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Folksy Mecham Target of Bitter Recall Effort

October 11, 1987|TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — The 40 years Evan Mecham spent selling Pontiacs shine through in his wide-as-the-grille-of-a-Bonneville smile, and the Arizona governor can prove downright disarming when he interrupts himself to point out a double rainbow through the porthole of his Beechcraft. In his suite at the Capitol, pink bouquets of fake tulips testify further to his homespun cheeriness.

So why is Evan Mecham hanging in pinata effigy in a bustling storefront office across town? Why are angry voters by the thousands signing petitions demanding that he be replaced three years and two months before his four-year term is up? Why are conventioneers and outraged rock groups boycotting the state.?

Still Smiling

And why is Evan Mecham still smiling?

It doesn't take long to realize that one of the country's most fascinating political fights is rapidly unfolding in Arizona.

"It is a dirty war and it's getting to be dirtier and dirtier," observed Bruce Mason, a political science professor at Arizona State University who is preparing a paper on the conflict.

Hostility began building during Mecham's gubernatorial campaign, when the conservative Republican announced that he would rescind the state's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday if elected, on grounds that former Gov. Bruce Babbitt had no authority to create one without legislative approval.

Mecham, who had already annoyed Arizona's Establishment Republicans by eliminating their handpicked candidate in the primary, won a three-way race last November, with 39.6% of the vote.

Within weeks after he took office in January, the movement to recall him was launched by Ed Buck, a wealthy, 34-year-old Phoenix businessman who describes himself as a gay, conservative Republican. Buck, who charges that "Mecham has a very regressive, 1940s-1950s mentality," set up shop in downtown Phoenix, hung the Mecham pinata from the ceiling, seeded the movement with $5,000 of his own money and turned it into a full-time job.

By summer, the 63-year-old Mormon governor had handed the recall effort some unwitting help by managing to offend large groups of minorities, women, homosexuals, journalists, Roman Catholics and educators. He offered no apologies, and insisted that his only regret was asking a reporter if the Pope spoke English--a mistake he said at least 200,000 Americans could have made.

At first, political observers gave the recall drive virtually no chance of success. Mecham shrugged it off as "an exercise in futility" by "dissident Democrats and homosexuals."

But the pundits have changed their minds. And though he insists that he is "not under siege," so, apparently, has Mecham.

Now, Buck is proclaiming that the Mecham Recall Committee, which needed 216,746 signatures to force a recall election as early as next spring, has more than 250,000. And, with three weeks to go to the Nov. 3 deadline, an army of 10,000 to 15,000 deputy registrars is still gathering signatures at airports, swap meets, the state fair, concerts, football games and even intersections. It is aiming for 350,000 names--more Arizonans than voted for Mecham last November. "Gov buster" messages have appeared on bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs and even in the blue desert sky, where a sympathetic pilot scrawled a recall ad for free.

There are plenty of dark hints from both sides of espionage and fraud, slander and cover-up, and some incidents have proved unnerving.

Mecham's house--Arizona has no governor's mansion--has been broken into twice, once while the Mechams slept. Mecham found a ski mask by the front door and a hole through his kitchen ceiling. Nothing was taken and no arrests were made.

Publicly, Mecham remains composed and confident, claiming that left-wing zealots, homosexuals and a biased press are promoting the recall drive and insisting that very large numbers of signatures on the recall petitions will be found invalid.

"We have hundreds of reports of the people they're signing up--high school children, tourists," the governor said, adding that one supporter "told one of our people" he had signed bogus names to recall petitions "over 1,200 times."

Mecham's former press secretary, Ron Bellus, said before being transferred to another post that someone in the governor's office had "knowledge of" at least one recall worker who left the movement after purportedly seeing fellow workers forging names on petitions. Bellus said the woman would not come forward "because she fears castigation from the press."

Bellus also claimed the recall movement is backed by national gay groups and is using imported help, and the governor's older brother, Wayne, charged that petitioners were signing up "wetbacks" in one town by misrepresenting the petition to Spanish-speakers as an endorsement of amnesty for illegal aliens.

Because he has been a perennial candidate who won the office on his fifth try, Mecham's right-wing views did not come as a surprise to Arizonans--they were well-known.

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