GOP stronghold no more: Democrats winning big in Maricopa County




Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Maricopa County’s days as a Republican bastion could be coming to an end, as Democrats ended election night with leads in county races up and down the ballot, holding onto advantages in nearly every countywide race and possibly winning an unexpected takeover of the Board of Supervisors.

Challengers Jevin Hodge and Whitney Walker are winning their upset bids of Republican supervisors Jack Sellers and Bill Gates, respectively. If their leads hold, they and Steve Gallardo, the board’s lone Democrat, would form a 3-2 Democratic majority.

Hodge leads Sellers by nearly 15,000 votes in District 1, which covers Ahwatukee, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert and parts of Mesa. In District 3, which stretches from from central to northern Phoenix, Walker holds a lead of nearly 9,400 over Gates. Both Democrats’ leads shrank at the end of the night but neither Gates nor Sellers was able to overtake them when election officials stopped counting votes around 2:30 a.m.

As expected, Sheriff Paul Penzone easily dispatched Republican challenger Jerry Sheridan, racking up a double-digit lead to start the night and never relinquishing it. But the outcomes of other countywide races were less certain.

County Recorder Adrian Fontes, the only other Democratic incumbent, leads Republican attorney Stephen Richer by about 51,000 votes, despite a controversial first term that featured clashes with other elected officials, including the Board of Supervisors, and high-profile courtroom battles.

In the race for county attorney, Democrat Julie Gunnigle leads Republican incumbent Allister Adel, by about 22,000 votes, down from nearly 59,000 earlier in the night.

The night took a tragic turn for Adel, who was admitted to the hospital for what a spokeswoman described as a “medical emergency.” 

“Earlier tonight Allister was admitted to the hospital for a health emergency. The situation is fluid and while we don’t have a lot of information to share, please know that Allister considers all of you as part of her MCAO family and we ask for your thoughts and prayer at this time. We will provide additional information as it becomes available,” Candice Copple, Adel’s chief of staff, said in an email Tuesday night to Maricopa County Attorney’s Office employees.

Gunnigle wrote on Twitter, “My thoughts are with Allister and her family. We should give them privacy in this moment and we wish for a full recovery.”

Further down the ballot, Democrat Jeanne Casteen leads incumbent Republican Steve Watson by nearly 43,000 votes in the race for county schools superintendent. 

Only in the races for county assessor and treasurer do the Republican candidates have the upper hand.

Republican John Allen trailed for most of the night in the assessor’s race, but now leads Democrat Daniel Toporek by nearly 16,000 votes. Allen, a state lawmaker from Phoenix, ousted incumbent Treasurer Royce Flora in the Republican primary in August.

Democrat Aaron Connor trails incumbent Assessor Eddie Cook by nearly 17,000 votes. The Board of Supervisors appointed Cook last year to replace scandal-plagued assessor Paul Petersen, who resigned amid a wide-ranging criminal case surrounding his business facilitating adoptions of children from the Marshall Islands. Petersen later pleaded guilty to fraud and human smuggling charges in Arizona and Utah.

Voters overlook Fontes controversy

Fontes won the office in 2016, defeating 28-year incumbent Helen Purcell in the wake of a high-profile fiasco during that year’s presidential preference election. Purcell dramatically reduced the number of polling places in the county, causing long lines that stretched for blocks and left some voters waiting for hours. Fontes filed to run for county recorder the next day.

But Fontes has had missteps and controversies of his own.

The Republican-controlled Board of Supervisors stripped the recorder’s office office of election day duties — in many counties, those duties are handled by the county elections director, not the recorder — in response to polling places that opened late during the 2018 primary election and to policies that Fontes unilaterally enacted during the election season, including controversial decisions surrounding emergency voting centers.

One of the hallmarks of Fontes’s tenure has been a penchant to push the boundaries of the law in order to expand or ensure voting rights, especially as election officials across the state and country grapple with the COVID-19 epidemic.

Shortly before the 2018 general election, Fontes announced that he would give all voters whose signatures on their early ballots didn’t appear to match the signatures an opportunity to confirm that they had in fact signed their ballots. Election officials use those signatures to verify the identities of voters who cast early ballots, and though they’ve long given most voters a chance to “cure” their ballots if the signatures don’t appear to match, that was an opportunity denied voters whose ballots didn’t arrive until election day.

A judge ordered that all counties adopt the same policy, and the legislature enshrined that policy into law a year later, imposing a week-long curing period.

Other proposals by Fontes haven’t had the same success in the courtroom.

In March, Fontes announced that he would send early ballots to all registered Democrats for the presidential preference election, not just voters who signed up for the state’s Permanent Early Voting List or who personally requested early ballots. After Attorney General Mark Brnovich took Fontes to court, a judge blocked him from carrying out his plan.

More recently, Fontes sent instructions with all early ballots during the 2020 primary election informing voters that if they mistakenly voted for a candidate, they could cross out the name and vote for someone else. Though such votes will be counted, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the instruction itself violated state law.

Richer told the Arizona Republic that wants to “make the Recorder’s Office boring again.” He campaigned on a platform of bringing an end to Fontes’s antics, pledging on his campaign website to “deliver fair and competent elections” while ending “partisan activism” and “rogue policymaking.”

Richer acknowledged to the Arizona Mirror that the numbers didn’t look good for him, and said the early results marked an “inauspicious start” for the GOP’s entire county-wide slate. But he also noted that there were a lot of votes to be counted.

A new look at the county attorney’s office?

Regardless of which candidate won, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office would 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.

Adel, a graduate of Arizona State University’s law school, spent seven years as a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, serving in the vehicular crimes, gang and drug enforcement divisions. She later served as general counsel at the Arizona Department of Child Safety. Adel was working as a private practice attorney and consultant for nonprofit organizations when the Board of Supervisors chose her from among an eight-person field to be the next county attorney.