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Mecham's New Campaign Splits GOP in Arizona

June 19, 1989|RON HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — If the political career of former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham were a movie, for many Arizonans it would be the latest Rambo sequel, with Mecham as the gung-ho hero, back again in the electoral underbrush to wage war on those who threaten such "true American values" as motherhood, apple pie and the right to school prayer.

For many others, however, it would be an episode of the horror film "Friday the 13th," with Mecham as Jason, the monster who, time after time, is stabbed, slashed, drowned, burned, buried and seemingly vanquished, only to return to life in time to wreak havoc in the next sequel--or in Mecham's case, the next gubernatorial election.

Either way, Mecham, 63, the bad boy of Arizona politics, the standard-bearer for ultraconservatives and the nation's first governor to be impeached and convicted in 60 years, is back for his sixth try at the state's highest office, and as the movie trailer says: "This time it's personal."

The former auto dealer gave notice just how personal last year, when his forces, led by his Forward Arizona Political Action Committee, ousted a number of fellow Republicans on his hit list. Among them were the state Senate leader and the state House Speaker, men Mecham charges with engineering his impeachment, leading to his conviction in April, 1988, after only 15 months in office.

Grab Leadership Positions

At the same time, his supporters and what Mecham calls "people of like mind" grabbed the lion's share of the state's Republican Party leadership positions. The posts they took included the chairs of Maricopa and Pima counties, which represent nearly 80% of Arizona's population.

Although Mecham was removed from office on charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan and obstructing an investigation, he certainly has not been removed from Arizona politics. His refusal to bow out quietly has thrown his party into disarray and cast a shadow over its prospects to reclaim the governor's office in 1990, one year before the governor and the state Legislature do battle over the state's political reapportionment.

Republicans of almost identical conservative bent find themselves divided over Mecham.

Issue Polarizes People

"I don't say the party is completely gone, but there are big cracks in it," said Joe Lane, a political consultant and the House Speaker for 10 years before Mecham's forces defeated him last year. "People tend to polarize. They're either anti-Mecham or pro-Mecham. You can't be a little bit Mecham and a little bit the other way."

Many Republicans fear the consequences of this bickering and infighting could be that--in a state where they outnumber registered Democrats by 3 to 2 and where GOP activity is at its zenith--Arizona could end up with a Democratic governor for four more years, and, after reapportionment, a Legislature with Democratic majorities.

Thus, the question on many Republican lips is: "What are we going to do about Mecham?"

Answering is difficult. On one side, Mecham stands as the undisputed champion of many conservative and ultraconservative Republicans. His core group--mainly Christian fundamentalists and some Mormons--is not large, but it is intensely loyal and vigilant, observers said.

"Ten to 20% of the population would vote for that guy if he raped a nun on the courthouse steps," Lane said. "That's what makes him effective. His constituency is not large, but his people go to the polls."

Seen as Powerful

"Like it or not, I feel that Evan Mecham is one of the four or five most powerful individuals in Arizona in terms of his ability to attract attention and influence people," said Barry Young, program director for popular talk radio station KFYI, which has been extremely critical of Mecham but which recently allowed him to host its evening program for three days because of his celebrity.

On the other side of the GOP split are the more traditional party elite, many just as conservative as Mecham supporters.

"Philosophically, I'm very, very close to Ev Mecham: pro-life, no taxes, things like that," said Republican House member Jim Skelly, who chaired the impeachment hearings and who had supported and voted for Mecham in every primary but one.

'Message to Preach'

"I was so hopeful when he came into office. I said, finally I have a guy in here who is my cup of tea. He had the potential to be a great governor. I told him that. I said, 'You have the great message to preach, that's conservativism.'

"That made it 10 times as bad for me, impeaching a guy like that who you agree with philosophically, rather than impeaching a liberal."

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