WHO KILLED KING?

THE VALLEY'S HOTTEST POLITICAL STRATEGISTS TEAMED UP TO PUSH MLK DAY. NO WONDER IT FAILED.

It is easy to believe that the police officers enjoyed these occasions enormously. Zaler can be very irritating.

He has perfected an oily, obsequious manner. He will solicit an opinion feverishly and then agree with nearly everything that is said to him. Afterward, observers say, he usually does whatever he had been planning to do originally, as though his advisers had never spoken.

If all this bowing and boneheadedness alienated some members of the Better America Committee, Zaler's approach played much better to the masses. Even his slick emotionalism couldn't disguise his personal commitment to the cause of civil rights.

Although sometimes his enthusiasm, heartfelt as it was, was very goofy. "Peace is everywhere but in Jerusalem and Phoenix!" Zaler expounded to Evan Mecham during a television debate, in the days before Saddam Hussein was a problem. He went on to challenge Mecham to cultivate the peacemaking abilities of Richard Nixon when the former president had made diplomatic inroads into China. "I am asking you to have that same bold vision of leadership [in relationship to Martin Luther King Day]! Let the Middle East be the only place left with problems!"

At other times, Zaler was far more inspiring. These were the occasions when he surfaced as the only pro-MLK Day leader who was willing to cut to the ugly heart of Arizona's racism.

"Evan Mecham has forced people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different colors to work together," he told a group of students at NAU. "He made people think about quiet racism when he would shrug his shoulders and say, `I didn't think that was a bad term to use, be it "pickaninny" or "wetback." I didn't think there was anything wrong with attacking Ed Buck because he is a homosexual. I don't think anything was wrong, Arnie, when I told you before our debate last year, "Gee, you are a lot nicer than any other Jew I have ever met."'

"It is that kind of quiet racism that Mecham has brought back to the front burner of Arizona politics. And it is important. Because too many of us went on to the Seventies and Eighties and forgot what it was all about. We forgot the message. We gave up."

Arnie Zaler made it clear that he would never give up about the Martin Luther King holiday. Says Ida Steele, an organizer in the black community, "When a lot of people would get discouraged, he still had a lot of energy. Arnie motivated you."

Perhaps it was because he was so motivated himself--not only by his personal history, but by the public relations firm he had hired privately to promote his company Softie. Francine Hardaway and her husband Wayne Zink, of Hardaway Connections, always seemed to be at Zaler's elbow during his MLK Day dealings. This state of affairs did not endear him to the MLK-BAC. Already some members were perceiving him as a gentleman who loved the limelight, and now he was accompanied by his own promoter to meetings! Already he was admitting openly that he hoped to run for political office in the future!

Hardaway and Zink say they never appeared on the scene to get Zaler elected to anything. Instead, their interest in the MLK holiday reaches back more than three years to the time when they began working for free on its behalf. At that time, the MLK effort primarily amounted to an intention by the black community to persuade the state legislature to declare a holiday, and the matter had stalled, hung up by an inability to agree on a way to address the issue. Later, Hardaway and Zink had picked up Zaler and Softie as a client because of a mutual interest in the holiday.

Even Hardaway admits that it's difficult for Zaler to avoid the appearance of self-promotion. She says, "Arnie is on an ego trip. But he is also committed to the issue of civil rights and he has spent thousands and thousands of dollars of his own money. People are a lot of things at the same time."

After its years of volunteer work, Hardaway Connections hoped to be hired by the MLK-BAC to take the campaign forward. It didn't happen.

Last August, Mecham and his minions collected 71,000 signatures; the signatures forced a voter referendum on the paid MLK Day that the state legislature, after fifteen years of hedging, had finally established in May. To Hardaway's surprise, the business of selling a Martin Luther King Day to the public by November went to Nelson Ralston Robb, for the fee of $50,000 plus commissions from TV sales, which forced the total much higher. (Robb says this fee is about half what he usually charges for statewide campaigns.)

Hardaway and Zink continued to work with Zaler, however, and to regard the passage of Proposition 302 with such a proprietary interest that they still refer to it as "their" campaign. They admit they are not objective about the strategy Robb chose. "It would have been nice to get paid for the work we'd been doing for free," Hardaway admits. For his part, Robb had also worked for free for the MLK-BAC during its early months of lobbying for the holiday at the legislature. He and Hudgins both say Robb asked not to be considered for the job when it became clear that a campaign was needed. But in the end, Nelson Ralston Robb seemed the most geared up to design a campaign in a hurry, Hudgins says.

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