Mechanic paid dues, let him go

by Laurie Roberts
from the Scottsdale edition of The Arizona Republic Nov. 29, 2000

His supporters call him "the last American Prisoner-of-War from Nixon's Vietnam." A martyr. A man forced to serve time because he stood tall.

"Every time (he) stood up before a public microphone or addressed a legislative or press conference opposing crooked election practices or polluted water or urban sprawl, he took the chance of being discovered and jailed," they say, on the Web site devoted to winning his freedom.

"And finally, when he took his courage between his teeth and (some say rashly) put himself forward as a viable candidate for the Scottsdale City Council, he took a gamble and lost more than an election. Reports digging into his background came up with the decades-old conviction and stumbled across a warrant for his arrest: 'The last of the Vietnam-war protesters, still sought by the FBI.' What a bonanza for them; what a disaster for the rest of us!"

What a crock.

Howard Mechanic isn't a martyr, just a prisoner of his own past. As a young man, he made a mistake. As an adult, he compounded it.

And paid for it.

Now, it's time to let him go.

You know the 30-year-old story of the anti-war activist who ignored a court order to stay away from campus protests at Washington University. He took to the streets with a thousand others after four Kent State students were gunned down by the National Guard. He was convicted - on shaky evidence, as it turns out - of lobbing a cherry bomb at firefighters as they battled a blaze at an ROTC building.

A judge decided to make an example of Mechanic, pounding him with the maximum five-year prison term.

So he cut and ran.

To Arizona. Here, the student who had fought for truth, justice and an end to the Vietnam War grew into the man who fought for truth, justice and an end to the influence of special interests.

He became Gary Tredway, the ex-hippie who still wore sandals, gave a quarter of his salary to charity and fought for what he believed in.

He spearheaded a campaign finance reform drive that led to Arizona's Clean Elections Law. He questioned why Phoenix would offer $100 million in tax breaks to lure Sumitomo. He exposed the fact that Scottsdale spent nearly $1 million in public funds to pay the Chamber of Commerce's mortgage.

He campaigned against the unending line of sports teams and development teams looking for a public handout.

Instead of throwing firecrackers he threw facts and figures, and once again he ran.

This time for public office.

It was his undoing, of course, but in a way it was also his best chance at real freedom. Thirty years, after all, is a long time to be looking over your shoulder.

Since Feb. 10, Mechanic has been locked up. His supporters are asking Bill Clinton to reduce Mechanic's sentence before he leaves office.

If that happens, Mechanic would be eligible for release in January. It's enough.

Clinton should let Mechanic, the man who cut and ran, go and disappear.

And the rest of us should let Tredway, the man who stood his ground and stayed, come back and begin again.

Reach Roberts at Copyright 2000, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved.