Current Interim County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, who has spent her career in the highest reaches of the office, was winning the Republican primary easily over opponent Gina Godbehere in early returns. If those results hold with the remaining 20 percent of the uncounted ballots, Mitchell will face Julie Gunnigle, a Democrat and harsh critic of Mitchell and the office she runs.
The winner in November will run a powerful and long-troubled office.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is one of the largest prosecutorial agencies in the nation, handling tens of thousands of criminal cases a year. It has a storied history of corruption and scandal. Under the most recent county attorney, Allister Adel, it charged Black Lives Matter protesters with belonging to a fictitious gang, Former County Attorney Andrew Thomas was ultimately disbarred over his collaboration with former county sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Adel resigned from the office in March, triggering an election for replacement in November. She died, at just 45 years old, a few weeks later.
In April, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed Mitchell to serve as county attorney until the elected replacement was sworn in. The move prompted criticism that the county was giving Mitchell, who by that point had announced her candidacy, the advantage of incumbency.
Gunnigle announced her candidacy the day that Adel resigned, collecting enough signatures to get on the August ballot in just days. It’s Gunnigle’s second time running for the seat. Back in 2020, she lost narrowly to Adel.
The tenor of the 2020 race for top prosecutor in Maricopa County was striking. Both candidates — Adel and Gunnigle — ran on platforms of reform.
Although Adel’s promises were more modest than Gunnigle’s, and her tenure at the attorney’s office was hardly unblemished, she did make good on some of them. She made the county attorney’s plea deal guidelines public. She also lowered the costs of the county’s drug diversion programs.
But Adel’s stint at the county attorney’s office was plagued by concerns about her sobriety and internal turmoil. Mitchell, a bureau chief at the attorney’s office under Adel, was one of several top prosecutors to write a letter in February demanding her resignation.
Ultimately, Mitchell was successful.
This time around, the contest is more about candidates with different political commitments.
Mitchell, while emphasizing her desire to restore the reputation of the office, has taken a tough-on-crime tack more reminiscent of the days of prior Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery than of Adel.
“Together, we will make Maricopa County the number-one place for law and order,” she wrote in a recent campaign email, calling Gunnigle a “radical.” In other campaign messaging, she emphasized her focus on “cracking down on crime” and even evoked billionaire George Soros to rile up voters.
The old-school conservative prosecutor rhetoric is hardly a surprise. With backlash mounting against progressive prosecutors in cities that once embraced them — most notably San Francisco — the tough-on-crime stance might seem like a better bet. This is particularly true in Maricopa County, a place, after all, that birthed Thomas and Arpaio.
Mitchell has spent her career at MCAO, working for a time as Montgomery’s second-in-command. She’s used her experience there as proof that she can right the ship.
Gunnigle, for her part, has tried to paint Mitchell’s insider status a liability. “Twenty-five years in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is frankly disqualifying,” Gunnigle told Phoenix New Times back in April.
Gunnigle maintains that, with MCAO’s history, an outsider is needed to address deeply ingrained problems with prosecutions in the county. She has promised to expand diversion programs and conduct a “full audit” of the office. She has vowed not to prosecute abortions.
With abortions now largely criminalized in Arizona, the question of enforcement falls on prosecutors. Given that nearly two-thirds of Arizonans live in Maricopa County, the county attorney here will play an outsized role. Gunnigle has made the right to an abortion the centerpiece of her campaign.
“It is not in the best interest of justice to prosecute people for their health care decisions, including abortion,” she has said.
Mitchell, meanwhile, has made no such promise. “My role is to enforce the law and to look at cases as they come to me,” she said at a press conference last month. Although she played up her experience prosecuting sex crimes and said she was “not about the business of revictimizing victims,” she did not give a straightforward answer to what she might do in an abortion case that involved sexual assault or incest.
For some voters, the issue of abortion drew their attention to a local race that they otherwise might have overlooked.
Kaden Ryback, a student at Arizona State University, stopped to talk to New Times on Tuesday outside a polling place in central Phoenix. Of all the races down the ballot, he said, it was the county attorney’s race that he was most interested in.
“I don’t think I really appreciated just how significant the races are for county attorney and what that would mean for our court system here,” Ryback said. And it was the question of abortions, he said, that really encouraged him to turn out to vote. “Those races all over the country are more important now,” he said, noting that he supported Gunnigle’s stance.