Julie Gunnigle jumps to early lead in Maricopa County attorney race

Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

Allister Adel’s tenure as Maricopa County attorney could be a short one, as Democrat Julie Gunnigle holds an early lead over the Republican incumbent.

Gunnigle notched 51% of the vote to Adel’s 49% when counting stopped early Wednesday morning. Gunnigle leads Adel by about 40,000 votes. That accounted for all of the ballots cast on Election Day, but not for early ballots dropped off at polling places on Tuesday, which will be counted beginning Wednesday.

Complicating things, Adel was rushed to the hospital Tuesday evening for a medical emergency, the details of which are not clear.

Whichever candidates wins will become the first woman ever elected as Maricopa County attorney. If Gunnigle’s lead holds, she’ll be the first Democrat to hold the office since 1980, winning with a progressive, pro-criminal justice reform message.

Regardless of which candidate wins, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office will move away from the legacy of Bill Montgomery, the longtime incumbent who resigned last year to join the Arizona Supreme Court. Exactly how far voters were willing to go was an open question.

In the year since the county Board of Supervisors appointed Adel to replace Montgomery, she’s implemented a number of reforms, such as increasing access to diversion programs, compiling criminal justice statistics for Maricopa County, promoting treatment for defendants in drug cases and dropping marijuana possession charges for people who get medical marijuana cards.

But Gunnigle’s vision for the county attorney’s office goes much further, and she cast Adel as a continuation of Montgomery’s nine-year tenure. 

Gunnigle wants to end the use of cash bail in Maricopa County, or at least to the extent that the county attorney’s office can do so without changes to the law. She wants to create a new unit that will review use-of-force incidents by law enforcement officers, reduce racial disparities in prosecutions that lead to tougher charges and longer sentences for people of color, and end the use of Hannah priors, a mechanism by which prosecutors can charge first-time defendants as repeat offenders. 

Gunnigle has pledged not to prosecute low-level marijuana possession charges, a moot point after voters approved Proposition 207, which legalizes recreational marijuana use.

And she wants to use the office as a bully pulpit to advocate for criminal justice reform at the legislature. Arizona has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and Gunnigle believes the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office can do a lot to change that.

Gunnigle said her first move if elected will be to create a new unit to review use-of-force incidents by law enforcement officers. She was sharply critical of Adel’s decision not to charge Department of Public Safety Trooper George Cervantes in the shooting death of Dion Johnson, an unarmed Black man, in May, though she wouldn’t commit to bringing charges against Cervantes if elected.

With the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett solidifying a new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, Gunnigle has focused heavily on abortion rights. Arizona still has a law on the books criminalizing abortion, which predates Roe v. Wade, and Gunnigle has been vocal about refusing to prosecute women under that law if the Supreme Court permits states to prohibit abortions.

Adel sought to paint Gunnigle as too radical for traditionally conservative Maricopa County, a supporter of movements to defund or abolish police departments

Gunnigle is an Arizona native. She’s worked as a prosecutor in Illinois and Indiana after earning her law degree from Notre Dame, and currently works in private practice.

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”