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

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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."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo