Arizona’s Legislature Is Playing Politics With History

The Arizona Legislature has authorized more than 30 memorials on the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza at the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix, but a memorial for the Union soldiers whose sacrifices facilitated the creation of the Arizona territory during the Civil War in 1863 is conspicuously missing.

In 2015 some Union soldier descendants, who belonged to a group called the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), decided to do something about it. Several of their officers met with state Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, to ask for her support to get a bill passed to authorize the SUVCW to build a Union soldier memorial on the Plaza. They had no experience whatsoever with state’s legislative process, but they were going to get an education.

During the meeting with Sen. Allen, she assured them the bill should pass easily because, “who would oppose it?” Subsequently, in January 2016 she introduced SB 1036 to authorize the memorial.

I have been a member of the Picacho Peak (Phoenix) Camp of the SUVCW since 2014, and have four great-great-grandfathers who served in the Union Army. I was interested in the fate of SB 1036 and asked our officers about it. They told me that Sen. Allen hadn’t provided them with any updates regarding its status. So, I sent her an email inquiry. She responded with an email on May 6:

So sorry that I had not talked to you before now. There were 9 requests for memorials at the plaza this session. The plaza is getting quite full and the Mall Commission needs to meet to discuss what direction to take for the future. I believe it will become more of a process to be able to get a memorial but I will let you know what might happen before next session.

I shared her response within our organization, and we were disappointed by it, especially because it implied that our bill would have to wait until the Legislature’s 2017 session. We were also confused by her response, because we understood that new memorials on the Plaza were authorized by the Legislature. The role of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission, according to the law, was only to review the designs of new memorials that had been authorized, after getting feedback from the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA), which managed the mall, and the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission (AHAC), which verified their historical accuracy. However, we still sent a letter to the Mall Commission asking them to find a place on the mall for our monument. But we didn’t receive a reply.

Sen. Allen’s response also made me curious about the fate of other memorials proposed for the Plaza in 2016. I reviewed the bills listed on the Legislature’s website and discovered that a bill to authorize a memorial for the Assyrian Genocide, where thousands of Christian Assyrians in upper Mesopotamia were slaughtered by Muslims between 1914 and 1923, had been passed by the Senate on May 7 – the day after Sen. Allen’s email to me. That bill, SB 1367, had been introduced by Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, but it was vetoed on May 18 by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. In his veto letter he explained that he was rejecting it because the mall had “limited space” and he wanted, “the Arizona Department of Administration to work with the Governmental Mall Commission to review our current monuments and develop a plan for the future.”

This was the same explanation Sen. Allen had given us. I subsequently checked the minutes from the Commission’s next meeting on November 17 to see how they responded. But there was little discussion of a plan for the mall’s future. (And no discussion of a plan for the mall in the minutes of the Commission’s subsequent meetings) Instead, the Commission recommended that the proponents of the Assyrian Genocide monument work with the local Christian Armenian community, which already had an Armenian Martyrs Memorial on the plaza.

Armenian Martyrs Memorial, Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ.
Armenian Martyrs Memorial, Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ. (Jeff Burgess)

I also remembered that earlier in the year the Arizona Capitol Times newspaper had published a story about a controversial addition to the plaza’s existing Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial had been authorized in 1984 by the passage of HB 2462, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Hartdegen, R-Casa Grande, a Vietnam War veteran. It created an advisory board that was tasked with identifying a “final design” for the memorial that would be “as politically neutral as possible with respect to the nature of the Vietnam conflict.”

The addition to the Vietnam memorial was proposed by Joe Abodeely, director of the Arizona Military Museum at Papago Park in Phoenix. Abodeely, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had submitted a request to the AHAC in December 2015 asking them to approve some text which had already been engraved upon four stainless steel plaques that he wanted to add to the memorial. He claimed the text gave a “factual updated” version of the Vietnam War.

But on February 12, 2016, the AHAC’s Chair, Teresita Majewski, sent a letter to the Mall Commission stating their unanimous concern about the appropriateness of the language on the plaques. The letter pointed out that the memorial was required to present information about the Vietnam War in a “neutral” manner, but the text on the plaques didn’t do that, and much of the text was “confusing.”

For example, one section of the plaques was titled, “MEDIA ‘SPIN’ INFLUENCED THE PUBLIC AND THE WAR,” and included the statement that:

The media, anti-war protestors, and the counter-culture-types fed off of each other as they maligned the Vietnam War and its service men; and very few anti-Vietnam protestors had any idea they were echoing Hanoi’s propaganda and were Communist dupes.

On March 4, 2016, the Mall Commission met and considered Abodeely’s request to modify the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. State Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, a veteran, spoke in support of erecting the plaques, as did former legislator Jim Hartdegen – despite the fact that he had claimed in 1984 that the memorial was, “a way to try and heal the wounds.” The Commission’s chair, Kevin DeMenna, a lobbyist, explained the AHAC only had an advisory role, and it was up to the Commission to make the final decision about the modification. After some lively discussion, including some dissent, Commissioner Barry Aarons, another lobbyist and Ducey appointee, moved that the Commission approve Abodeely’s plaques, and the motion passed on a 7 to 2 vote.

arizona vietnam war memorial 2016 addition
Plaques added to Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2016, Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ (Jeff Burgess)

It was obvious that Mr. Abodeely knew something about how to get a memorial approved, so I called him to ask for some advice in January 2017. He confirmed what we were already beginning to realize – that it’s a very political process.

It’s likely that none of my brothers in the SUVCW were aware of what had happened with the other memorials in 2016. We all just assumed that we would hear back from Sen. Allen and she would reintroduce our bill in 2017. But neither of those things happened. We suspected it was related to the national controversy that had erupted regarding the appropriateness of Confederate flags and monuments on public property as a result of the execution-style murders of nine black people by white supremacist Dylann Roof at the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015.

Prior to the murders, Roof had posted a photo of himself on his website holding a pistol and a Confederate flag. On June 20 thousands of people gathered at the South Carolina capitol to demand the lowering of the Confederate flag that flew on the capitol grounds, and on June 22 South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley asked the state legislature to pass the law that was necessary to remove the flag. (The bill was passed and the flag was removed on July 10.)

In Arizona, state Representative Reginald Bolding Jr., D-Laveen, the Legislature’s only African-American member at the time, reacted to the murders on June 24 by calling for the removal of the Jefferson Davis Highway monument from public property along U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction, and a renaming of the highway.

“In light of everything that has happened…we can’t go through our daily lives honoring symbols of hate, symbols of separation and symbols of segregation right now,” Bolding said.

Gov. Ducey responded that he would ask for a governmental review of the marker because he’d rather see the state’s highways named after Arizonans, but he didn’t respond to Bolding’s request for the monument to be removed.

Rep. Bolding hadn’t asked for the removal of the Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops located on Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, but it was obviously a political elephant in the room, and one that we figured Sen. Allen didn’t want to poke.

After we realized that Sen. Allen wasn’t going to help us during the Legislature’s 2017 session, we didn’t give up, but tried to find other sponsors. We naively sent out emails from our personal accounts to some legislators we thought might be willing to help us. We had very little success, although we did discover that we had already missed the Legislature’s deadline for the introduction of new bills – which is just a few weeks into each session. We also learned that, even though we had found some Democratic legislators who were willing to sponsor our memorial bill in 2018, we needed a Republican sponsor for our bill, as the Legislature was controlled by Republicans. We were warned that it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a bill sponsored by a Democrat to get passed, and that any bill introduced by Democrat might be permanently blacklisted by the Republicans.

The national controversy about Confederate monuments on public property intensified in 2017. In June, African-American leaders in Arizona, including Rep. Bolding, asked Gov. Ducey to use his influence to help remove Arizona’s six Confederate memorials, including the Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops on the Plaza, because they were erected to “intimidate” African-Americans while “inspiring and emboldening white supremacists” Bolding pointed out that Gov. Ducey had never asked AHAC to consider removing the Jefferson Davis Highway designation from U.S. 60, as he had promised in 2015. Ducey’s spokesman Patrick Ptak responded that their requests were misdirected at the governor, and implied that Ducey had little influence over AHAC or the Mall Commission.

Then in August, violence resulted from a proposal by the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park. Right-wing extremists from across the U.S. organized a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on August 12 to oppose the removal. Counter-protestors responded by organizing against them. On the night of August 11, a group of white supremacists conducted an unauthorized march through the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville, while carrying torches and chanting racist slogans. The next day both sides gathered and brawls broke out, so the Virginia State Police declared an unlawful assembly before the rally officially began and cleared the area. But then right-wing extremist James A. Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heath Heyer and injuring 19 others.

In an apparent response to her murder, Arizona’s Jefferson Davis Highway monument, and the Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops on the Plaza were vandalized. Rep. Bolding called the vandalism “irresponsible and nonproductive” and did “nothing to promote the cause of removing symbols of hate.”

Gov. Ducey said he condemned the white supremacists that had converged on Charlottesville “100 percent” but, “It’s not my desire or mission to tear down any monuments or memorials.” He added that Confederate monuments are part of “our history” and that, “We fought the Civil War and the United States won the Civil War. We freed the slaves and we followed up with civil rights after that.”

In response to the growing controversy over Confederate monuments, the national leadership of the SUVCW issued a Battle Flag and Monument Policy in August 2017 which stated, “the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War strongly condemn the removal, defacement or destruction of any Civil War Veterans Monument or tablet, whether Union or Confederate.”

In October 2017 the group Progress Now Arizona delivered petitions with more than 1,000 signatures to Gov. Ducey’s office demanding he advocate for the removal of Confederate monuments on state property and for changing the name of the Jefferson Davis Highway. They also delivered 100 letters of support from Arizona NAACP chapters, religious leaders, and multiple history and ethics professors from Arizona’s public universities.

Ducey ignored them, but in September the AHAC had met and considered proposals received from the public to rename U.S. 60 the Rose Mofford Memorial Highway. During the meeting the Board’s researchers explained they believed the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway had ceased to exist when U.S. 80 was decommissioned in 1989, which had resulted in the stretch of highway next to the monument to be renamed U.S. 60. The Arizona Department of Transportation followed this up with a letter in October wherein they officially stated that the Jefferson Davis Highway no longer existed in Arizona, and that the Jefferson Davis Monument was privately owned. (In 1998 they had issued an encroachment permit to the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for its maintenance. The monument is still there, and is being repeatedly vandalized.)

Then in late 2017 the Arizona State Parks announced that, beginning in 2018, they would no longer sponsor their annual “Civil War in the Southwest” historical reenactment event at Picacho Peak State Park, where a skirmish between Union and Confederate troops had occurred in 1862. The agency claimed it cost too much for them to administer, despite the fact it was very popular and they collected a lot of money from parking and entrance fees.

Earlier in 2017, there had been more action in the Legislature regarding historical memorials. State Rep. Todd Clodfelter, R-Tucson, had introduced a bill, HB 2436, to help fund the construction of a memorial in downtown Tucson to honor the victims of the January 8, 2011, mass shooting that killed six people, and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson. The bill had been introduced in the Legislature by Democrats in 2016 without any success. But with a Republican sponsor in 2017, it easily cleared the state House with bipartisan approval. It got stuck, however, in the Senate’s Natural Resources, Energy, and Water Committee, chaired by Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford. She refused give the bill a hearing or provide any explanation about why she opposed it. The popular suspicion was that she was upset that Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly were promoting gun control legislation. Supporters of the memorial were forced to increase their private fundraising efforts and also received a $61,000 grant from the National Park Service. (The memorial was dedicated in January 2018.)

In December 2017, in preparation for the Legislature’s 2018 session, we identified some Republican legislators that we would ask to sponsor our Union soldier memorial bill in the upcoming session, and began sending them emails. We also sent an email to former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who had spearheaded the effort to get the WWII “Guns to Salute the Fallen,” memorial built on the Plaza. We didn’t hear back from any of them. But were determined to keep trying, and decided to improve our effort for the 2019 session.

Arizona's Guns to Salute the Fallen WWII memorial
Guns to Salute the Fallen WWII memorial, Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)

In the meantime, I attended the February 14, 2018, meeting of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission to see if I could learn anything that could help us. After they completed their agenda items, I took advantage of the public testimony session to ask them some questions. First, however, I described our group, explained our project, and told them of our frustrations with being unable to get any Republican support for it in the Legislature. Chairman DeMenna acted as if he had never heard of our project before, even though we’d written to him about it. The Commission, however, was supportive and gave us advice about how to get our bill passed. Former Republican state legislator Jeff Dial gave us the best advice. (Dial, a moderate, had been ousted from the Senate in the 2016 Republican primary election when he narrowly lost to right-winger Frank Schmuck.) Dial said that we had to badger our legislators into submission – the squeaky wheel gets the grease. He advised us to demand in-person meetings at their offices, show up with more than one person, and the more people we brought the better.

Before the Commission meeting concluded, state Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, a non-voting advisory member of the Commission, asked Chairman DeMenna to consider putting a discussion about the Plaza’s Confederate soldier memorial on a future Commission agenda. She explained that many Arizona voters had told her they didn’t like the memorial because they believed it honors the Confederate cause, and that a public discussion about it could be useful. Chairman DeMenna was noncommittal and soon gaveled the meeting to an abrupt close.

After the meeting adjourned, I was approached by an ADOA employee in attendance who told me Sen. Allen’s excuse for not pushing our bill in 2016 wasn’t true – that there was plenty of room on the Plaza if we could get the Legislature to approve our monument.

Meanwhile, in the Legislature’s 2018 session, Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, had sponsored a bill to authorize the construction of a Buffalo Soldiers Memorial on Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza. The buffalo soldiers were African-American U.S. soldiers that served on the Western frontier after the Civil War. Despite being introduced by a Democrat, her bill, SB 1179, received bipartisan support and sailed through both houses of the Legislature without a single no vote. It was signed by Gov. Ducey on April 5.

Then in early May, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Ducey signed, SB 1524, Arizona’s FY 2019 budget. Buried deep in the bill was the abolishment of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission and the reassignment of its authority to ADOA. Instead of public hearings held by a diverse commission, the review of new memorials authorized by the Legislature for Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza would be handled by ADOA’s administrative personnel. (In June 2019 the Arizona Capitol Times reported that, according to the Commission’s former Chair DeMenna, Sen. Barto wanted the Commission eliminated because they didn’t support her bill to authorize the Assyrian Genocide monument in 2016.)

During the remainder of 2018 we used everything we’d learned to plan our best effort to get a Union soldier memorial bill passed in the Legislature’s 2019 session. We increased the information about the SUVCW Department of the Southwest on our website, and improved the site’s Union soldier memorial project web page. And, we setup an official email account so that we could use email addresses that included our website’s domain name, and created an official graphic logo to be used in the footers of our messages.

We also found all of the legislative districts where our Department senior officers lived, and identified the Republican legislators that represented them. Language was drafted for the emails we planned to send to them that included a link to our website and a request for a meeting. In late December 2018 we began sending emails from our official account to the targeted legislators. They were signed by the senior officers that lived in their districts. We planned to follow them up with phone calls repeating our requests for meetings.

On January 3, 2020, we received our first response. It was an email from the office of House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, offering to meet with us to discuss our memorial. We were elated to get a meeting with such an influential legislator, especially after our years of frustration. On January 22 myself and two other SUVCW officers met with Rep. Bowers at the Arizona House of Representatives. We were pleased to discover that he was a fellow student of Arizona history and that he liked the idea of adding a Union soldier memorial to the Plaza. He even pointed out that he was a sculptor by trade, and might like to make a statue for our memorial, but then admitted some people would consider that a conflict of interest. Because of the ongoing controversy about Confederate monuments, we gave him a copy of the SUVCW’s policy about them, and told him we were only interested in getting our memorial approved. Then he told us a story about his visit to the Jefferson Davis Monument in Kentucky several years ago. He explained that it’s a tall concrete obelisk with an elevator inside that you can ride to the top. He said the monument was in such a state of disrepair that he was scared it was going to fall over as he rode it. That’s the fate of monuments that nobody cares about anymore, he explained, they eventually rot away and disappear. It seemed he was alluding to the Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops on Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, which is rotting apart.

When our meeting concluded, Rep. Bowers encouraged us by saying that he would “shop the bill around” in the House to gauge the support for it, and get back to us. We were very excited, but we never got another response from him.

We also received a response from Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, and on February 5 myself and two other SUVCW officers, including our Department’s Civil War Memorials Officer, met with her in her office. After listening to our pitch, which included the SUVCW’s policy regarding Confederate soldier monuments, she was enthusiastic about helping us, but pointed out that the Legislature’s annual deadline for submitting bills had already passed. But, she explained, she was the chair of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce and could use a “strike everything” amendment to rewrite a bill that had already been introduced, and wasn’t needed anymore, to change it into our bill at the Committee’s next meeting on February 14. An agenda for the meeting was released on February 8 that confirmed her plan.

Our excitement, however, was short-lived because our Civil War Memorials Officer received a phone call from Sen. Ugenti-Rita on February 13 wherein she explained that Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, would not allow her to do the “strike everything” amendment for us. Sen. Fann was concerned that Democrats in the Legislature would use our bill as a platform to ask for the removal of the Confederate memorial on the Plaza. Sen. Ugenti-Rita expressed her continued support for our bill, and said she would keep in touch.

This turn of events was demoralizing. Especially because we realized that, despite all of our work, Sen. Ugenti-Rita was probably our only good chance of getting our bill introduced in the 2020 session, as the Legislature’s membership would be the same then as it was in 2019.

In the meantime, during the Legislature’s 2019 session Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, introduced HB 2183, a bill to authorize a Frances Willard Munds Arizona Women Suffrage Memorial on the Plaza. It was passed by both houses of the Legislature without a single no vote and signed by Gov. Ducey on April 23.

After the Legislature’s 2020 session began in January, our Civil War Memorials Officer, who lived in Sen. Ugenti-Rita’s district, contacted her office again to see if she would introduce our bill, but he got no response. We have concluded that, until the membership of the Legislature changes, we are wasting our time trying to get our Union soldier memorial bill passed.

In the meantime, I believe Arizonans need to know that their Republican legislators have opposed a bill to authorize a Union soldier memorial at the state capitol, despite the fact they are members of the party of Abraham Lincoln – the first Republican president, the president who prosecuted and won the Civil War, and who was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer.

NOTE: This article is my personal opinion, and is not any sort of official statement by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Updates

On June 30, 2020, Arizona Chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) sent a letter to the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA) asking that the Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops, at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, along with the Jefferson Davis Highway marker, located in the public right of way along U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction, be gifted back to them. The ADAO, with Gov. Ducey’s approval, agreed, and during the night of July 22nd the UDC moved both monuments to undisclosed locations.

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