THE UNPICKING OF WILCOXHOW DID MARY ROSE NOT GET THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS SEAT?

The appointment of Ben Arredondo, a Tempe Republican, to replace Maricopa County supervisor Ed Pastor, a Phoenix Democrat, is perhaps no great surprise in the world of partisan politics. Not when three of the four people doing the choosing--Jim Bruner, Betsey Bayless, and Tom Freestone--are Republicans.

What is surprising is the drubbing Democrat Mary Rose Wilcox took in the process. Wilcox, a Phoenix City Council member and the most experienced elected official of five finalists for the county job, began with the greatest apparent advantage. It didn't hurt that both she and Pastor are Hispanic Democrats from Phoenix. But she quickly became the target of efforts to discredit her that ranged from unflattering--and distorted--news leaks to a barrage of negative telephone calls, purportedly from unhappy constituents.

The sprawling district covers the southwestern sector of the county, but because of thin population in that area it extends all the way east to Price Road in Tempe. The seat generally is considered to be a stronghold of the west Valley or at least Phoenix--but certainly not Tempe.

However, by the time the Board of Supervisors gathered June 10 to name Pastor's successor, Wilcox's image had been sullied so thoroughly it was apparent that she didn't stand a chance. By then, Wilcox had been labeled a carpetbagger, an opportunist and a "whiny Democratic partisan."

The partisanship charge, leveled by Phoenix Gazette columnist John Kolbe (the brother of a Republican congressman), is particularly ironic in light of the subsequent decision by Republican supervisors--with lone Democrat Carole Carpenter dissenting--to appoint a Republican in a district where 80 percent votes Democratic.

The Arizona Republic chimed in with a straight-faced account predicting that Wilcox's candidacy was in trouble because a citizens' advisory committee appointed by the four remaining supervisors had ranked her second to last after initial screening interviews. (The committee, on which Republicans outnumbered Democrats by the same proportion found on the board itself, ranked Arredondo dead last in qualifications for the post, a fact the daily has ignored since his appointment.)

Republican supervisors Bruner and Bayless say the screening committee's rankings played little or no role in the final decision. "The committee's job was to send us a list of finalists," Bayless says. "Conceptually, we weren't supposed to know the ranking and they weren't intended to be public, but in this case they leaked out. She [Wilcox] wasn't hurt with me because of the ranking."

Board chairman Freestone maintains that the choice of fellow East Valley resident Arredondo, rather than being a partisan move, was the only way out of an impasse. "It wasn't a partisan question so much as competition between central Phoenix and the west Valley," Freestone says. "Neither group of Democrats wanted the other to have an advantage when the election rolls around.

"Ben had said early on that he would not run for election, and in this case that enhanced his chances. He'll spend the next eighteen months working on his program to help the district, not campaigning."

Wilcox supporter Mary Montano, a member of the advisory committee, says it was apparent from the first that Wilcox faced a stacked deck. "From the first organizational meeting we had, I realized how intensive was the feeling against her," Montano says of the advisory committee. "I thought, `Oh, well, she'll change their minds with her interview,' and she did do extremely well in the interview, by far the best of the five. But it didn't make a dent; the committee was stacked on a partisan basis."

If anything, Montano adds, the committee seemed designed to eliminate Wilcox as a contender.

Not so, claims a second committee member, who asked not to be named. "A lot of the committee members received calls from people in her district and the majority felt she was too much talk, not enough action," the second committee member says. Republican insiders cite concern over Wilcox's constituent services as a major reason she wasn't chosen.

"In that district, in particular, the most important need people have is for good constituent services," says a Republican aide. "We got more negative calls on Wilcox than on any of the finalists, and most of them were around that issue."

Bruner acknowledges that Wilcox "had very strong credentials" because of her four terms as a city councilmember from southwest Phoenix. "But I have to tell you I received a number of calls and letters from people expressing concern over her ability to work together on stuff that's not necessarily on her agenda and questioning her motives," Bruner adds.

Montano acknowledges that "there might be the perception among some that [Wilcox] takes on too much, that she overextends herself." But Montano contends Wilcox got a bum rap. She also says the criticism proved elusive when efforts were made to pin it down. "We somehow never could tie down exactly who was making the criticism, or how many calls there were," Montano observes dryly.

When pressed for details about the negative feedback they received, critics were unable to cite specifics. "It's just a general feeling that she doesn't follow through on commitments," says one critic (a Hispanic municipal executive who requested anonymity).

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