King holiday 'no' places Arizona on the defensive

November 25, 1990|By Gary Blonston | Gary Blonston,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- It wasn't rugged Western individualists who defeated Arizona's attempt to designate a holiday for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. earlier this month. It wasn't even native Arizonans, of whom there are relatively few.

It was New Yorkers, Georgians, Ohioans and all the other people who have transplanted themselves and their Eastern, Southern and Midwestern attitudes into Arizona during the last four decades. Today they dominate the population and politics of a state whose eccentricities truly can be called All-American.

"The fact of the matter is that this place is as American as apple pie. We have inherited the cream -- or the dregs, depending on how you look at it -- of American civilization," says a retired Arizona State University political scientist, Bruce Mason.

These days, national opinion seems to lean toward dregs.

In the two weeks since they narrowly rejected the King holiday, Arizonans have been called racists, political loonies, short-sighted cheapskates and soilers of their own nest. They are about to lose convention business worth tens of millions of dollars, immeasurable social and commercial good will, what's left of their national image and that ultimate grail of local boosterism, the Super Bowl.

Amy Rose, 19, who moved to Arizona recently from Danville, Calif., says, "It's outrageous. I'm embarrassed to live here."

Arizona is a turbulent, changing state split right down its political middle, as shown not only by the hair-breadth King vote but also its still-to-be-resolved, dead-heat governor's race.

Some of the most important opposition to the King proposal came from the retired moms and dads of the other 49 states -- older people who muster a massive, automatic no vote on any issue that involves tax money, as in this case, to pay state employees taking the holiday off.

The other powerful opponents were residents who have found refuge and recreation in small towns whose high-desert, western-movie surroundings are a million miles from the streets of civil strife in Atlanta and Memphis, Chicago and Detroit.

Most votes for the King holiday came from the three urban counties surrounding Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff -- motivated more, some say, by economics than ideals.

But many pro-holiday urbanites didn't vote at all, a mistake very few older anti-holiday voters made. Robert Robb, a political consultant for the pro-holiday organization, says that in such major retirement centers as Sun City outside Phoenix, the turnout was astonishing: 95 to 97 percent, compared with 60 percent around the state.

Polls show that racism, political philosophy and tax resistance all played a role in the no vote, but another factor became almost as controversial as the ballot proposition itself: a report on national television two days before the election saying National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue would recommend moving the scheduled 1993 Super Bowl out of Phoenix if Arizona didn't endorse a King holiday.

Pollsters said that 60,000 voters who viewed that as blackmail changed their vote to no. The proposal lost by 17,000 votes, out of more than 1 million cast.

"A lot of racist voters used the NFL statement . . . as a shill," says Clovis Campbell, who publishes Phoenix's black newspaper. "They said, 'I'm not voting against it because I'm racist. I just don't like being told what to do.' "

Mr. Campbell considers them hypocrites, but former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, whose declaration of the first King holiday in 1983 led to this ongoing controversy, is inclined to believe that in a state with a black population smaller than 3 percent, there is a better explanation than racism.

"It's the mythology of the West, the individual standing tall against the federal government," Mr. Babbitt says. "This is one of two states that don't have daylight savings time. The reason is that the federal government mandated daylight savings time. . . . It's the reason Phoenix doesn't have freeways. . . . Back in the '60s the state and city of Phoenix basically turned their backs on federal highway projects as a socialist scheme for redistributing wealth. . . . And it was the last state to enter Medicaid."

There is another side to the Arizona mind, embraced by a less political, more economically driven population that came west to succeed in business, industry and real estate. Although they and their capital city of Phoenix supported the King holiday, they are the ones who stand to take the greatest beating as the nation reacts.

"The people who'll suffer worst are the ones who've supported it for years," says David Radcliffe, president of the Phoenix convention and visitors bureau.

That's an argument he has tried to make with the NFL and that he is currently making with every convention planner he can get to listen.

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