Evan Mecham, a firebrand conservative who served 15 months as Arizona's governor before a dramatic impeachment trial removed him from office in 1988, died Thursday, a former aide said. He was 83.
Mecham (pronounced Meek-um) had been in deteriorating health with Alzheimer's disease for years and was at the Arizona State Veteran Home in Phoenix until recent weeks, when he went into hospice care, said state Sen. Karen Johnson, who was Mecham's aide while he was governor.
"I just think Evan was a visionary, perhaps a little bit ahead of his time for some people, and a great, great patriot and constitutionalist," Johnson said. "He had such a drive to return states' rights to Arizona and the country."
Mecham, a millionaire automobile dealer who served in the Arizona Senate for two years in the 1960s, ran for governor four times before winning a three-way race in November 1986 with 40% of the vote.
Some said Mecham, a Republican, brought out the worst in Arizonans: racism, bigotry, intolerance. After taking office in January 1987, Mecham rescinded a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday, saying its creation had been illegal.
In addition to canceling the holiday, Mecham said working women caused divorce and that he saw nothing wrong with calling black children "pickaninnies."
Others called him one of the last politicians gutsy enough to stand up for traditional family values and turn the state from liberal government interference. Mecham said his primary goal was to "return government to the people."
Mecham became the first U.S. governor to be impeached and removed from office in 59 years when, in April 1988, the state Senate convicted him of obstructing justice and misusing $80,000 in state funds allegedly funneled to his Pontiac dealership to keep it afloat. Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat, became acting governor.
Mecham said the funds were the proceeds of his inaugural ball, which had been intended as campaign contributions. He said it was his money to spend as he saw fit, except for political purposes.
In his 1988 book "Impeachment: The Arizona Conspiracy," Mecham claimed the real reason he was impeached and convicted was "pure and simple raw political power exercised by those groups who wanted to remain in control."
Mecham's demise as governor began in January 1988 when allegations that he had concealed a $350,000 campaign loan led to a state grand jury indictment on six felony charges of fraud, perjury and filing false documents. Weeks later, more than 300,000 signatures were certified on a petition for a recall election and the vote was set for May 17.
But the Legislature moved so swiftly the recall was never held. On Feb. 5, the House voted 46 to 14 to impeach Mecham and later approved charges in connection with the $350,000 loan, the $80,000 protocol fund loan and an alleged effort to stop the investigation of a death threat against a former Mecham lobbyist.
The Senate dismissed the campaign-loan coverup charge, but on April 4 it voted 21 to 9 to convict Mecham on the death-threat obstruction charge, removing him from office. The Senate also convicted him of the charge involving the $80,000 protocol fund.
Two months after his impeachment, Mecham was acquitted in criminal court of six felony counts of violating campaign finance laws related to the $350,000 loan.
Through it all, Mecham maintained that he was the victim of a conspiracy.
"I was in their way when I came in and followed through on my campaign promises," Mecham said in a 1998 interview with the Associated Press. "It didn't take me too long to find out how this state operated."
On the anniversary of his impeachment conviction in 1990, Mecham announced that he would run for governor again -- his sixth and last time. After he lost in the GOP primary, Mecham briefly tried publishing his own newspaper, then concentrated on varied business interests.
Mecham was born May 12, 1924, in Duchesne, Utah, one of six children in a Mormon family that lived on a country farm. A fighter pilot during World War II, he was shot down over Europe in March 1945 and spent 22 days as a prisoner of war.
When he returned home, he married and began selling cars to put himself through college. He attended Utah State University and Arizona State University but did not earn a degree.
Survivors include his wife, Florence, and seven children.