PHOENIX — Before even taking office, Gov.-elect Evan Mecham has become embroiled in a dispute over whether Arizona will join the majority of states in declaring a holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When Mecham takes office Jan. 5, "he's getting no honeymoon from anyone," said state House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, a Democrat from Phoenix and a leader of the pro-King holiday supporters.
"This has become an issue on which you choose up sides," Hamilton said. "The most unfortunate legacy of this whole foolish fight (is that) the King holiday will have become an issue of divisiveness."
Last spring, the Legislature voted against following the federal government in scheduling a holiday in honor of King on the third Monday in January. The Senate barely passed the measure, but the House fell one vote short.
Not long after, Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat who did not run for reelection, issued an executive order that created a King holiday for state employees. (Forty states observed the holiday in 1986.)
Mecham contends that Babbitt had no authority to create such a holiday. He also said he does not believe that any American, including King, rates a holiday alongside Washington and Lincoln, whose birthday celebrations would be combined into a single President's Day to accommodate the King day.
One black community leader, the Rev. Warren Stewart Sr., said that in a recent meeting Mecham held with community leaders, "He said some of his best friends were black." Stewart interpreted the statement as "the type of jargon that you hear from whites who are apologetic of being accused of racism and do not want to confront their racist thinking."
Mecham's spokesman, Ron Bellus, said the governor-elect did not mean the statement that way and that he was simply trying to illustrate his belief that race is not at issue in relation to the King holiday.