Carolyn Walker Deserves Some Real Friends
Phoenix hearts pounded with the drama.
Carolyn Walker, the only black in the Arizona State Senate, stood to cast her historic vote on April 4, 1988.
Media from across America recorded the event as viewers sat transfixed in front of their television sets.
Twenty years earlier, on that exact same date, James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr.
On the anniversary of King's assassination, Senator Walker cast the deciding vote to impeach and remove from office Arizona's governor, Evan Mecham.
Playing to Arizona's racists, it was Evan Mecham who had canceled the state holiday honoring the slain civil-rights leader. The attack on the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. was Mecham's first act as governor. It was also the first of many assaults by Mecham against Jews, Asians, women, homosexuals and minorities.
Mecham was also indicted by a grand jury for financial irregularities and malfeasance in office. He beat those charges.
But Mecham was never able to escape the judgment that he scorched Arizona with a legacy of hatred that rivaled the simple-minded prejudices of the cracker South.
And so, Senator Walker's vote on that momentous day did more than just impeach Evan Mecham. Her vote represented more than the triumph of one black woman. The poignancy of her action soothed the demoralized spirits of a community battered by a governor who defended a textbook's description of black children as "pickaninnies."
But today, Carolyn Walker is a woman shunned. The progressives, whose hopes she has championed since election to the legislature in 1982, have apparently turned their backs on her. "She's been abandoned by the liberal community, and I don't think it was justified," observed Representative Cindy Resnick.
On March 27, Senator Walker invited her supporters to a party at the Renaissance Club in downtown Phoenix. Donations were requested to help retire a campaign debt of more than $6,000.
Virtually no one showed.
An enormous and elegant buffet remained almost untouched. By one estimate, there were never more than fifteen people in the room at one time.
In the past, Senator Walker said that her events have netted between $7,000 to $10,000.
On March 27, she banked only a couple hundred bucks in contributions.
Just a few blocks away, throngs of lobbyists, politicians and well-wishers packed Senator Jaime Gutierrez's fund raiser at the University Club. The revelers did not bother to stop by Walker's wake on their way home.
Harry Truman wasn't talking about liberals and progressives, but he could have been when he said, "You want a friend in this life, get a dog."
Carolyn Walker is the victim of her own stupidity, stubbornness and fair-weather friends.
Walker works at the phone company. Last July, she provided an important vote in behalf of her employer, USWest Communications. She formally asked her colleagues if she had a conflict of interest before voting. They informed her there was not an ethical problem because the phone company's tax relief bill affected thousands of people without benefiting her directly. This is the sort of greasy logic crafted by lawyers who have little regard for appearances.
Six months later, phone company executives organized a fund raiser for Walker and the newspapers moved in for the kill.
It is against the law for Arizona's corporations to make direct contributions to a politician.
However, Attorney General Bob Corbin said phone company employees could legally work on any campaign so long as their efforts weren't expended on company time. He declined to go after USWest.
As bad as Walker's position looked, matters only got worse when she suggested that she was being targeted for criticism because she was black.
"I'm not ashamed to admit I am employed by USWest," said Walker. "Because if I'm not, I probably would be considered one of those lazy, shiftless niggers on welfare."
The morning paper's editorial page boss, William Cheshire, noted succinctly that "criticism is not a code word for racism."
With all of that, there is something very repugnant in the shunning that has befallen Senator Carolyn Walker.
"I made a mistake when I let them put on a fund raiser. I didn't pay attention and I should have," said Walker last week. "My judgment was poor. It doesn't mean I'm not a worthy person. It just means I'm human. I make mistakes."
Walker's biggest mistake was that she wasn't as cute as her colleagues about raising money. No one said boo when Tom Patterson pocketed $45,000 from fellow doctors and their spouses in his successful run for the Senate. He managed to work the game. USWest is so clumsy that it managed to screw one of its own with a too-obvious fund raiser. The phone company was too arrogant to play the funding game. And when it got caught, it let Walker take the fall. And refused to comment.
"The phone company was adamantly silent, and I think it was inappropriate," said Resnick. "I still blame them. The plain, simple fact is that with something like that, with someone who is a friend, it doesn't occur to you that the phone company would do something inappropriate."
USWest may be craven, but even it had the decency to attempt to repay its debt to Walker. And that is more than can be said for the legislator's Gucci friends in the liberal community.
If the worst you can say to me is that Carolyn Walker is a shill for the phone company, then so be it. Carolyn Walker also makes commitments. She is best known as the Senate's most articulate advocate in behalf of restoring the King holiday. She has also been a vigorous champion of prenatal care and a firm believer in the rights of the poor to receive medical attention in a state notorious for its neglect. At the same time, she has been outspoken in behalf of small businesses.
Last year she sponsored landmark legislation to punish spousal rape.
On March 27, the one woman who sat with Walker through the entire evening was her mother. "Moms love you and they stick by you, no matter what."
Walker remains game in her isolation.
She has scheduled another event for her birthday on May 12.
Walker has also spent time taking care of herself. She is on a medically supervised diet. "I've lost a little over thirty pounds in eight weeks, and I'm about ready to catch a man," laughed Walker. "I pray, I say, `Listen, God, we got through this day. Let me get through one more.'|"
As Carolyn Walker waits and wonders where her friends are, she does not have to guess as to the whereabouts of her old nemesis, ex-Governor Evan Mecham.
Mecham announced on April 4, the anniversary of his removal from office and King's assassination, that he will again seek the governor's chair.
In the Senate the bill to restore the King holiday languishes. By contrast, Mecham is all fresh energy. His new attorney, Donald MacPherson, threatens federal action to overturn the impeachment.
Perhaps you haven't heard of MacPherson. But he is well-known in some circles. His other famous client, one he represents for free, is James Earl Ray.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.