Arizona's First Woman Governor, Rose Mofford, Passes Away at 94

Arizona's first woman governor, Rose Mofford, died September 15, at age 94.
Arizona's first woman governor, Rose Mofford, died September 15, at age 94.
Amy Silverman

Rose Mofford, who took office as Arizona's first woman governor in 1988, died Thursday morning at the age of 94.

Mofford was one of Arizona's best-liked former governors, owing both to her short time in office and her warm and open personality. Born and raised in the mining town of Globe (visitors can stay in the elementary school she attended, which is now a bed & breakfast), Mofford was secretary of state in 1988 when the Arizona legislature impeached ex-governor Evan Mecham, a Republican.

After serving for more than three years as acting governor and governor, the lifelong Democrat decided not to run for a four-year term in office and departed in early 1991, ceding the state's highest office to Republican Fife Symington.

Congenial and witty, sporting an iconic tower of wavy white hair, Mofford was the breath of fresh air the state needed. She was scandal-free and sane in a time when the governor's office had turned into a bigoted version of a Salvador Dalí painting. Mecham, elected in 1986, made the news nearly every day for unpopular or outright oddball antics such as canceling Martin Luther King Jr. Day and defending the use of the word "pickaninnies" to describe black children. Accused of a financial scam that benefited his car dealership, Mecham's final days as governor were filled with worries that his enemies had been eavesdropping on his office with laser beams.

Mofford rose above the normal nastiness of Arizona politics.

Rose Mofford was a friend to both Bill and Hillary Clinton.EXPAND
Rose Mofford was a friend to both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Doug Mills/Associated Press

"I never heard her say a bad word about anybody," says Democratic political strategist Bob Grossfeld. "She had cause to do that and passed it up. If the state printed its own money, her face would be on the dollar bill."

As governor and after she left office, she worked to help Democratic candidates at all echelons of state politics and offered forceful opinions about ballot measures, he says. First and foremost, "she was clearly in love with the state of Arizona, and that showed in everything she did."

Mofford was known as media-friendly and accessible for interviews — she never made her home phone number unlisted, for instance. As former New Times reporter Paul Rubin wrote in 2012, on the occasion of her 90th birthday:

"Well before she became governor, we had known Rose as an accessible government official who personally had helped us collect documents for a story or two for this very publication. With her over-the-top French chignon and as much mascara as Tammy Faye Bakker, Rose almost was a caricature of something a bit off-kilter — until you got to know her.

"She was pure Arizona (the cool part of Arizona), a straight-talking onetime fast-pitch softball player from Globe who had started right of high school as a secretary to the state treasurer before toiling for two decades for Secretary of State Wesley Bolin, who, too, became governor for a short stretch before dying in office."

Mofford kept a fairly low profile after leaving office, working for various charity causes. She lived in the same central Phoenix home for 55 years until August 31, says her longtime friend, Karen Scates.

In the months before her death, she'd been "holding court" at home with friends and visitors as usual and was healthy, Scates tells New Times.

But she was fragile, Scates relates. She'd fallen a couple of times but wasn't injured, and she had people caring for her. But on August 31, she fell again. As a precaution, she was moved to the Gardiner Home Hospice of the Valley.

Even there, Mofford enjoyed herself, endeared herself to the staff, and seemed on the road to recovery.

"She was doing fine," Scates says. "She read the paper every day. She had her milkshake and her lemon bar. She was mostly looking forward to the election."

Mofford was a friend of both Hillary and Bill Clinton, and was the honorary chair of Ann Kirkpatrick's U.S. Senate campaign — she was intensely interested in both of those races. She'd tell Scates, "I broke the glass ceiling in '87" when Arizonans elected her as the state's first woman secretary of state, and she wanted Clinton to smash it this year. When thinking about incumbent Senator John McCain, Scates says Mofford often referred to a 2008 New Times article she "loved" that described an incident in which McCain had her embarrassed in front of Congress, then lied about it.

Scates describes Mofford as "like a rock star. People would line up for autographs. She was the only politician who didn't get booed at sporting events."

Mofford spent 54 years in public service and did it "for all the right reasons," Scates adds. "She had no regrets. She had a great life."

Scates saw Mofford on Wednesday. Her friend passed away peacefully at 6:15 a.m. Thursday, she says.

Governor Doug Ducey ordered the state's flags lowered to half-staff in her honor.

"Governor Mofford brought people together," Ducey said in a prepared statement. "Both as a governor and a former governor, she exemplified the ability of leaders to unite us — to put partisanship aside and put our country and our state first. During challenging times for our state, Governor Mofford was the steady hand that led us through and held us together.

"Governor Mofford’s unwavering commitment to the people of Arizona is illustrated by her decades of public service to make our state a safer, happier, and healthier place to live. Her service should serve as a model for all of us who follow her — serving with heart, determination, and putting the needs of Arizona’s most vulnerable citizens first."


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