Mecham's Loyal Readers
You subscribe to a newspaper, but it never arrives.
You're upset and want your money back, right?
Likely not, if you happen to be one of the "charter subscribers" to Evan Mecham's would-be newspaper, Arizona News Day.
Originally slated to go to press in September 1991, the "newspaper" has taken several backward steps and seems even further away from being published than it was a year ago.
What has happened to the subscription money people sent in? Is it in a bank account somewhere? "You've got to be kidding," Mecham tells New Times from his Senate campaign headquarters. (The phone for his newspaper has been disconnected.) "It's spent. I've spent the money in trying to get the paper going." He adds that he's spent his own money as well.
The former Glendale car dealer was impeached and booted out of the Governor's Office in 1988 after little more than a year on the job. Along the way, Mecham weathered criminal indictments and a spirited recall campaign, racking up a career's worth of disputed loans, court suits, gaffes, goofs, insults and racial slurs.
Today the former governor won't divulge the names of the paper's would-be subscribers or how much money he got from them. He says such information is "confidential." But New Times has obtained a list of contributors that indicates at least 650 people sent in at least $44,000 to the former governor.
Interviews with two dozen of these subscribers--a random but unscientific sample--indicate that many not only haven't demanded refunds but still strongly support Mecham and eagerly back his attempt to get on the November 3 ballot as an independent against GOP incumbent Senator John McCain.
Last year, a New Times reporter went undercover to infiltrate Mecham's "newspaper staff" and discovered little more than a small group of telemarketers conducting a fund-raising blitzkrieg aimed at Mecham's loyalists, whom the governor refers to as "the good people" of Arizona. (See the July 31, 1991, issue.)
The telemarketing apparently worked. (Mecham was offering a two-year subscription for $100, or one year for $60, and promised subscribers "free advertising" and "charter subscription certificates." He also pushed "installment plans" allowing for smaller payments.) Even elderly Arizonans who could barely scrape together money from their pensions to send Mecham tell New Times they're not angry about not receiving the paper. According to the subscription records, many of Mecham's subscribers apologized to him in writing for not being able to send more money to him or for being "late" with their money. The records also indicate that some of Mecham's subscribers were so feeble that they could barely fill in the blanks.
But many of Mecham's subscribers are just as loyal to him as they were before they sent their payments to him.
"I'm miffed about the paper, but I'm sure he can't have his finger on the pulse of everything," says LaVerne Smith of Saint David, a small town east of Tucson. "You can't tell me anything bad about Brother Mecham. He looks you right in the eye when he talks to you. We think a lot of that man."
Not all are as ardent as LaVerne Smith, who pointed out that the former governor, a Mormon, has lots of support among Mormons like herself. "He'll get a lot of people's votes here, especially the LDS," she says. "He's a good man, no matter what they say about him."
Several subscribers say they support Mecham because he'll "stir things up" or they hate the other newspapers; or because they hate all incumbent politicians or they're simply fed up "with the way things are." In some cases, it's expressed as inchoate rage. "The whole world's gone amok," claims one subscriber.
Others, however, are far more thoughtful and are in fact philosophical about Mecham's venture.
"We don't feel like we've been ripped off," says Nancy Kress, 40, of Glendale. On her subscription blank, Kress had written: "I can't seem to put together $100 at a time this summer so I'm sending the $60 for one year."
She's not sorry she sent the money. "I knew there was a possibility it wouldn't come about," she says. "I was showing support for an alternative. I believe Evan Mecham will do the best he can."
Kress, a former GOP precinct committeewoman, says she's passing out petitions for Mecham's bid to get on the ballot against McCain. (She voted in the September 8 primary, however, and thus can't sign a petition.)
"I hesitate to say I'm a supporter of Mecham's," says Kress. "Because he's an outrageous character, if you say you're a supporter, they call you a fanatic. They'll think 'pickaninny' is a common word in our household--which it is not."
"Yes, we need police protection, but do we need pottery along the Squaw Peak?" she asks rhetorically. "Yes, we need a fire department, but do we need fireworks? The government spends money and does things it shouldn't be doing."
Kress acknowledges that "there are all sorts of bad feelings toward him as a person." But, she says, "who else is standing up for what he stands up for?"
Some subscribers are less coherent than Kress and fit the stereotypical image of bigoted, bitter old Mechamites muttering, "Give em hell, Ev."
One, a 78-year-old Glendale man who says, "I'll vote for him just to agitate back there," offers his opinion that Democrat Claire Sargent just might sneak into the Senate seat if Mecham were to draw enough GOP votes from McCain. After saying that "women are coming up more," he refers to black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' run-in with Anita Hill. Then, the bigot volunteers, "I kind of know some of those jungle bunnies, and I think he was guilty!"
Those who detest Mecham might be chagrined to know, however, that the vast majority of subscribers interviewed by New Times for this story simply don't fit that stereotype.
Ron Stout couldn't be classified a Mecham fanatic, but he does seem to admire the former governor--especially in comparison with other politicians--as someone who'll "stir things up."
"People say he's an embarrassment," says Stout, who sent Mecham $100. "But I'm not sure he's any more embarrassing than you or I would be if we were out of our league. He's a car salesman, and he obviously was a good one. Car salesmen talk all the time. Most people don't listen to half the things they say."
"Besides," adds Stout, "he'll either be something or he'll be a joke. You can't lose."
Stout laughs and says, "Time will tell," when asked whether he thinks Mecham will ever start his newspaper. "We called Ev, and he answered the phone and said, 'Don't worry.' He sent out a certificate, so I guess I'll always have that, at least."
Subscriber Renee Marshall of Scottsdale has a darker view--even of Mecham's chances to stir things up. "At the time, we thought he would do the paper," she says. "But I think he's kind of had it. He's on a downhill path. I feel bad about it. He's a good ol' boy. But he's been destroyed. I don't think he did anything worse than a lot of other politicians. But other politicians didn't like him."
Several subscribers noted that Mecham's frequent warnings to his subjects that legislators were corrupt were borne out by the AzScam political-corruption sting that sent lawmakers to the slammer. (Subscriber J. Glade Soelberg of Mesa says, "The corruption he constantly referred to has come to pass.)
J.L. Miller of Phoenix sent $15 and wrote specific instructions on his subscription blank about where to throw the newspaper. A year later, there's no paper to throw, but Miller's wife, Elise, 68, says she's "still rooting" for Mecham. "I think he should have a fair chance, which he hasn't gotten yet," she says. Elise Miller says she wouldn't have voted in the September 8 primary if she had known it would make her ineligible to sign Mecham's nomination petition for the Senate race.
But she knows what she'll do on November 3: "I won't vote for McCain. He's just as crooked as Keating, but they didn't catch him."
Some of Mecham's subscribers say they have called him seeking refunds, and Steve Tseffos, spokesman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, confirms that such inquiries have made their way to the agency's consumer-protection unit. But Tseffos emphasizes that there is no investigation of the situation. "It appears to us that there was no intent to defraud," says Tseffos.
The AG's Office has received "lots of inquiries" but fewer than a handful of formal complaints, says Tseffos.
The phone number for Arizona News Day may have been disconnected, but Evan Mecham says the newspaper project "still is my highest No. 1 priority."
In the midst of gathering signatures for the Senate bid, Mecham insists, "I wouldn't have gotten into this if it meant sacrificing the newspaper."
Mecham purchased presses last year in Las Vegas, but not only have the presses not been installed, there's no longer a building for them. No editorial staff has ever been hired for the project, which Mecham vowed would make the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette "begin to look like the dinosaur of the past in comparison to us being the rocket model of the future."
It's long been rumored that Mecham has tried to get financing from overseas, particularly Saudi Arabia, and that he has engaged in numerous phone conversations with a fast-talking gentleman who has an Arabic accent. Asked if he's negotiating for Saudi money, Mecham says, "Could be," and adds, "It's not drug money, that's for sure."
Mecham, who was kicked out of office amid charges he misused funds, vows that he would refund money to people who insist upon it. But he also says he does plan to publish a newspaper.
"You're talking to one guy who wouldn't misuse anybody's money," says Mecham.
After musing about how big backers let him down by withdrawing from the newspaper project, Mecham uncorks a shocker--just as he did so often during his turbulent term as governor.
"Today, I wish I hadn't sold any subscriptions," he says matter-of-factly. "I wish I'd waited until I actually had the big money in my hands. But commitments aren't worth anything these days, it seems."
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