Final chapter still to be written in Mecham saga. Will ousted Arizona governor run in recall election next month?
Los Angeles — The dramatic vote to remove Gov. Evan Mecham from office moves Arizona a step closer to resolving the most serious political crisis in its history. Residues from the brouhaha may linger for years to come, however. Some analysts say they think the vote will return Arizona to a more centrist form of government. It opens the way for Democrats to challenge the virtually uninterrupted hold Republicans have enjoyed on the state Legislature for nearly a quarter-century, the say.
But even if no realignment occurs this fall, the effects of Mr. Mecham's tumultuous tenure will likely reverberate for some time.
The most immediate questions revolve around the ultimate fate of the deposed governor and the future stewardship of the state.
Although the Arizona Senate voted to oust the conservative Republican on two articles of impeachment, a recall election is still scheduled for May 17. It remains uncertain whether Mecham's name will appear on the ballot, or whether the election will be held at all. These questions will probably be decided in the next few days by the state's Supreme Court.
``What all this means is that it is going to take a little longer to put Mecham behind us,'' says Bruce Mason, a political scientist at Arizona State University. ``But in a sense he is yesterday's history. The only unknown is whether you write a short ending chapter or a long one.''
The immediate impact of Monday's action is to make acting Gov. Rose Mofford the official chief of state and the conservative Mecham a politician without a job.
The Senate voted 21 to 9 to convict the first-term Republican of obstruction of justice for trying to thwart an inquiry of a reported death threat by a Mecham aide against a grand jury witness. Twenty votes were needed to convict. The margin was more substantial - 26 to 4 - on the charge that he had misused public funds by lending $80,000 to his Pontiac dealership.
Mecham thus became the seventh governor in history and the first Arizonan to be convicted on impeachment charges. He still faces a criminal trial for alleged election law violations stemming from a $350,000 loan to his campaign. The Senate was to take up the charge but dropped it to avoid prejudicing the trial.
Despite the conviction, the lawmakers sent something of a divided message. They rejected a so-called Dracula clause that would have prevented the governor from running in an election again, thus setting up the dilemma with the recall election.
``They put two bullets between his eyes and then shot him in the foot,'' says Earl de Berge, research director of the Phoenix-based Rocky Mountain Poll.
Legal challenges are expected over whether the election will be held at all. Some lawmakers argue that the recall was aimed at Mecham and now that he is out of office the taxpayers should be spared the expense of staging a vote. But others say the election, already sanctioned by the secretary of state, must go forward under the state's constitution. Most Republicans are pining for a vote: They don't want to concede the more than two years left in Mecham's term to Mrs. Mofford, a Democrat.
Another battle may ensue over whether Mecham can run. While many argue that the conviction should prohibit him from holding office at least until the end of his term, the senators who voted down the Dracula clause say that the voters should have the last word, and that Mecham therefore is eligible to run.
Even so, the deposed governor would face an uphill fight at the ballot box. Governor Mofford has been leading in most polls. Other major contenders are former GOP Congressman John Rhodes, Republican National Committeeman Jack Londen, and Democrat Carolyn Warner, though she may step aside.
Whatever the outcome, the turmoil surrounding Mecham, which started almost the day he took office when he canceled a state holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will likely continue to cause ferment in Arizona's GOP ranks. The feisty former Pontiac dealer retains an ardent following among fellow Mormons and many conservatives.
Some of them have threatened to try to recall more than a dozen state legislators, most of them Republicans who voted against Mecham in the impeachment proceedings.
There is also the question of what influence Mecham will try to exert in Arizona politics, even if he is prevented from running in the recall election.
``You can basically throw out most political theory right now,'' says Kurt Davis, head of the Arizona Republican Party.
``This is not the final shot,'' says Jim West, a Phoenix-based political consultant. ``We are going to be hearing gunshots on this issue for weeks, if not years, to come.''
Politicians in the Legislature, meanwhile, are moving swiftly to heal the wounds. The impeachment proceedings have delayed work on serious budget and air-quality problems confronting the state.
``There is no question we are at least a month behind our regular schedule,'' says Joe Lane, the Republican speaker of the House.