Mar 7, 2024 - News

Challengers turn Maricopa County attorney matchup into hotly contested race

Side by side head shots of three women.

Rachel Mitchell, Tamika Wooten and Gina Godbehere. Photos: Courtesy of the candidates

Late entries in the race for Maricopa County attorney turned what was looking like an uncontested re-election for incumbent Rachel Mitchell into a much tighter contest.

Why it matters: As the person who makes prosecutorial decisions in a county with more than 60% of Arizona's population, the officeholder is one of the most influential and powerful elected officials in the state.

The backdrop: Mitchell was appointed in 2022 and won a special election later that year to fill out the remaining two years of her predecessor Allister Adel's term.

  • Mitchell told Axios she's accomplished a lot in her two years as county attorney, citing tougher gun policies, the creation of an organized retail crime task force, higher bonds for offenders and the elimination of backlogs she inherited.

State of play: Gina Godbehere, who unsuccessfully challenged Mitchell in 2022's Republican primary, filed to run early last month.

  • Tamika Wooten filed to run on the Democratic side a few weeks later, filling a noticeable omission in the party's county-level slate.

Zoom in: Godbehere, a former prosecutor at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office (MCAO) and the city of Goodyear who is now a crime victims' rights attorney, said she was bombarded by calls from people who wanted her to run again because they felt Mitchell isn't tough on crime.

  • She said Mitchell is using diversion programs too much and is declining too many felony cases, choosing instead to send them to cities for misdemeanor prosecution.
  • Godbehere specifically cited a 2023 MCAO decision not to charge a driver who crashed into a group of cyclists in Goodyear, killing two and injuring others.
  • She also pointed to a controversial plea deal earlier this year for former state corrections director Charles Ryan, who received no time behind bars after a drunken standoff in which he was accused of pointing a gun at officers.

Meanwhile, Wooten, a pro tem judge who has worked as a defense attorney, Glendale prosecutor and municipal judge, said she has experience on all three sides of the criminal justice system and would bring a "holistic approach" to the job.

  • "The role of a prosecutor is not simply to get convictions. It's to do justice," she said.
  • She said there are many cases in which people need to be locked up from violent crimes and offenses that involve victims, but MCAO under Mitchell is too heavy-handed in some cases.
  • The office needs to give people more alternatives to incarceration in some cases, like those who face drug charges and are in need of treatment, she said.

The other side: Mitchell dismissed Godbehere's accusation that she's soft on crime, pointing to the policies and practices she's implemented since her appointment.

  • She noted that she's endorsed by the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, Arizona Police Association and Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.
  • Mitchell called Godbehere's criticism in the Goodyear and Ryan cases "political pandering" and said the facts of the cases didn't warrant the charges and penalties her opponent called for.
  • She said Wooten's platform sounds like "maybe a gentler expression of what progressive candidates have been saying across this country."

The intrigue: Godbehere has vocal support from prominent Republican election deniers like Kari Lake and Abraham Hamadeh, who have unsuccessfully sued Maricopa County to overturn their defeats in the 2020 races for governor and attorney general.

  • Godbehere questioned Mitchell's decision to seek sanctions against Lake and her lawyers for false statements that MCAO deemed a "determined program of misinformation."
  • Mitchell said she's responsible to the taxpayers and sought to recoup public money her office spent defending against the lawsuit.
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