For many of us who grew up in Arizona in the 1970’s, Carolyn Warner was someone you just knew was important.
She was the statewide elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, and she autographed many school documents.
(Including the first Certificate of Achievement in Reading Award that I received in elementary school:)
But Carolyn Warner will probably always be remembered most as the Arizona Governor – that never was.
After serving as the top education chief for a dozen years, Warner, with her deep, raspy voice and her hair pulled tightly back, set her sights on the governors office.
She became the Democratic nominee in 1986, and for most of the year she looked like a certain winner against a goofy, perennial Republican candidate Evan Mecham.
Mecham, who had the worst toupee in the history of politics, had defeated the better financed Burton Barr in the GOP primary, and polls showed that no more than 40 percent of Arizonans would ever vote for him.
He had run for governor four years earlier, and after losing in the primary, had famously declared, “You won’t have Ev Mecham to kick around anymore!”
But, as we all know, in politics some strange things can happen.
Bill Schultz, the Democratic U.S. senate nominee who had almost defeated the legendary Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1980, decided he wanted to run too.
So he entered the ’86 governors race, only to drop out several months later (he was Ross Perot before Ross Perot).
Then, in a moment of pure political greed, after Warner had secured the nomination, the multi-millionaire decided to reenter the race as an independent candidate, essentially meaning that two well known Democrats were squaring off against the used-car salesman.
All of a sudden that 40 percent for Mecham looked golden, and that’s the percentage of vote he needed to win in that three-way race in November.
Of course, Mecham’s time as governor was bad from the start, one of the most craziest stories I’ve witnessed in politics.
I posted this 60 Minutes story on my YouTube page for your amusement and enjoyment (does some of it remind you of what’s going on today?):
Carolyn Warner never got over losing to Mecham.
In a 1988 interview with an Oklahoma newspaper, she was still trying to figure out how it happened
“How would you like to travel around the country and have people find out that Evan Mecham beat you?” said Warner. “It’s a stunning and kind of remarkable realization. If they don’t know the whole story, they wonder what kind of a person are you.”
What history will remember is that Carolyn Warner was a perfectly decent person, a true Arizonan who loved her state and public service.
And a woman who should have been governor.