By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Usdane's toss of this emotional legislation to Stump purchased the Senate president some grace from the fundamentalist wing of his own party.
When former Governor Evan Mecham was elected, his first act was to repeal the Martin Luther King holiday that had been created with an executive order by Mecham's predecessor, Governor Bruce Babbitt. The rescission was an enormous morale boost to Mecham's loyalists. Later, when Mecham was ousted, his followers sought revenge and fielded legislative candidates who ran against and beat the speaker of the House and the former Senate president, as well as the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations chairmen. These same conservative forces captured hundreds of grassroots Republican precinct committee slots which form the skeleton of the GOP in Arizona. In January, these precinct committee workers voted to declare America a Christian nation. Jews, agnostics, Buddhists, Catholics, atheists, backsliders, Muslims, et cetera, could join the American Civil Liberties Union or the Democratic party if they didn't like it. Although this resolution was eventually modified, the fundamentalist Christian grip upon the state Republican party is a fact of life for GOP leaders like Usdane, who must face the fact that they tread upon this snake at their own peril. What's more, Evan Mecham is back inspiring the faithful both with his new campaign for the governor's seat and his new lawyer Donald MacPherson, the same attorney who defends, pro bono, King's assassin James Earl Ray.
Usdane has been through all of this before with Mecham and his followers.
When Mecham was governor, he told a national constitutional convention in Salt Lake City, "I want you to recognize tonight--on this 200th anniversary--that this is a great Christian nation that recognizes Jesus Christ as the God of the land."
On December 14, 1987, Governor Mecham provoked an uproar when he reaffirmed the speech to members of the Ahavat Torah Synagogue in Scottsdale. When leaders of the Jewish community took umbrage, Mecham defended himself by saying that some of his best friends, including Bob Usdane, were Jews and that his attorney at the time was also Jewish.
Though Usdane and Mecham are not friends, neither will Usdane repudiate Mecham. Even today, all that Usdane will offer is "Governor Mecham often says things without thinking and then he tries to bring credence to it. He still tries to defend the use of the word `pickaninny.' It is insensitive. He has brought racial concern from throughout the country and around the world."
Indeed, at the time Mecham championed a textbook by arch-- conservative William Skoussen in which black children were described as pickaninnies, a Jerusalem Post issue appeared with a picture of the governor and a text entirely in Hebrew except for one word for which there was not a Yiddish translation--pickaninny.
BECAUSE OF THE negative publicity that has plagued the state since Mecham was governor and since the repeal of the King holiday, Usdane thinks the new MLK bill "is in the best interest of Arizona if it's passed." But personally, "I'm a no vote and that represents the interests of my district."
Usdane is regarded as the key to the bill's future because even though he assigned the King legislation to the black hole of Stump's committee, as Senate president, Usdane can bring the bill to the floor for vote when he chooses.
Having positioned the King legislation so that its very life is dependent upon the Senate president, Usdane has assured himself leverage over Democrats. He will be in a position to trade as the session closes.
"He would never say that, but it is understood," said Senator Carolyn Walker. "Anything he knows people want he is holding until the very end. One of the reasons that we have to trust Uzzie is that we don't have any other choice. He believes it will come to the floor, just don't ask him how."
Because the Senate president is the puppeteer holding the legislative strings, he is able to dictate how the marionettes will dance and this is the tune that Usdane is calling.
Usdane insists that the bill's only chance is for the supporters of the King holiday to lie low, to forsake pressure tactics, to avoid confrontation, to seek accommodation, much as Usdane himself, a Jew, has behaved in the face of a resurgent Christian movement within the Republican party.
"If it's not played too heavily, I think it will pass," said Usdane, who also said the King bill could just as easily collapse. "I haven't brought it to the floor because it will be defeated."
This is code talk. The translation is that Usdane does not intend to risk an ounce of political capital unless Democratic Senator Carolyn Walker is able to line up the sixteen votes necessary for the bill's passage. Walker has firm commitments from all thirteen Democrats and one Republican, Jacque Steiner. Walker holds out hope for Republicans Bill DeLong and Leo Corbet. Usdane has no intention of provoking the righteous sword of the Christian bloc opposed to King's holiday by making a symbolic move to bring the bill to the floor for a vote sure to end in defeat. If Walker wants a vote, she damned well better line up the support necessary for victory. Gestures are for do-gooders, not Senate presidents. Usdane believes the way to muster a couple of swing Republican votes is through quiet diplomacy.