 the youngest Pontiac dealer in the nation. In 1954 Mecham moved the dealership to the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.

Advertisement

In 1960 Mecham won a seat in the state Senate, the only political office he held before becoming governor. He gave up the seat in 1962 to wage an unsuccessful candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

He ran for governor in 1964, 1974, 1978 and 1982.

Mecham is married to the former Florence Lambert, a homemaker. The couple has seven children and 18 grandchildren.

Latest Headlines