Howard's End?

Gary Tredway is Howard Mechanic.

We know this after the man was ratted out in the wings, then stripped of his mask on center stage. Mechanic has stood there since, lashed to the media's whipping post, competing for attention with a dismembered torso. Mostly, he's won. Mechanic is more fun to flagellate, because he still bleeds.

There he is, people: "One of the nation's most wanted Vietnam-era fugitives," whatever that means, a man sentenced to five years in federal prison for hurling a firecracker that landed six feet from a cop during a war protest in St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1970.

Some quick perspective: Mechanic still denies hurling a firecracker, and no witnesses testified they saw him do so. Incendiary press accounts have repeatedly described the firecracker in question as a "cherry-bomb," a "powerful firecracker," which sounds something like a "tall midget." This cherry bomb Mechanic supposedly hurled landed on the ground, exploded, and hurt no one, as opposed to the .223-caliber rifle bullets the Ohio National Guard had fired into a violent crowd at Kent State University the day before, killing four students and wounding 11. Now those were some powerful firecrackers.

Now, while J. Fife Symington III, bilker of retirees, lives free to perfect his crème brûlée, Howard Mechanic is locked up. His lawyers scramble and his lover pleads to get him paroled or pardoned or put on trial anew.

But his outing and the grand gnashing of teeth it conjured came too late to erase the name of Gary Tredway from the ballots the City of Scottsdale had already printed for its March 14 municipal election, in which Mechanic had entered himself as a candidate for city council, using his longtime a.k.a., Tredway.

The week before Mechanic was busted, Scottsdale mailed early ballot request cards to each of the city's registered voters. Now the city has conducted a second mass mailing, directing voters to ignore the name Gary Tredway on the penalty of wasting their vote. Bright green signs have been printed for every polling place. They announce in bold type that even though the name Gary Tredway is on the ballot, he has withdrawn from the city council race, and any votes cast for him will be nullified.

This is, of course, factually incorrect.

Gary Tredway has not withdrawn from the Scottsdale City Council race. Gary Tredway is Howard Mechanic, and that name does not appear on any ballot.

But it could be, if Scottsdale voters write it themselves, which they should.

Instead of trying to suck marrow from the emaciated issue of whether Mechanic deserves to do time, the debate shrouding his candidacy should recalibrate on the real question:

Should Howard Mechanic be elected to the Scottsdale City Council?

My answer is yes.

Think about it: How many politicians really are who they say they are? Howard Mechanic only misrepresented himself to voters in the most literal and meaningless of ways: He gave them a false name, for good reason.

I admit there's certain pathos evident in a fugitive from justice (however unjust) running for public office. But there's a certain passion as well, and certain courage. We didn't know it then, but it was an exhibit of similar bravery every time Mechanic testified at a city council meeting or similar public forum, where he usually provided the most intelligent, eloquent and informed arguments, most recently against the City of Scottsdale's use of public money to fund private developments such as the Canals of Scottsdale and the Los Arcos stadium district.

He was a key architect of the Clean Elections Initiative that Arizona voters approved in 1998.

The community knew him then as Gary Tredway, a successful local businessman and thinking man's liberal. But the man at the podium knew the truth, and beneath the fire of his words must have lurked a cold core of fear, which he suppressed in order to be heard. Few local politicians have demonstrated such steel.

Some have called Mechanic a coward for running away from his five-year prison sentence. They say a true social activist would have served the sentence to make a statement. Instead, Mechanic kept himself in play. After lying low and establishing a new identity in Santa Cruz, California, still a haven for "Vietnam-era fugitives," Mechanic moved to the Valley in the early '80s. Once here, he put himself increasingly at risk in public roles -- first as co-founder of Tempe's Gentle Strength Co-op, then editor of a local alternative newspaper, then a local hotel owner and finally a torch-waver, storming the Scottsdale political establishment.

By running for city council, Mechanic gambled his freedom against the opportunity to change from within the course of a city government hell-bent on using tax money to lure the kind of megadevelopment that would transform Scottsdale into an abomination of shopping mall culture gone nuclear. Mechanic lost this gamble, but he deserves respect, not contempt. And, based on his record as a populist in the Valley (as opposed to his record as a purported cherry-bomb tosser in Missouri), he still deserves the chance to hold office.

And he certainly deserves to be free.

There's an outside possibility Mechanic will have had his conviction abated by next month's election, in which case a successful write-in campaign could actually put him on the council. But any significant number of votes for Mechanic would influence those juggling his fate to allow him to land outside the walls of a prison.

Scottsdale voters have a rare chance to have fun while doing the write thing:

Vote Mechanic, and throw a wrench in the machine.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address:


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