The Phoenix Civic Center, built with the support of Councilman Barry Goldwater, was seen as an example of profligacy by hardcore right-wingers. This side of the center faces Central. Today most of the site is the Phoenix Art Museum.
It is tempting to see the likes of Diane Douglas, John Huppenthal, Tom Horne-y, "Better Call Sal" DiCiccio and the entire Kookocracy as a recent phenomenon in Arizona. It's certainly comforting to us natives.
Barry Goldwater wasn't raving mad, we will tell you (the "lobbing one into the men's room of the Kremlin" was a joke). He came to regret his early opposition to federal civil rights laws, and was instrumental in helping desegregate Phoenix's schools. He desegregated Goldwater's Department Store, as well as promoting minority managers. As a city councilman, Goldwater supported public improvements, including bonds for the 1950 Civic Center (and he backed every Phoenix bond measure thereafter). In the 1980s and 1990s, Arizona's new conservatives repudiated him.
The truth is that Arizona was always a conservative state, in a narrow definition of the term. But for decades most citizens understood it wouldn't have existed without enormous federal largesse. No wonder majorities voted for FDR all four times he stood for the presidency. Sen. Carl Hayden was a progressive and New Deal Democrat. His fellow Democratic Senator, Ernest McFarland was the father of the GI Bill.
But the Kookocracy has roots that reach back more than half a century in Phoenix, to a forgotten City Council election.
In 1961, the Charter Government Committee had ruled City Hall for 13 years, as Phoenix had grown from a small to a big city. Every two years it put up a slate of non-partisan candidates, known for their community work, and every two years the slate won.
Charter's philosophy was pro-growth pragmatic "businessmen's government" that also responded to the needs of an expanding city. It frowned on professional politicians who would become place-holders on Council. Charter especially supported a professional city manager, operating by the best practices laid down by such organizations as the National Municipal League.
As Phoenix did such things as accept federal funds for infrastructure, to alleviate poverty, and attempt to put a housing code in place, Council began to attract increasing opposition. A big part of it was from the John Birch Society, which had grown robust in the state with the influx of newcomers in the 1950s. What had been a solidly Democratic state began to turn competitive for Republicans.
The Birchers mounted a serious challenge to Charter in the 1961 elections. Led by the Rev. Aubrey Moore, the Stay American Committee (SAC) put up a slate of candidates. Their opposition to the housing code, combined with that of minorities who feared being evicted from their modest homes if they didn't meet code, caused Council to reverse course.
But this was only the beginning of SAC's grievances. To them, Charter's candidates were stooges of a one-world government conspiracy — if not outright communists. Public improvements were a threat to freedom. The National Municipal League was a stalking horse for totalitarianism. Schoolchildren collecting funds for UNICEF was a sign of the United Nation's designs on Phoenix. (I wish I was making all this up). Zoning was the first step toward Bolshevism.
Historian Philip VanderMeer points out that while SAC tried to portray itself as a local, grassroots organization, it was actually a national movement being run in several cities around the country. "Its conspiracy theories reflected the beliefs of the John Birch Society, to which at least several of its members belonged."
If you are looking for a proto-ALEC and "vast right-wing conspiracy," here it was. The John Birch Society included a number of wealthy businessmen. Fred Koch, father of Charles and David, was a founding member.
Charter won, not least because Goldwater himself denounced SAC and Eugene Pulliam's Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette campaigned vigorously against it. But the new (old) reactionary right had laid down its first marker.
Another came quickly, when Glendale Pontiac dealer Evan Mecham, heavily supported by the Birchers (and Mormons), ran against Carl Hayden in 1962.
Chief aide Roy Elson was so concerned about Arizona's changing population that he orchestrated a campaign to "reintroduce" Hayden to the state, according to historian Jack August. Hayden had represented Arizona since statehood. The effort was highlighted by Carl Hayden Day, where the 84-year-old senator was honored at the Westward Ho Hotel. President John F. Kennedy flew into Phoenix to attend.
Hayden ended up winning by nearly 55 percent. But the angry 45 percent that backed Mecham only grew.
To be sure, the city and state's fate were not sealed. Charter faced an even more formidable challenge two years later from a left-of-center slate of candidates. Arizona's Republican Party included such pragmatists as John J. Rhodes at the national level and Burton Barr in the state Legislature. The state was competitive as late as the early 2000s, and most of Phoenix today is a purple city and the heart of it is blue.
But the seeds of Kookocracy had been planted. And they keep trying to win control of Phoenix City Council.
Read more about Phoenix and Arizona history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.