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).
Wilcox herself says neither the advisory committee nor the supervisors, who interviewed all the candidates personally in early June, raised the responsiveness issue. "If they had a concern, they didn't raise it, either in group interviews or when I met with the supervisors individually," Wilcox recalls. "The only question that even touched on that area was when I was asked how I liaisoned with my neighborhoods, and it was just an open-ended, informational kind of question."
Community activists scoff at the charge that Wilcox is all talk and no substance. "When it comes to constituent services, nobody can beat Mary Rose," says Peter Martori, a longtime neighborhood activist in South Phoenix who now lives in north Phoenix. "She works incredibly hard on a range of issues. She always hires workhorses as her aides."
Martori, who clashes with Wilcox on city issues about as frequently as he sides with her, most recently opposed her on city council redistricting, a sensitive issue that cost Wilcox some support among Hispanics, as well.
Former supervisor Ed Pastor, who quit the job after fifteen years to run for Mo Udall's congressional seat, says the purported criticisms of Wilcox were never raised to him, even in confidence. Pastor ascribes the outcome primarily to "partisans pounding on the Republican supervisors." Pastor says Wilcox's gender probably hurt her candidacy more than her track record as a city councilmember. "Another issue I heard mentioned is that if she was appointed the board majority would be female and that, you know, can cause coalition-building," Pastor says with mock paranoia. "The comments were said in a somewhat joking manner but still, it shows some people were counting heads."
Bayless says she heard the gender question raised but once during the preappointment jockeying, and says she responded, "No one seemed worried when the board had five men." Bayless adds that she does not believe the male supervisors rejected Wilcox because she's a woman.
Wilcox's most unforgiving critics are Hispanic males, says Phoenix political consultant Alfredo Gutierrez. "There are other successful Hispanic women around but they tend to let men take the lead," Gutierrez says. "Mary Rose's success and her toughness have discombobulated a lot of Hispanic men."
"We somehow never could tie down exactly who was making the criticism, or how many calls there were," a Wilcox supporter observes dryly.
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