Nov 15, 2023 - News

Three-time Phoenix interim mayor Thelda Williams dies

A headshot of a woman.

Thelda Williams' 2018 mayoral headshot. Photo: Courtesy of City of Phoenix

Thelda Williams, who served as Phoenix interim mayor three times, died Tuesday night at age 82 after a brief fight with cancer, the city announced Wednesday.

What they're saying: "She cared deeply about Phoenix's people and its future, and her legacy will endure far beyond our lifetimes. We mourn her loss, and her large City family extends our heartfelt condolences to her family who she treasured so much," Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement.

The city will lower flags to half-staff through next Tuesday to honor Williams.

Flashback: Williams was selected by her council colleagues to take over as interim mayor for the first time in 1994 after Mayor Paul Johnson stepped down to run for Arizona governor. She served for seven months.

  • In 2011, then-Mayor Phil Gordon resigned three days before the end of his term. As vice mayor, Williams again rose to the chief office of the city — even if few people realized it.
  • And in 2018, after then-Mayor Greg Stanton resigned to run for Congress, she was once again chosen to lead the city, which she did for 10 months.

The big picture: Williams was a source of calm, kindness and quiet force over three decades of fast, sometimes chaotic, growth in Phoenix.

  • Her colleagues remembered her as always willing to negotiate — but unwilling to tolerate incivility.
  • Former city manager Frank Fairbanks used to send her in to talk to Gordon when he was in a bad mood, because he knew he couldn't yell at "Aunt Thelda," Gordon told The Arizona Republic in 2018.

The intrigue: Though her stints were brief, she resented the idea of a "caretaker mayor" and worked to create lasting change.

  • In 2004, she championed a desert preserves ordinance to protect open space that is still celebrated today for its long-term vision.
  • In 2018, Williams protected the light rail extension to the former Metrocenter Mall, scheduled to open early next year, from critics who wanted to kill it.

Zoom in: The Phoenix City Council voted in May to name the new Metrocenter transit center after her.

  • "I guess it paid off to be a pain in the ass to so many people for so long," Williams told us at the time, adding she was honored by the gesture.

The bottom line: "Thelda may have had ... a bigger impact on the city and its long-term future than any other mayor before her — and that's fascinating," Johnson said in 2018.


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