Battle Royale: Controversial Mary Rose Wilcox Is in the Political Fight of Her Life

Battle Royale: Controversial Mary Rose Wilcox Is in the Political Fight of Her Life
Jesse Lenz

Mary Rose Wilcox was shot in 1997 by a transient who didn't like her politics.

People say she was hit in a buttock, but she insists the wound was higher than that. Indeed, the gunman's hollow-point bullet shattered her pelvis. It also shattered her desire to remain in public office.


Some family members pleaded with her to walk away from her seat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors at the time, but Wilcox decided to continue in the political arena.

"What could I do?" a defiant Wilcox recalls. "If I left, he won. So I went back."

Nearly 20 years later, she's in the final week of her bid for an open seat in Arizona's 7th Congressional District.

She's running against three other Democrats: Ruben Gallego, a Marine and former state lawmaker; Randy Camacho, a social-studies teacher and former Congressional candidate, and the Reverend Jarrett Maupin, a firebrand who's gathering political support from churchgoers in South Phoenix.

Immigration attorney Joe Peñalosa, an Independent, and Joe Cobb, a white Libertarian and perennial political candidate, also are in the race to represent a nearly 200-square-mile district that spans several communities, including Phoenix, Guadalupe, Tolleson, and southern portions of Glendale. It's a safe district for progressive politicos where 68 percent of voters are registered Democrats and 64 percent of 710,000 residents are Latino.

Congressman Ed Pastor, who unexpectedly announced in February that he would retire, served the area for 23 years and easily captured two to four times as many votes as his opponents in the past decade. It's hard to remember a time when Pastor stirred up controversy.

The August 26 primary race is far different. It's gotten ugly as Wilcox and Gallego have exposed each other's imperfect and messy political pasts, with each trying to cast the other as untrustworthy. It's a battle between Latino royalty in Phoenix: Wilcox (who uses the last name of her husband, Earl) and Gallego, a politically savvy, Harvard-educated, two-term state lawmaker.

But the war of words pales, Wilcox maintains, when she remembers that somebody once tried to murder her.

Wilcox recalls that in 1997 a man stood out in the auditorium where the supervisors convene. He appeared to be extremely uneasy. When the meeting adjourned, she recalls, he walked toward her. She hurried her steps but froze when she felt a gun at the middle of her back. Or was it pointed at her head? She can't remember.

A blood-curdling scream escaped from her lips, jolting a security guard and a fellow supervisor to tackle the gunman, later identified as Larry Naman. But not before he'd fired his weapon.

"It felt like a hot bolt of oil going through my leg. I just felt it explode inside me," she says. "I remember everything swirling around me."

Wilcox says she later told Earl in the emergency room: "I don't want this job anymore. You take it."


Mary Rose Wilcox can laugh about that day now, and she does during an interview with New Times at her South Phoenix campaign headquarters during a Saturday afternoon in July.

She's wearing her usual sleeveless dress and bright red lipstick. She seems more like an abuela drinking coffee and sharing old family stories than a congressional candidate. But that's part of her disarming charm. She says Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's now her political nemesis, even once told her, "I could never be mad at you . . . because you look like my mother."

During her three decades in office, Wilcox cast votes that created thousands of jobs in Maricopa County, worked on projects that improved roadways through some of the most rundown neighborhoods in South Phoenix, and made it possible for poor children to attend baseball games, a boxing gym, and city swimming pools for free.

Her work in the community -- and becoming the first Latina elected to the Phoenix City Council, in 1984 -- has earned her a lofty status among Latinos.

She's also made political blunders along the way, and she spent the better part of two decades under clouds of controversy.

Getting shot was the result of just one of them -- her yes swing vote to build a publicly funded baseball stadium, now Chase Field.

Wilcox increased her net worth through land deals, with at least one in 2003 involving an acre purchased from Arizona Public Service for hundreds of thousands of dollars below market value. She didn't disclose that transaction even as she voted as a county supervisor on APS-related projects.

In 2004, she scored a lucrative concessions contract designed for "disadvantaged" business owners at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. It was a time when she ran a successful restaurant, owned nearly $2 million worth of land, and was pulling in more than $120,000 a year between her county paycheck and retirement benefits. This didn't include her husband's income.

The way she got her hands on the nearly half-million-dollar loan that secured her spot in the airport concession violated city rules, according to a 2009 Goldwater Institute report.

She also faced criminal charges in 2004 for tearing down a century-old house on the city's historic property rolls -- without obtaining required permits. In the end, she pleaded not guilty, the charges were dropped, and she settled the case with a $10,000 donation to the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office.

It's all served as political ammunition against her a decade later.

Gallego, who's raised $435,000 in campaign contributions, has smeared Wilcox as a "political insider" who is "looking out for herself -- not us" in literature he's mailed to voters.

Wilcox, who's raised more than $335,000 in contributions, in turn has blasted him. She's repeatedly criticized Gallego for his membership in the National Rifle Association and for earning a B+ rating from the gun industry's lobby.

As she discusses reining in gun laws, it doesn't hurt -- politically speaking -- that she was shot.

Yet polls commissioned by Gallego show that his anti-Wilcox talking points might be resonating more with Democratic voters. Two separate surveys, conducted in May and July by Lake Research Partners put Gallego six and eight points, respectively, ahead of Wilcox. The longtime politico shrugs off the poll, reminding voters how she's battled against Arpaio and his anti-immigrant policies and racially motivated raids and roundups -- that she's fought hard enough that he wanted to destroy her politically and used his cohort, former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, to try to make that happen.

They failed to buckle the Latina, now 64. Yet, as a member of the old guard of community leaders, political sources wonder how much energy she has left. And whether Congress is the right place to put her to the test.

Danny Ortega, a local attorney and longtime activist, argues that Wilcox "has a lot of fight left in her" but that Gallego has more.

Whether she wins or Gallego takes the seat -- or an unlikely upset sends one of the other candidates to Washington (the race will be settled by a plurality of votes, and there is no Republican contender in November) -- Democratic Party leaders say the state of Arizona ultimately will come out ahead. 

They say the rabid competition will draw out more Democratic voters and inch Arizona ever closer to politically bluer skies.

"It's not going to magically turn the state blue overnight," says D.J. Quinlan, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. "But I think it's a piece of the puzzle that's going to lead Arizona to be more and more politically competitive."


A powerhouse political machine, Gallego has a hard time masking his contempt for Wilcox. He says his decision to run against her was an easy one.

"I always knew that she was going to run, but I never thought she was good for the district," the 34-year-old two-term lawmaker says. "So I never contemplated stepping aside for her, for any reason. For other potential politicians, I probably would have thought about it, but not for her. This district needs a lot of work, a lot of attention, and I don't think she's really willing to do it."

In one campaign pamphlet, he highlights the land deal between Wilcox and APS, letting voters know that in addition to getting the APS property at a "deep discount, [she] then rented it back to APS for tens of thousands of dollars."

Wilcox responds that the utility needed a place to park its vehicles last year while it embarked on a nearby cleanup project.

"APS says, 'We need to pay you.' So they did a contract with us," she says, adding that the lease expires in August. "But everyone else uses it for free."

She says she and her husband don't charge the American Legion in Grant Park to use the property for overflow parking or for artists to use it to host community concerts or for the Democratic Party to use it for voter-registration rallies.

In 2005, New Times wrote about the deal Wilcox got when she and Earl bought a one-acre paved lot from APS, which regularly has business before the county supervisors ("Sweetheart Deal," June 16, 2005).

Phoenix real estate investor Michael A. Levine said at the time the "land should have gone for at least $675,000 and possibly for as much as $900,000" and even at a "fire sale" price, it would have fetched at least $450,000.

The couple paid $152,750, and the timing of the land deal made it even more suspect.

New Times wrote:

Interestingly, about the same time the Wilcoxes opened escrow on the property in February 2003, a major downtown planning effort led by APS and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo was being secretly put together.

Sometime in early 2003, downtown power brokers began work on a downtown master plan to guide a multibillion-dollar redevelopment project to transform the city's inner core over the next decade.

The electric utility was among the insiders participating in the early stages of developing the master plan. And Mary Rose Wilcox had to be aware of the planning effort through her membership on the board of directors of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership -- a civic and business group that encourages development and played a leading role in developing the master plan.

Colangelo told [New Times] in the fall of 2003 that he and other business and civic leaders wanted to keep their master plan out of the public arena for as long as possible to prevent land speculators from moving into the market and driving up prices .

It was during this time -- when a limited number of people knew that a major downtown redevelopment plan was in the works -- that APS had sold its property at a rock-bottom price to Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her husband.

The 2005 New Times report by John Dougherty continued: Wilcox repeatedly voted on matters directly affecting APS, including high-profile issues such as where high-voltage power lines will be located and approval of a lucrative plan by an APS subsidiary, Northwind, to provide air conditioning to county buildings in downtown Phoenix.

And she did it without ever officially disclosing that she had engaged in a major financial transaction with APS.

Sam Castañeda Holdren, Wilcox's spokesman, says the parcels of land she and Earl have purchased over the years were bought with the expressed intention of revitalizing Grant Park, the barrio where Earl was raised.

"The land . . . is empty lots and parking lots around Grant Park," he says. "This is a poor neighborhood, and Mary Rose hopes someday to build nonprofit veterans housing across from the park and neighborhood recreation center."

Wilcox says she and Earl might even build a home there to replace the one they were forced to sell when Arpaio, working in concert with Thomas, slapped dozens of criminal charges on her with such gusto that a Superior Court judge said it was "the worst case of political vindictiveness" he'd ever seen.

Arpaio and Thomas, since disbarred, accused Wilcox of forgery, false swearing, perjury, and a slew of felony conflict-of-interest counts.

The former supervisor admits she could've done a better job over the years of filling out financial-disclosure forms. But she says she did nothing to deserve a laundry list of criminal indictments.

As Arpaio waited joyful in the wings watching his political enemies squirm, Thomas charged Wilcox with making "false statements or omissions in . . . financial-disclosure statements from 2002 through 2009."

Finally, Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo threw Thomas off the case based on evidence that Thomas had a conflict of interest in going after Wilcox because of "his efforts to retaliate against members" of the county Board [of Supervisors] and "his attempts to gain political advantage by prosecuting those who oppose him politically," including Wilcox.

"His political alliance [with Arpaio], who misused the power of his office to target members of the [board] for criminal investigation," was another reason for his removal cited by the judge.

One of the deals that Thomas had begun to look into was her co-ownership of a Chili's franchise with Host International, the contractor for all food and beverage services at Sky Harbor's Terminal 4.

Wilcox says it was Host that approached her, asking whether she wanted a part of the concession contract after she unsuccessfully applied to open an airport version of her and her husband's El Portal Mexican restaurant.

In October 2009, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, published a report, High Fliers: How Political Insiders Gained an Edge in Sky Harbor Concessions, detailing how Wilcox and Host officials' partnership violated city and federal rules.

The Goldwater report stated that in violation of city policy, Wilcox didn't pull any money out of her pocket to become a 30 percent owner of the Chili's. Instead, Host lent her the $450,000 buy-in money and then repaid itself out of Wilcox's share of the restaurant profits. And although federal rules dictate that each partner has to play an active role in the business, Wilcox didn't.

At the time, Phoenix required that minority-owned, disadvantaged businesses be included in these billion-dollar concessions.

The Goldwater report concluded that "firms certified as 'disadvantaged' often are little more than a name on the lease, brought in as partners by large concession companies to meet city-imposed goals.

"Mary Rose Wilcox eked out a small profit from a Mexican restaurant she owned in South Phoenix before she used her race and status as the owner of a 'disadvantaged' business to land a lucrative concession deal at Sky Harbor International Airport," the Goldwater report said. "The long-entrenched Democrat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors reported $10,000 in profits from her El Portal restaurant in an August 2003 financial statement. In December 2004, Wilcox was brought into a joint venture to co-own a Chili's franchise, the only full-service bar and restaurant in the main lobby of Terminal 4. Seven months later, Wilcox reported profits of $113,000 from the Chili's deal alone."

Despite all the allegations against her by Arpaio and other political enemies, Wilcox insists she didn't do anything wrong and that Arpaio and Thomas' allegations in the deal were vetted by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores.

"With the utter lack of motive or evidence of any unlawful economic or political benefit from the financial-disclosure omissions, a reasonable juror would conclude that these omissions were an oversight, rather than conduct knowingly perpetrated to deceive the public," Flores wrote regarding Wilcox.

Just last month, Wilcox finally collected a $1 million-plus payout from the county for the anguish she and her family endured during the investigation by Arpaio and Thomas, who's running on the Republican ticket for Arizona governor.

"Everybody criticized me [for taking the money], but people don't know what happened," she says. "I had to sell our house. We had a really nice condo, and we had to sell it just to pay our bills. Our business [at El Portal] trickled down to nothing. People were terrorized, and they just weren't coming anymore."
She says she and Earl "had to use every penny from our retirement accounts."

Wilcox continues, "Yeah, I sued because we had to pay my lawyer. A lot of that fee will go for taxes, and to the debt I incurred, and for the terror that went through us with Arpaio's intent to destroy me. But I didn't let him. I did not let him."

Though Arpaio may have had an adverse effect on her business, her restaurant suffered other problems. In 2007, El Portal started getting a series of failing grades from county health inspectors. She eventually closed the popular spot for local lawmakers, political activists, and neighborhood leaders in 2010.

The eatery reopened this year but closed again in April because it was losing money again. The El Portal building now is headquarters for the Wilcox campaign's field operations.


Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a national voice for immigration reform, speaks at a rally for Wilcox.
Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a national voice for immigration reform, speaks at a rally for Wilcox.

Wilcox has dozens of volunteers who disperse from the restaurant to distribute literature highly critical of Gallego.

Prominent among the onslaught of pamphlets was a set reminding people about Gallego's casting votes on gun-related bills that made the NRA proud. The gun lobbyists told him so by giving the former state representative a B+ approval rating that many right-wingers would be proud to have.

The rating doesn't score political points in Arizona's hard-left-leaning 7th Congressional District.

During her closing remarks after a political debate on PBS' Horizon with Ted Simon, Wilcox said Gallego may as well be a Republican since his NRA approval rating was the same as U.S. Senator John McCain's.

In 2011, Gallego voted to allow mentally ill individuals who've been barred from owning weapons to petition the court to have their rights restored and to broaden instances in which people can use deadly force when defending themselves or their families against attackers.

In 2012, he voted to ensure that no limits were placed on how many bullets could be packed into hunting-rifle magazines and to allow hunters to use sound suppressors on guns. That same year, he voted to allow law enforcement to sell guns seized from criminals to licensed gun dealers.

Gallego says Wilcox is distorting the truth by omitting in her campaign literature that the votes for larger magazines and silencers on rifles were for hunters. Gallego's critics point out that criminals -- not just hunters -- have access to these rifles. Gallego compares these gun-related attacks to her supporters' backfired attempt to remove him from the race by questioning his 2008 name change.

The flurry came up when Wilcox's people discovered that Gallego had changed his last name from Marinelarena (his father's last name) to Gallego (his mother's surname). Gallego proudly responded that he had done this to disassociate from his father and to honor his mother, who had suffered years of abuse at the hands of "that man."

Wilcox's supporters filed a complaint about Gallego's name incarnations because they didn't find the court paperwork documenting the official change. Once that document was discovered, the complaint was dropped.

"But that's Mary Rose for you," Gallego says. "She's taking something that was very deeply personal and a scary time in my life and using that opportunity to distract from her weaknesses. She's trying to hide from the record that she mostly used her office to enrich herself and her family."

Gallego and his wife, Phoenix Councilwoman Kate Gallego, are doing well for themselves. They own three rental houses in Phoenix and live in a $300,000-plus home in a gated community at the foot of South Mountain.

Not a bad accession for Gallego, who grew up sleeping on the floor of a tiny apartment with his mother and sisters and paid his way through Harvard University with scholarships and student loans and by cleaning toilets in student dorms.

Although he'd been looking at signing up for a community college or a trade school, a leadership program during his sophomore year in high school widened his horizons.

"I was with these young men and women from rich schools, and they were talking about going to these schools like Harvard and Yale and Princeton," he says. "I thought, 'Why can't I go to these schools?'"

He took advanced-placement classes and applied to study in Greece for a summer. He couldn't afford to buy study guides for college-entrance exams so he went to the library and photocopied them, taking as many pages as he could afford.

"I just sat home and studied for two years," he says. "You grow up really poor in that environment of domestic violence. I was sleeping on the floor. See, I didn't know I was going to make it into Harvard. Part of it was pure obsession because I needed to have hope for something because every day sucked. Every day."

He says that same drive got him through heavy combat as a Marine serving in the Middle East. And it's earned him a reputation of being tough and temperamental.

Gallego described himself as such during a 2008 interview with the Arizona Republic.

He told a reporter that he loves political dogfights.

"I want to be angry. I'm always angry," Gallego was quoted as saying. "I want to throw down some hail and brimstone, and this guy [Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski] is like, 'It's not how I operate.'"

In 2009, while working as chief of staff for Nowakowski, Gallego got into a spat with an intern, and she accused him of verbal harassment.

At the time, the Republic reported that the 20-year-old college student filed a complaint against Gallego claiming he berated and intimidated her in front of co-workers. 

Gallego became upset with the intern and began yelling and pounding his desk so hard that it caught the attention of aides working in other offices. The intern also said Gallego was aggressive toward her, according to a 2009 article.

The young woman's complaints filed with the city were dismissed.

Gallego said at the time that he raised his voice at her because she was interrupting him and not listening.

"I was a young manager [29 years old] and really do regret raising my voice," he recalls now. "It wasn't my finest moment, but I've learned from that."

Whatever he may have learned, he hasn't shaken his aggressive side.

"Look, I am aggressive, and I am because I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done," he says. "I think the history of Arizona, as of late, has seen just a lot of Democrats willing to accept the status quo. Not just from Republicans but even from themselves. I don't think the Democratic progressive community wins by having people rest on their laurels."

People don't always take well to getting moved or pushed, he says.

"At the end of the day, we're here for the working poor, the working class, and the gay community," he says. "And if you're not there to help, then really, why are you in politics?"


Wilcox surveys a map of Arizona's 7th Congressional District.
Wilcox surveys a map of Arizona's 7th Congressional District.
Monica Alonzo

The other candidates in the District 7 contest are political longshots. July's Gallego-commissioned poll showed that the best-known also-rans, Randy Camacho and Jarrett Maupin, were favored by 4 percent and 2 percent of voters, respectively.

Jerry Duff, Camacho's campaign manager, isn't buying the results, though. "The real story is the change that's occurred over the past two months in this race," he argues. "The same firm polled likely voters in May and again in July in Arizona's 7th . . . According to their results, we know the following for sure: Gallego lost 6 percent of his support, Wilcox lost 8 percent of her support. Camacho gained 4 percent, and undecided voters increased by 8 percent. Imagine where this trend will take us . . .when the primary election happens?"

One hurdle for the lesser-known congressional candidates has been fundraising. None has raised any significant political donations.

Camacho, who ran for Congress in 2004, has taken in about $1,300 and lent his campaign about $3,000. Maupin's received about $9,000.

As for Libertarian Joe Cobb and immigration attorney Joe Peñalosa, the former had donated about $1,000 to his campaign, and the latter (through June) had raised about $10,000 and fronted his campaign about $4,200, according to campaign-finance records.

Peñalosa is the grandson of immigrant grandparents, and he worked his way through UCLA by preparing and serving food, washing dishes, and cleaning floors. He also worked as a landscaper alongside undocumented immigrants.

He says his experiences, and those of his grandparents and undocumented co-workers, moved him to dedicate his life to improving the lives of those in the immigrant community. After graduating UCLA, he attended Arizona State University College of Law. It was during law school that he started working with an attorney on immigration cases. He's volunteered his legal services to Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes) and provided free representation to the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition and to the United Farm Workers. He often shares his political and legal views on immigration-related issues on Spanish-language television and radio.

He's been to Washington advocating for immigration reform and chides Capitol Hill Democrats for not making good on promises for immigration reform.

"They had their chance in 2009," he said during a debate at South Mountain Community College. "President Obama: Democrat. The Senate was controlled by 57 Democratic senators. The House had 256 Democratic congress-persons. And it still didn't get done because it wasn't a priority to them."

He roused the audience.

Maupin also has shaken up audiences when he speaks about the desperate need for immigration reform.

His candidacy, however, is dogged by a felony conviction that prevents him from casting a ballot in the August 26 election.

Maupin reached a plea deal with the Department of Justice after he admitted that he falsely informed the FBI in September 2008 that former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was engaged in criminal activity. Maupin repudiated the false report as part of his plea agreement.

All the candidates in the race believe they can fully replace Ed Pastor, revered by some for using his powerful position on the House Appropriations Committee to funnel federal dollars to Arizona and criticized by others for maintaining a behind-the-scenes profile on lightning-rod issues, principally immigration reform.


Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton says Pastor's been "one of the most effective members of Congress that we've sent to Washington, D.C., in the history of our state."

Pastor "understood that getting things done for his cities in the district was way, way more important than partisan fighting," Stanton says. "He just never engaged it in."

Pastor's influence, Stanton says, was key to every major transportation project in recent Valley history, including bus service, light rail, and improvements at Sky Harbor, including a new control tower.

"Every significant transportation improvement that's occurred in recent Phoenix history is directly due to Ed Pastor's leadership," the mayor says. "And not just in the city of Phoenix -- that's in the entire region. We wouldn't have gotten light rail in the East Valley if he hadn't made that a priority as well."

Voters will decide on August 26 who will sit in the seat Pastor occupied for nearly a quarter-century.

Danny Ortega, although he's worked for decades alongside Wilcox, believes it's time for voters to support a young leader who can serve for decades to come. 

"To put it simply, those of us who have been involved in politics -- particularly in the Latino community -- for the past 45 years have to start thinking very seriously about allowing the young people who want to serve the opportunity to do something," Ortega says. "For me it's not old guard v. new guard. It's about allowing . . . young leaders to take on new responsibility."

Ortega says the community has to look beyond a single office.

"Who is it [in the community] that we can anticipate will be elected to public office beyond Congress? Who can we look to in the future to be a U.S. Senator? Who can we look to in the future to be a governor? And who has the energy, drive, and enthusiasm to go down that path? It definitely has to be someone who is young," Ortega says.

Given how contentious the 7th District race between the front runners has been, state Democratic Party boss Quinlan anticipates that more voters than usual will be be motivated to cast ballots in this battle royale.

"Primaries like this lead to more voter contact, which really is a positive thing from the perspective of Democrats statewide," he says. "[Such] campaigns energize more volunteers, and these volunteers talk to more voters. They register more voters. They turn out more votes."

He says he believes there also is a better chance that those who participate in the upcoming primary will go to the polls in the November 4 general election.

"I think what we have to do is harness the momentum of the primary, hopefully reconcile the differences caused by the primary, bring people back together," he says. "I think it could play a crucial role in [helping] a slate of Democratic candidates: Fred DuVal for governor, Felecia Rotellini for attorney general, Terry Goddard for secretary of state. This race has implications beyond the district itself."

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