PHOENIX — With the rejection of a paid state holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Arizona once again has become America's favorite political football. The sports world, the media and other leading ethicists have pronounced Arizona a racist state, a virtual South Africa in an otherwise racially enlightened nation.
While much has been said and written about why Arizona voters turned down the King holiday, most of the commentary has been uninformed, and nearly all of it has been laced with heavy doses of sanctimony and hypocrisy.
It is not as if this national scolding is wholly unwarranted. After all, despite protestations to the contrary, some Arizonans plainly rejected the King holiday on racist grounds. A poll conducted by the Behavior Research Center of Arizona put that number at 6%, well in excess of the 1% margin by which the King holiday was defeated. But racists alone did not keep Arizona from joining 47 other states in celebrating King's birthday.
Nothing is easy in this state. In May, 1986, nine days after the Arizona House of Representatives defeated by a single vote a bill that would have followed the federal model of a King holiday by combining Washington and Lincoln's birthdays into a Presidents' Day, then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt issued an executive order declaring the third Monday in January a paid King holiday for state employees. When Evan Mecham succeeded Babbitt in January, 1987, he promptly and gleefully rescinded Babbitt's order.
Now it gets complicated. After Mecham was impeached and convicted by the Arizona Legislature, and with inordinate pressure from the Phoenix business community, which was trying to land the 1993 Super Bowl, the Legislature caved in and passed a bill in September, 1989, which created a King Day while at the same time eliminating Columbus Day as a paid holiday for state employees. That angered the Italian community, which joined forces with the Evanistas (Mecham loyalists) to circulate petitions to place the question on the November, 1990, ballot. They quickly and easily gathered enough signatures.
Realizing that a King Day without a Columbus Day was doomed, in May of this year the pro-King Day forces persuaded the Legislature to restore Columbus Day while leaving King Day in place. Once again the Evanistas took to the streets with their petitions, securing enough signatures to place a second King Day proposition on the ballot--this time with Columbus Day.
In a rational world, the second act restoring Columbus Day would have rendered the earlier legislation removing Columbus Day moot. However, the attorney general ruled otherwise. Thus, there were two King Day propositions on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, one without a Columbus Day (Proposition 301) and one with a Columbus Day (Proposition 302). Voters rejected both versions. However, subsequent polling confirms that more voters in Arizona wanted some sort of King Day rather than none at all. A poll last week found that 63% of voters supported one of the two versions of the holiday.
The split vote is not the only reason Arizona does not have a paid King holiday. On the Sunday before election day, sports commentator Greg Gumbel on the TV program "The NFL Today" disclosed the existence of a draft press release from the NFL stating that Arizona would lose the 1993 Super Bowl, scheduled for Arizona State University's stadium, if its voters rejected the King holiday.
There is no doubt that many voters who were on the fence changed their vote at the last minute to send a message to New York that no one was going to bludgeon Arizonans into voting "yes." According to the Behavior Research poll, as may as 60,000 voters changed from "yes" to "no" just before the election as a result of the NFL story.
Reflecting the schizophrenic nature of Arizona politics, the vote was highly fragmented. King Day carried in two-thirds of the state's legislative districts and passed by margins in excess of 65% in many of the precincts in central Phoenix and Tucson. But it failed miserably in the rural counties, particularly those along the Colorado River and populated largely by retirees unable to afford housing in California. There the margin against was 2-1 and more. Arizona senior citizens in general opposed the King Day in a big way. For example, Propositon 302 carried a mere 29% of the vote in the retirement communities of Sun City and Sun City West.
No doubt those who live several hundred miles from Phoenix resented the boosterism that pervaded the King Day campaign. Rightly or wrongly, rural voters perceived that the holiday was being promoted solely for the economic benefit of the Phoenix business Establishment. From the rural voters' perspective, the King Day vote was as much anti-Phoenix as anything else.