The Soul Of Robert Usdane Is Tied To Martin Luther King
Maybe you cannot imagine what it is like to be Robert Usdane.
He is a Republican leader who is the key to a Democratic bill to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a paid holiday.
He is a Jew who sits on the board of directors of the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith at a time when his own party in Arizona officially votes to declare America a Christian nation.
He is president of the Senate at a time when his seventeen-member delegation includes seven rock-ribbed right wingers who can't be ignored--including two freshmen who knocked off respected, conservative incumbents in bitter primaries last fall as a fratricidal rebuke for opposing ex-Governor Evan Mecham. Usdane's sermons, then, fall upon a flock composed in almost equal parts of Republican senators in silk stockings who read the Wall Street Journal and Republican senators in bib overalls who read King James. These are unprecedented times.
Usdane does not plan to vote for the MLK holiday. Nor has he confronted the Christian wing of his party over its anti-Semitic attacks. It is enough for him to maintain his authority in this historic upheaval where Christian fundamentalists have seized the imagination of Arizona's GOP.
Not always regarded as a political heavyweight, there are no longer any questions about the power of the man who rose to the Senate's presidency; these days the curiosity is about the nature of Usdane's soul.
MINORITIES IN THE statehouse are reminded regularly by their white colleagues that they are accommodated as much out of court order as out of kinship. This January, Representative Kyle Hindman, a farmer, told Department of Corrections director Sam Lewis that the solution to prison overcrowding was the construction of more jails. "I don't know if you've got wetbacks or not," said Hindman. "We've got wetbacks out in Buckeye, and they can lay block faster than anybody."
When Mexican legislators expressed shock over Hindman's remarks, rural Democrat Henry Evans managed to work in a joshing reference to the University of Arizona as "Taco Tech."
While all of this may seem a bit raw for statehouse repartee, it is, nonetheless, an improvement over the coarse sentiments of former legislator Jim Ratliff who said that he opposed abortion unless a white woman was raped by a black man. Ratliff's eventual apology and handshake were accepted by House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, the black South Phoenix Democrat who has introduced a bill every year since 1981 to honor Dr. King.
Eight years in a row Hamilton's efforts to create a King holiday have died either in the House or the Senate. This year Hamilton engineered passage of the bill in the lower chamber 35 to 24. As the session nears an end, however, the MLK legislation is stalled in the Senate where Robert Usdane presides.
A VISITOR SEEKING an audience with Senator Usdane picks up a publication on the coffee table in the Senate president's waiting room. The magazine is Panorama, the journal of South Africa whose lead feature is a 75th-anniversary tribute to the police department of that troubled nation.
Usdane, nursing a tennis knee with an ice bag, opens the door to his inner office. His den is primed to soothe lobbyists with four separate bars though the Senate president himself does not drink. The man's hair is slicked back like some character actor from another era of Hollywood cinema.
Usdane does not so much sit still for an interview as grab you and roll you around on the floor attempting various verbal-wrestling holds to see what will work. He manages to convey the impression that he is both for and against the King legislation at the same time that he is trying to establish some sort of link on a more personal level. Like all successful politicians, he does not care how he reaches you, just so long as he does.
First, Usdane goes on the offensive. Professing that he does not read New Times, he says he's been told the paper attacks people on a personal level. He hurls the accusation "sleazy." Then he lights off into the opposite direction, talking about how much he likes certain writers. He speaks glowingly of Tom Fitzpatrick's integrity. Several times he comments upon how much he likes my smile. By the end of the session he is stating that he is often in possession of information about stories that the public must be made aware of if Arizona is to move into the twentieth century. Might he call us with leads? After a half hour of this, no one in the room, including Robert Usdane, knows what the hell the Senate president is talking about.
It is a bravura performance worthy of a Richard Daley. In less time than it would take to break enough eggs for an omelet, Usdane has attempted hostility, collegiality, schoolgirl flattery and bribery. Clearly, cardinal sins will be committed if the interview runs much longer, and it must indeed run somewhat longer because Usdane has said precious little about the King holiday.
Because he assigned the King bill to Wayne Stump's committee, the legislation has been buried. Even within the Arizona State Legislature, chiropractor Stump is regarded as eccentric. He has attempted to make law that would force Congress to return to the gold standard and abolish the Federal Reserve Board. Stump is the champion of extreme groups like the Arizona Patriots and will not even discuss the King bill, he is that convinced of its depravity.
Usdane's toss of this emotional legislation to Stump purchased the Senate president some grace from the fundamentalist wing of his own party.
When former Governor Evan Mecham was elected, his first act was to repeal the Martin Luther King holiday that had been created with an executive order by Mecham's predecessor, Governor Bruce Babbitt. The rescission was an enormous morale boost to Mecham's loyalists. Later, when Mecham was ousted, his followers sought revenge and fielded legislative candidates who ran against and beat the speaker of the House and the former Senate president, as well as the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations chairmen. These same conservative forces captured hundreds of grassroots Republican precinct committee slots which form the skeleton of the GOP in Arizona. In January, these precinct committee workers voted to declare America a Christian nation. Jews, agnostics, Buddhists, Catholics, atheists, backsliders, Muslims, et cetera, could join the American Civil Liberties Union or the Democratic party if they didn't like it. Although this resolution was eventually modified, the fundamentalist Christian grip upon the state Republican party is a fact of life for GOP leaders like Usdane, who must face the fact that they tread upon this snake at their own peril. What's more, Evan Mecham is back inspiring the faithful both with his new campaign for the governor's seat and his new lawyer Donald MacPherson, the same attorney who defends, pro bono, King's assassin James Earl Ray.
Usdane has been through all of this before with Mecham and his followers.
When Mecham was governor, he told a national constitutional convention in Salt Lake City, "I want you to recognize tonight--on this 200th anniversary--that this is a great Christian nation that recognizes Jesus Christ as the God of the land."
On December 14, 1987, Governor Mecham provoked an uproar when he reaffirmed the speech to members of the Ahavat Torah Synagogue in Scottsdale. When leaders of the Jewish community took umbrage, Mecham defended himself by saying that some of his best friends, including Bob Usdane, were Jews and that his attorney at the time was also Jewish.
Though Usdane and Mecham are not friends, neither will Usdane repudiate Mecham. Even today, all that Usdane will offer is "Governor Mecham often says things without thinking and then he tries to bring credence to it. He still tries to defend the use of the word `pickaninny.' It is insensitive. He has brought racial concern from throughout the country and around the world."
Indeed, at the time Mecham championed a textbook by arch-- conservative William Skoussen in which black children were described as pickaninnies, a Jerusalem Post issue appeared with a picture of the governor and a text entirely in Hebrew except for one word for which there was not a Yiddish translation--pickaninny.
BECAUSE OF THE negative publicity that has plagued the state since Mecham was governor and since the repeal of the King holiday, Usdane thinks the new MLK bill "is in the best interest of Arizona if it's passed." But personally, "I'm a no vote and that represents the interests of my district."
Usdane is regarded as the key to the bill's future because even though he assigned the King legislation to the black hole of Stump's committee, as Senate president, Usdane can bring the bill to the floor for vote when he chooses.
Having positioned the King legislation so that its very life is dependent upon the Senate president, Usdane has assured himself leverage over Democrats. He will be in a position to trade as the session closes.
"He would never say that, but it is understood," said Senator Carolyn Walker. "Anything he knows people want he is holding until the very end. One of the reasons that we have to trust Uzzie is that we don't have any other choice. He believes it will come to the floor, just don't ask him how."
Usdane insists that the bill's only chance is for the supporters of the King holiday to lie low, to forsake pressure tactics, to avoid confrontation, to seek accommodation, much as Usdane himself, a Jew, has behaved in the face of a resurgent Christian movement within the Republican party.
"If it's not played too heavily, I think it will pass," said Usdane, who also said the King bill could just as easily collapse. "I haven't brought it to the floor because it will be defeated."
This is code talk. The translation is that Usdane does not intend to risk an ounce of political capital unless Democratic Senator Carolyn Walker is able to line up the sixteen votes necessary for the bill's passage. Walker has firm commitments from all thirteen Democrats and one Republican, Jacque Steiner. Walker holds out hope for Republicans Bill DeLong and Leo Corbet. Usdane has no intention of provoking the righteous sword of the Christian bloc opposed to King's holiday by making a symbolic move to bring the bill to the floor for a vote sure to end in defeat. If Walker wants a vote, she damned well better line up the support necessary for victory. Gestures are for do-gooders, not Senate presidents. Usdane believes the way to muster a couple of swing Republican votes is through quiet diplomacy.
"The less pressure, the fewer problems, the better," said Usdane. "Too much pressure will kill it. Goudinoff's move, that will go farther to kill the bill than anything else. It was not smart under the circumstance."
Representative Peter Goudinoff, a Tucson Democrat, attempted to get the King holiday into the open for a vote by attaching it to a high-priority economic development package which would have finessed Stump's blockade and, it was hoped, forced a couple of Republicans to accept the King holiday in order to pass the economy booster.
Republicans came unglued, arguing that the King holiday had nothing whatsoever to do with Arizona's financial well-being and, therefore, under state law, it was unconstitutional to attach the civil-rights legislation to the economic development bill.
Interpreting the danger of hardball politics as played by anyone other than himself, Usdane explained, "I want that economic development bill, too. What happens if I get angry (at the King attachment), what happens?"
What is startlingly odd about this reaction from Usdane and other Republican leaders is that while the King holiday is indeed symbolic, it is also a dollars-and-cents issue.
To date, Arizona has lost almost $26 million in conventions and hotel reservations because of groups that canceled in protest to Governor Mecham's killing of the holiday. Industry experts agree that the $26 million number must be multiplied by a factor of at least 2.4 to arrive at the total of dollars conventioneers would have spent if they'd come. Compare the reaction of the hotel-motel industry to the loss of this $62 million in business to their reaction when Phoenix proposed a $2 million bed tax on innkeepers to finance the Phoenix Suns' new arena.
When politicians suggested the bed tax, spokespersons for the hotel industry went off like Roman candles. Public meetings and the media were laced with the outraged cries of the hospitality industry.
But these same spokespersons have been invisible on the King issue.
The president of the Valley Innkeepers Association, Michele Eckert, blames the organization's absence of visible support on confusion.
"We're not that organized yet," said Eckert. "We're separate from the state organization. Our board is all general managers [of major hotels], and we've only got a part-time secretary. Our position is let's get it resolved. Let's let the people vote on it."
Eckert acknowledges that getting the issue "resolved" is not the same as getting it passed. But her position is that the state organization can say little more than what it has.
"Within the state group there are varying opinions, pro and con," said Eckert. "This is stupid that it keeps coming up every six months. There are conventions that are in a pending mode, waiting to see what will happen. There are just different feelings [within the state organization]. Some are against it. (She refused to identify the opposition.) I personally might think it should pass, but the people I work for, Holiday Inn, may not give a hoot, or they may agree, or they might not have an opinion."
"I've never quite understood this," said Representative Art Hamilton. "The Chambers of Commerce, the economic development people, the hotel-motel industry, the tourism lobbies, none of them has argued the issue to the extent you would think. They have resisted to the very end making a public noise about Martin Luther King when the only responsible thing to do was to come out publicly for the holiday. Instead, they've engaged in a little whisper campaign. They have asked us to call off the boycott, but they clearly do not want to become visible. When I ask why not, they say that quiet diplomacy is better. They don't want to antagonize."
The hospitality industry is afraid of antagonizing the Mechamites and the fundamentalist Christians. Insiders say they fear if they overtly support the King holiday, they'll be targeted with another bed tax in a state desperate for new sources of revenue.
Goudinoff's common-sense attempt to attach the King legislation to the economic development bill proved so explosive, even Hamilton was forced to backpedal.
"A number of people who supported the King bill came to me and said this move had the potential to become divisive," said Hamilton. "Their point was, `Look, we voted with you on MLK, but we now have a lot of interests pressuring us for this economic development bill. We have paid the political price for supporting the holiday, but if the economic development bill is killed to prevent the King holiday from taking effect, then we will have paid the price twice.'"
ON MONDAY, APRIL 24, there was a small demonstration in behalf of the King holiday at the State Capitol organized by Arnie Zaler.
Working as a representative of the Jewish Federation, Zaler has reaffirmed the historic link between Jews and blacks in the struggle for civil rights at a time when that alliance is under extreme duress nationally.
The next night, Tuesday, Usdane returned a phone call just as NBC was concluding a controversial news special that examined whether or not blacks are genetically superior to whites in athletics. He thought the demonstration was a success because there was no real pressure or uproar.
"If they'd come down here with a couple of thousand people thinking that that would give them political power that they could then make a move, that would have been a mistake. It went well because it did not reflect any militancy," said Usdane.
There may not have been militancy by Zaler and the other supporters of the King holiday, but there was exposure on the evening news and, consequently, retribution.
"The calls have been terrible," said Zaler. "There have been so many, sixty calls right away. My four-year-old and my one-year-old heard some of this when I played the answering machine--`You dirty Jew, you nigger lover.' Someone sent a letter with a swastika on it. The message was, `We know how to deal with people like you.'"
In the face of these violent emotions, Usdane is most concerned that his delicate coalition of Republicans not be rocked by confrontation. As the unrest on both sides of the King holiday mounts, Usdane seeks to minimize.
"I don't believe it's as important as people make it out to be legislatively," says Usdane of the King bill.
The suggestion that a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is not a big deal in Arizona requires a unique perspective:
* The King holiday was the symbol that rallied opposition against then-Governor Mecham and his frequent attacks against women, gays, Jews, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. When the Senate's only black, Carolyn Walker, cast the deciding ballot for conviction, she voted on the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King.
* Phoenix area high schools are under court order to integrate. Earlier this year, 200 blacks and whites at Alhambra High School fought each other with fists because of racial tension.
* Phoenix's most exclusive enclave, Paradise Valley, has virtually no minorities living within its boundaries. A local attorney seeking to get favorable zoning for a client told the town he would seek a fair-housing bill in the legislature unless his client obtained the variance he sought.
* Terrified of the potential influence of the state's Hispanic population, Arizona became one of the first states to vote for an English-only amendment to the Constitution.
* Although he was already working under a plan to recruit more minorities to Arizona State University in Tempe, President J. Russell Nelson was forced to sign a twelve-point plan last month to improve racial harmony at ASU in the wake of demonstrations at the university. The protests were sparked when 500 white students on fraternity row surrounded four blacks and screamed "niggers," "coons" and "porch monkeys." It took four Valley police agencies to break up the brawl.
* In March, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, four black football players walked through the campus assaulting white people they encountered. In April students at the UofA confronted that school's president and demanded racial reforms.
* For the last three years on the anniversary of the holiday, 10,000 people have marched to give witness to their desire for a King celebration. At the same time this year, a contingent of fascist skinheads also marched along a different route shouting white-power slogans.
Short of lynchings or the Klan burning crosses on Central Avenue, it is difficult to picture just what would make the King holiday a big deal if recent events have not. Some might even argue that in a state where the economy is depressed, the very fact that business executives and Republican leaders can look at a $62 million-dollar loss from a national boycott while maintaining the King holiday isn't a financial issue is prima facie evidence that Arizona has de-evolved into the Mississippi of the Sun Belt.
But Usdane looks at the King issue from the perspective of the Senate president.
The legislative session is winding down with the budget crisis unresolved. The state cannot possibly balance its books and fund the various strapped state programs without raising taxes. In some areas, such as prison overcrowding, Arizona has a disaster on its hands. Funding for mental health programs is so abysmal--the state ranks lower in per-capita expenditures than all 49 other states and the territory of Puerto Rico--that the courts have stepped in and ordered the monies be found. And yet, Republicans in general and the fundamentalist Christian officeholders in particular are adamant that there will be no new taxes.
This is what Senator Usdane means when he says the King bill is not that important legislatively because, "There are lots of things I have to get done for Arizona."
In seeking accommodation with the fundamentalist Christians who have captured key positions within Arizona's Republican party, critics wonder if Robert Usdane, the Jew, hasn't exchanged his principles as an individual for the principle of the greater good. The problems facing Arizona are complex, and Usdane insists he has a vision that will help. He will need to be a man of authority to implement solutions. Today, that strength is dependent upon Mecham's allies in the Senate. Some men who court such power, those with agendas, like Lyndon Baines Johnson or Ronald Reagan, engineered revolutions with their influence. Lesser mortals are merely influence peddlers. For those who pray for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Usdane's brinkmanship with the fundamentalists is unnerving. If the King bill passes, Usdane will get very little credit for his role as steward. And if it fails, Usdane's accommodation of the Christian extremists will be remembered as appeasement.
On Sunday, April 23, the day before the recent King rally, Zaler and forty other Jewish leaders met privately with Usdane to urge him not only to bring the bill to the floor but to vote for it. Many points of persuasion were offered including the obvious--A Jew has special obligations under special circumstances. If the bill fails, these people will remember who was Senate president.
And if the King holiday passes, the fundamentalist Christians will also remember who was Senate president. Usdane will have to think twice about whether or not he will again be elected to lead the Senate. Usdane, in point of fact, will have to think twice about getting elected, period. Annetta Conant, the woman who introduced the Christian nation resolution at the Republican convention, says succinctly, "Usdane too is vulnerable."
No matter what Robert Usdane does, he will pay the price for being at the top. To be continued
These days the curiosity is about the nature of Usdane's soul.
While the King holiday is indeed symbolic, it is also a dollars-and-cents issue.
The hospitality industry is afraid of antagonizing the Mechamites and the fundamentalist Christians.
"`You dirty Jew, you nigger lover.' Someone sent a letter with a swastika on it." Short of lynchings and cross burning on Central, just what would make the King holiday a big deal if recent events have not?
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.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona
- LGBTQ Mormons Lose Faith in Church After Announcement of Anti-Gay Policy