No King Holiday, Arizona Is Scorned

ARIZONA was finally beginning to recover from the Evan Mecham fiasco, and now this. Reaction to voters' failure to approve a paid state holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been swift and strong. The day after the election, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that he would recommend that the 1993 Super Bowl be moved from Tempe, at an estimated loss to the state of at least $200 million. Phoenix lost its bid for the 1994 National Basketball Association all-star game (estimated loss: $100 million), and all 1991 appearances by the Harlem Globetrotters have been cancelled. The University of Virginia and Notre Dame pulled out of the Fiesta Bowl, and the game itself was almost moved to San Diego until sponsors agreed to set up scholarships and hold half-time ceremonies honoring King. The University of California at Berkeley was censured by the NAACP for deciding to play in the Copper Bowl in Tucson; the Cal-Berkeley team, which hasn't been invited to a bowl game in 11 years, will wear special patches on its uniforms.

The Episcopal Church will still hold its convention here next June, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been invited to come lecture the state about civil rights. A white-supremacist group from Mississippi commended the state for the vote and announced plans to air some of its shows on Arizona cable-television stations. The loss to the state, both in terms of economics and prestige, is already enormous.

The Grand Canyon state, like any other, has its share of boors and bigots, but it doesn't deserve censure by the rest of America. The MLK-holiday vote was close - 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent - and in Phoenix and Tucson, where three out of four Arizonans reside, the measure passed easily. It was only in the rural counties, like Mojave and Yavapai, where the King holiday went down by a two-to-one margin. Why should the residents of Phoenix and Tucson, the two cities that must bear the cost of the defeat, suffer for the actions of a few thousand yahoos out in Bullhead City? Those people probably just retired there from Montana or New Hampshire (the only other states without a holiday honoring King).

Moreover, statisticians point out that a majority of Arizona voters actually did favor the King holiday, but split their vote between the two propositions on the ballot. One proposition, favored by budget-watchers concerned about the cost of giving state workers another paid day off, called for replacing Columbus Day with King Day. The other proposition, favored by Italian-Americans and those who figured the state could survive another day without its workers, called for keeping Columbus Day and adding Martin Luther King Day. The first proposition was overwhelmingly defeated; the second was only narrowly so, but the net result was that those who voted no on both propositions won.

Besides the ballot problem, at least one poll has found that the NFL commissioner himself may have caused the defeat. The Sunday before the election, Tagliabue told CBS Sports that he had already drafted a letter recommending that the Super Bowl be moved, should the King Day propositions fail. Tagliabue's remarks so angered Arizonans, who resent being told what to do by nosy out-of-staters (never mind that most of them used to be out-of-staters), that they changed their votes from yes to no. According to the Behavior Research Center, 16,000 people changed their votes because of Tagliabue's threat. The King and Columbus Day proposition failed by 17,000 votes.

The moral of all this is: Arizona still has not expiated the sin of electing Evan Mecham as governor. One of Mecham's first actions when he took office in 1987 was to rescind the Martin Luther King holiday established by his predecessor, Bruce Babbitt. The recision of the holiday cost the state an estimated $30 million in lost conventions and cancelled sporting and arts events, and was one of the many reasons why Mecham was impeached in February 1988. Although defeated in his bid to become the Republican nominee for governor this year, Mecham refuses to leave quietly. He now heads the Preserve Our Vote Legal Defense Fund, and says he plans to sue the NFL if it takes away the Super Bowl.

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