Joe Parham Stands Up

Is the African-American psychologist and former Ev Mecham staffer incompetent--or just streetwise?

"If there was a community of people like you and a track record, you wouldn't feel nearly as isolated. You feel like you have to dot your i's and cross your t's three or four times."

Although Joe Parham says he has no close male friends, he counts state Senator Tom Freestone as a pal. Freestone, an east Mesa Republican, met Parham decades ago when the two were both lifting weights at a health club.

Parham says Freestone talked him into becoming a Republican, a notion the psychologist had been toying with since he'd learned in college that Republicans freed the slaves. Parham eventually bought an office building from the Freestone family, settled in east Mesa and learned about the Mormon religion. Although he never converted to Mormonism, he was sufficiently connected with the Mormon Church to receive a family history from the genealogy department. There were no surprises. His white ancestors, named Parham, migrated from England to Georgia and purchased and bedded with his African-American ancestors.

Through Freestone, Parham became involved in east Mesa politics. By 1985, he was president of the East Valley Black Association and began hosting breakfasts for Republican dignitaries, including John McCain.

By 1986, Parham had become sufficiently prominent politically to warrant a Mesa Tribune column titled "Parham's Ink." One column suggested people shouldn't take "pot shots" at Mecham "before he even takes office."

"I suppose that like many people I have some reservations about our new governor-elect," Parham wrote, lamenting Mecham's intention to kill the statewide Martin Luther King holiday.

But, he said, "We owe it to ourselves to give Mecham a chance and not strike him down before he even takes office."

A few weeks later, Mecham appointed Parham to head the state Office of Affirmative Action. Not everyone in the black political community was thrilled, Parham recalls.

"People would say to me, 'Joe, you work for a racist.' And I would say to them, 'What makes you so sure you don't work for one?'"

A few African-American leaders, including Pastor Warren Stewart and House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, say they figure it was better to have a black man in Mecham's cabinet than no one at all.

"We never felt there was a conflict or a betrayal of the community," Hamilton says. "If we wanted to get word to the other side of the aisle, Joe had their ear."

Then Mecham insulted African Americans by recommending that a book containing the word "pickaninny" be used in an official celebration. To this day, Parham says Mecham was not racist, but simply insensitive and ignorant.

When an attempt to recall Mecham appeared to be gaining power, Parham saw an opportunity to influence the governor and help the black community at the same time. He drafted a "Program to Combat the Recall," suggesting that the governor appoint minorities to important positions, ask for a special legislative session to address the King holiday and change the image of the governor's "personal style" by visiting black churches.

Mecham refused to hand the holiday brouhaha over to the Legislature, but agreed, with some reservations, to visit the churches.

Although Art Hamilton remembers the church visitations as something of a fiasco, both Parham and Mecham say the visits, which were cut short by the 1988 impeachment proceedings, were successful.

"I was never treated more courteously by people anyplace, as I was treated in black churches," Mecham says during a recent interview. "Black people don't dislike Ev Mecham."

With characteristic clumsiness, Mecham then cites evidence for that statement: He volunteers that black "porters" at the airport are "kind and courteous" when they help him with luggage.

"At least," Parham now says, "you knew where the governor was coming from."
After Mecham's impeachment, Parham remained an active Republican. He kept up his affiliations with former House leader Mark Killian, Tom Freestone and others. He's still "very active" in the Arizona African-American Republican Committee, which he founded, says Fred Taylor, director of Community Outreach for the Governor's Office and the current president of the committee.

When asked why he didn't tell his political friends about his predicament with the state board, Parham says he was embarrassed.

His silence also surprises Taylor.
"He has contacts," says Taylor. "He knows the governor; he knows more people in this town than I do."

Shortly after Mecham was impeached, Parham's father died, which, Parham says, was "the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life." He began having panic attacks. He testified before the state board during a hearing that the panic attacks were similar to "walking down the street and thinking that you're losing it" and feeling as if "the ground is falling away from under you."

He now says the attacks came on because he had bottled up too much, had been alone too long on top of the mountain.

A psychiatrist prescribed medication to ease Parham's depression and anxiety, but Parham told his family the pills were for a persistent sinus condition. He feared that the pills would be viewed as a sign of failure and weakness by his family and peers.

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