Julie Gunnigle has emerged as the Democratic candidate for the Maricopa County Attorney’s office. She now faces appointed incumbent Alister Adel (R) in the general election.
The race for the Democratic candidate began with five attorneys. Tamika Wooten has been an defense attorney, Chief Prosecutor in Glendale, a judge located in Avondale, El Mirage, Surprise and Wickenburg, and owns a sports agency business. Will Knight, an ASU law grad that went from private practice to the Maricopa County Public Defender’s office prior to entering the race. Julie Gunnigle, a private-practice attorney that previously worked as a prosecutor in Elkhart, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois. Robert McWhirter, a long-time criminal law defense attorney in Phoenix, and a travelling law scholar educating attorneys in Latin America. Ryan Tait, a former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney.
The race began in earnest on January 30, 2020, with a moderated debate of the five candidates hosted by the ACLU Smart Justice of Arizona. In a very well attended, packed room at the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, the candidates answered several questions from moderator Kara Long.
In March, Ryan Tait suspended his campaign and Tamika Wooten failed to secure enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot thus ending their campaigns. This left Mcwhirter, Knight, and Gunnigle as challengers for the Democratic ticket.
All three candidates had similar platforms calling for increased transparency in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, changes in the prosecution of drug offenses, increased use of diversion programs, eliminating the racial disparity in prosecution, and other common progressive criminal justice reform policy changes. The key distinctions between the candidates centered around experience and how those policy proposals would be prioritized.
The race did become contentious with allegations levied against Will Knight by Robert McWhirter and allegations against Mcwhirter and Gunnigle from Will Knight. This began when McWhirter raised an issue regarding a criminal violation Will Knight had received as a minor while living in Georgia. Will Knight then raised an issue of McWhirter using a racial epithet while teaching a class on race history in the United States. Knight also raised an issue about a 2008 case Julie Gunnigle had been a second-seat prosecutor on while working as a deputy state’s attorney in Chicago, Illinois.
All three candidates responded to the accusations differently. Robert McWhirter admitted he had used the language in teaching that class and apologized for doing so. Will Knight admitted he had received a citation and conviction as a minor in Georgia for minor in consumption. What remained at issue is whether that Knight had received a Driving Under the Influence citation and failed to disclose that fact. Knight admitted he was behind the wheel of a vehicle when he was cited but maintained the citation was for a minor in consumption charge. Julie Gunnigle flatly denied the allegations as entirely false and pointed to the record in the matter.
The race remained contentious up to the August primary election.
The Primary Election
The numbers from the August 4th, 2020, primary election came in with an overwhelming near 3:1 margin in favor of Gunnigle over her opponents. With a total of 404,518 ballots cast, Gunnigle received 213,551 votes a 59% share of the votes. Will Knight received 80,898 a 22% share, and Robert McWhirter received 61,176 votes an 18% share.
Info World Arizona had previously conducted in-depth interviews with Gunnigle and Knight at the beginning of the year. Both candidates spoke in depth about their policy positions, experinece, and vision for the office.
After the August 4th primary, Info World Arizona reached out to Gunnigle and discussed her win and what challenges she sees in the upcoming general election.
Info World AZ: How do you feel about winning the Democratic primary for Maricopa County Attorney?
Julie Gunnigle: It feels good to come into the general election with a mandate. Nearly 60% of Democratic voters agreed with our bold vision of reforming this office, and I intend to bring the same energy and direct voter contact to the general election.
Info World AZ: What do you see as the main challenges in facing an incumbent who has the support of the party who has been in single-party control of MCAO for 40 years?
Julie Gunnigle: Voters overwhelmingly support criminal justice reform. The unelected incumbent has used taxpayer resources to film campaign ads thinly veiled as public service announcements as part of a massive and well-funded effort. Having the resources of the party in addition to taxpayer resources to spend, present a challenge in the general election. Nevertheless, my grassroots campaign has over 400 volunteers tirelessly working to contact voters and counter the big money approach that we know the incumbent will use.
Info World AZ: It’s been several months since our interview and it seems the entire world has changed. Have any of your priorities for this office changed? If so, what are those priority shifts?
Julie Gunnigle: Absolutely. COVID-19 has ravaged our jails and prisons and made criminal justice reform even more urgent. Right now, the office has opposed even the most modest and data-driven efforts to grant early release to those most at risk. Moreover, the current unelected county attorney has called those who call for reform “activists and opportunists.” If we are truly committed to keeping our communities safe, we need to be committed to safety in our jails and prisons and transparency with respect to how the backlog of nearly 5,500 unfiled charges during the pandemic will be handled.
The General Election
The current Maricopa County Attorney is Allister Adel (R). Adel was appointed to fill the role of county attorney when former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court by Governor Doug Ducey. This is Adel’s first run for election to the office she now holds.
Gunnigle was a candidate in the 2018 elections cycle where she ran for a seat in Arizona House of Representatives in Legislative District 15. “LD15, historically, was a heavily Republican district. My campaign increased the Democratic margin by 14% in that race. We knocked on over 40,000 doors and brought our message directly to the voters in that district. That is how we earned that significant increase, direct voter contact.” Gunnigle stated when asked about running against John Allen (R) and Nancy Barto (R) in the 2016 election.
Gunnigle states that she will utilize the same strategy during the Maricopa County Attorney race. She attributes her enormous success in the primary to her campaign staff, extensive volunteer network, and the continued efforts to bring her message directly to the voters. However, she admits this had been a significant challenge during this election citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a series of challenges for all political candidates to reach their constituents. However, through the use of technology and innovation, it appears from the primary return numbers that the Gunnigle campaign has been successful at diminishing the effect of lockdowns and social distancing.
Bringing Change to Maricopa County
The Republican party has had approximately 40 years of single-party control of the Maricopa County Attorneys office. Gunnigle is not dissuaded by that fact. “The people of Maricopa County from every political stripe are ready for real change and effective leadership at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. I look forward to having conversations with people from the entire political spectrum about how I plan on making the Maricopa County Attorney’s office the model of transparent, accountable, fair, and equitable justice in the country.”
Although its very early in the process, the race appears to be fairly even at this time. Both parties had a nearly equal turnout in the primary for the Maricopa County Attorney Candidates. Gunnigle was challenged by two competitors and earned 59% of the vote. Adel ran unchallenged and received 99% of the GOP vote.
No matter who wins in November, this race is historic as either candidate will be the first woman elected as Maricopa County Attorney.