Given Arizona's population churn, many living there now probably know little of Gov. Evan Mecham. He's the one who opposed a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday ("King doesn't deserve a holiday") and thought it was fine to call black children "pickaninnies."
A broad coalition came together to impeach and remove this embarrassment in 1988. Tolerance won over hate. The beloved Rose Mofford became governor. And Arizona marched forward into its greatest era of (population) growth ever. Or so the elevator speech goes.
Now I'd like that, as Samuel L. Jackson's character says in Pulp Fiction, but that shit ain't the (entire) truth.
Which is why we should study Mecham as people come together again to press Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the Jim Crow, anti-LGBT "denial of service" law. Backed by today's coalition, Brewer can use her power as governor to stop the bill that has brought fresh infamy on the state, much as in the 1980s the Legislature stopped a hateful governor.
Mecham became an accidental governor in 1986 when the Democrats divided and Bill Schulz ran as an independent, peeling away votes from Democratic nominee Carolyn Warner. (The reader should know that Warner was one of my mother's closest friends, and my first job was painting sapling stakes for W.R. Schulz & Associates — yes, small town). Mecham received only 40 percent of the vote.
But that 40 percent contained the seeds of today's Arizona radical political ideology: Retirees, John Birchers, many Mormons (Ev was LDS) and right-wing newcomers who didn't know of Mecham's checkered history as a failed candidate. Brewer, a member of the state House of Representatives, supported Mecham.
When Glendale car dealer Mecham lost badly to Sen. Carl Hayden in 1962, he was a "US out of UN" Bircher. He lost four attempts to become governor, demanding the elimination of income taxes and welfare, and the return of all federal land to state control among many other things.
Mecham's victory was a sign of how much the state had changed. In the past, Republicans had been happy to use the fervor of the Birchers, then largely ignore them in governing. In the 1986 primary, the party lined up behind the longtime legislator Burton Barr. So did the Pulliam Press and Barry Goldwater. Barr lost.
Evan Mecham, right down to his distaste of facts and knowledge, was tea party before tea party was cool.
Once in office, Mecham was almost immediately over his head. Back to Pulp Fiction, he wasn't the tyranny of evil men. He thought he was the righteous man. Yet in reality, and despite being a decorated fighter pilot in World War II, he was the weak.
His closed-loop ideology dreamworld was little use in the day-to-day of governing, much less in dealing with a Legislature that was then formidable and businesslike — and the quirky, bulldog Attorney General Bob Corbin. Ev was convinced Corbin was using lasers to spy on him.
Compared to the toupeed, foot-in-mouth Ev, Jack Williams was Pericles. The comparison to his well-liked and effective immediate predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, was especially damning. Mecham couldn't keep his mouth shut and his interactions with the press revealed a man not only prone to racist gaffes but seemingly unhinged.
What put a relatively quick end to Mecham was that he was seen as bad for business. That will be the same reason Brewer "decides" to veto the Jim Crow denial-of-service bill.
But interesting differences are in play.
In the late 1980s, Mecham's paranoia was not entirely misplaced. The establishment, especially the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette, was out to get him. But this establishment was locally owned and very powerful. That's not true today.
The state Republican Party was much more sane then. It was not a theocratic party. Mecham was far to the right. Importantly, he lacked the robust national infrastructure and enormous money that supports today's Republican Party — a party that has adopted virtually all of Mecham's tenets as orthodoxy.
They're all Mechamites now. This is the Kookocracy that is the Arizona and national Republican Party.
Even the "happy ending" in 1988 gave the state Fife Symington. This time, if Brewer does veto the bill, the damage will still be considerable. This is the state of Joe Arpaio, immigrant "sweeps," SB 1070, guns in bars, attacks on voting and reproductive rights, etc. Oh, and don't forget Jan Brewer's finger in the face of the president of the United States.
It is a deep red state, conforming to the national-template of reactionary legislation, but one that depends much more heavily on "image" to keep the growth machine going than its red siblings.
So once again, a broad coalition is in place. Even Jeff Flake wants a veto. Once again, self-interest and idealism are at work.
But I wouldn't bet on an outcome — particularly if the anti-bill forces don't throw the GOP out of control of the Legislature. Otherwise, fresh outrages will be stamped out like ideological widgets.
Read more about this developing story at Rogue's Arizona's Continuing Crisis.