updated 2/22/2008 5:44:02 PM ET 2008-02-22T22:44:02

Evan Mecham, a firebrand conservative who served 15 months as Arizona's governor before a dramatic impeachment trial removed him from office in 1988, died Thursday, a former aide said. He was 83.

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Mecham, who always blamed his downfall on political enemies, had been in deteriorating health with Alzheimer's disease for years and was at the Arizona State Veteran Home in Phoenix until recent weeks, when he went into hospice care, said state Sen. Karen Johnson, who was Mecham's aide while he was governor.

"I just think Evan was a visionary, perhaps a little bit ahead of his time for some people and a great, great patriot and constitutionalist," Johnson said.

"He had such a drive to return state's rights to Arizona and the country and it will be a great celebration at his funeral to honor such a great man."

Mecham, a millionaire automobile dealer who served in the state Senate for two years in the 1960s, ran for governor four times before he finally won a three-way race in November 1986.

In April 1988, the Republican was removed from office when the state Senate convicted him of obstructing justice and misusing $80,000 in state funds allegedly funneled to his Pontiac dealership to keep it afloat. He was the first U.S. governor impeached and removed from office in 59 years.

Mecham claimed the funds were the proceeds of his inaugural ball, which had been intended as campaign contributions. He insisted it was his money to spend as he saw fit, except for political purposes.

In a privately printed 1988 book titled "Impeachment: The Arizona Conspiracy," Mecham claimed the real reason he was impeached and convicted was "pure and simple raw political power exercised by those groups who wanted to remain in control."

"In the final analysis, my error was not in what I did with the (protocol) funds, but in thinking I was dealing with people who had honor, integrity and the best interest of the state at heart," Mecham wrote.

Acquittal and conspiracy
In a criminal court in June 1988, Mecham was acquitted of six felony counts of violating campaign finance laws by allegedly concealing a $350,000 loan.

Through it all, Mecham maintained he was the victim of a widespread conspiracy.

"I was in their way when I came in and followed through on my campaign promises," Mecham said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press. "It didn't take me too long to find out how this state operated."

On the first anniversary of his conviction, he announced he would run for governor again — his sixth time and last time — but lost.

Mecham had been elected with 40 percent of the vote. He took office in January 1987, but controversy quickly erupted. Some of his appointees came under fire, and he was criticized by rescinding a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday, saying its creation had been illegal.

When a Mecham Recall Committee began circulating petitions, Mecham said the effort stood little chance of success because its leader was an acknowledged his homosexual.

In a fundraising letter later that year, he said he was being challenged by "some of the most powerful and dangerous liberal groups in the nation." But by the end of the year even former Sen. Barry Goldwater called for his fellow conservative's resignation.

'Tired of this kind of baloney'
In January 1988, Mecham was indicted by a state grand jury on six felony charges of fraud, perjury and filing false documents alleging he concealed a $350,000 campaign loan. Weeks later, more than 300,000 signatures were certified on a petition for a recall election and the vote is set for May 17.

But events in the Legislature moved so swiftly, the recall was never held. The House voted 46-14 on Feb. 5 to impeach Mecham and later approves charges in connection with the $350,000 loan, the $80,000 protocol fund loan and an alleged effort to stop the investigation of a death threat against a former Mecham lobbyist. Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat, became acting governor.

The Senate impeachment trial began Feb. 29. The governor himself took the stand, at one point shouting at a prosecutor: "I am kind of tired of this kind of baloney!"

The governor pleaded a faulty memory for details but said he knew one thing — he had never been accused of anything worse than a traffic ticket. When he was shown copies of two lawsuits in which Mecham was accused of fraud in business deals, he bristled, saying that was not the same thing, and eventually snapped: "I'll respond as I see fit. I've earned the right to respond!"

Controversial Arizonan
The Senate dismissed the campaign loan cover-up charge, but on April 4, it voted 21-9 to convict Mecham on death threat obstruction charge, removing him from office. The Senate also convicted him of the charge involving the protocol fund. Mecham was removed from office and Mofford became governor.

After an unsuccessful run for the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1990, Mecham briefly tried publishing his own newspaper and then concentrated on varied business interests.

Some said Mecham brought out the worst in Arizonans — racism, bigotry, intolerance. In addition to canceling the King holiday, Mecham said working women cause divorce and that he saw nothing wrong with calling black children "pickaninnies."

Others called him one of the last politicians gutsy enough to stand up for traditional family values and turn the state from liberal government interference. Mecham said his primary goal was to "return government to the people."

Mecham, born in Duchese, Utah, began selling cars to put himself through college. He attended Utah State University, Creighton University and Arizona State University, but did not get a degree.

Survivors include his wife, Florence, and seven children. Funeral plans were incomplete Friday.

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