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.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey

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