Stacey Pawlowski, a wife, mother — and a heck of a Republican fundraiser — dies

During the memorial slide show, but before the actual service began at Stacey Pawlowski's funeral, a lobbyist leaned over and handed his business card to a city councilman. "Call me. I want to talk to you about your campaign," he said.

The councilman nodded, and everyone in earshot tittered, because Stacey Pawlowski wouldn't have had it any other way. She would have loved to know that political business was conducted at her funeral.

Pawlowski died last month at 39, after a short but fierce struggle with cancer. She was a lot of things, but most knew her for her work as an ass-kicking Republican fundraiser, both locally and nationally. John McCain was her first client, and by the end, she'd worked for everyone from Steve Forbes to the Rio Salado Foundation in Tempe. Her modest estimate was that she'd raised several million dollars for candidates and even more for causes.

Earlier this summer, Pawlowski sat down for what was to be the first in a series of interviews designed to preserve memories for her son Jack. (She also agreed that it could be used for a story about her for New Times.)

Pawlowski talked for three hours straight, only taking breaks for more green tea (the coffee table was stacked with equal numbers of books about parenting and health food) and barely showing a hint of fatigue. It was easy to see how she could still be working, even soliciting clients.

Dressed in her typically preppy outfit of jeans and a button-down, Pawlowski sounded just like her old self — still with the Valley Girl "likes" and the kind of language you'd expect from someone accustomed to backroom politicking — but she did look different, with hair missing from cancer treatments, revealing a large, zigzag scar up the back of her head. She was annoyed that her face was puffy from steroids, pointing to a gorgeous family photo on the wall, taken when the cancer was in remission.

Pawlowski learned she had breast cancer when she was 37 1/2 weeks pregnant with Jack, her only child; he was delivered by C-section almost immediately and, very soon thereafter, she underwent a double mastectomy. After aggressive treatments, she was given a clean bill of health, but the cancer showed up again several times in her brain and then her liver.

She's a planner, so as soon as she found out she had cancer, Pawlowski started planning. Her husband, Will Scholz, had some ideas of his own.

"My husband — so cute — said, 'We'll go on a world cruise,'" Pawlowski said. She didn't want to. "You know, I've already seen the pyramids, I've been to Greece, I've done all that."

She wanted to take Will to Prague, "because he really wants to go to Prague. But I told him what I want to see before I die is to see my son graduate from college. That's what I want to see. Hell, I'll take high school. At this point, I'll take fifth grade — you know, I'll take kindergarten."

Jack is 18 months old.

Stacey Pawlowski might have gone to USC, but she was a Phoenix girl. Her grandfather owned Los Olivos, still the best car wash in town. Her father, Stan, was a well-known dentist (now retired); her mother will always be known as Nanny Marlene to the hundreds of kids she helped raise. And although Stacey has two sisters, older Stephanie and younger Stanya, she was always "The SP," as noted on the license plate on her first fancy car, a BMW she bought with money from her business.

Part of the Xavier Mafia — a group of women who became friends in high school and who pretty much run some parts of this town, politically speaking — Pawlowski remembered going to Washington, D.C., in high school and getting bitten by the political bug. (Although she also recalled, laughing, that she ran for student council "like seven times" and never got elected.)

She was also a cheerleader.

"But of course," she said, cracking herself up again. "Have you met my voice? I had big hair, that kind of stuff."

That must have played well at USC, where she got a car and an internship with then-Senator Pete Wilson, in one of his California offices.

One of Wilson's elderly constituents had been taken to the hospital by ambulance and lost her dentures along the way.

"So she called the Senate office to try to find her teeth, and it was a call that I got and so I made, like, half a dozen calls. I found her teeth for her. We had them delivered. And she sent me a picture," Pawlowski paused and grinned, "like this, with her teeth."

Someone noticed her and said, "Get this woman working on a campaign." That led to an internship in D.C.

"There they had me licking envelopes until I bitched after, like, two days and I said, 'I'm not sitting here licking envelopes,'" Pawlowski said. "So my boss said, 'Fine, you can come to the White House with me' . . . And, all of a sudden, I'm sitting in a room and she's, like, 'You do not speak.' Which, you know, is hard for me. But I'm sitting in a room with a pad [of paper] and there's Fitzwater, Sununu, Lee Atwater, the president, the vice president — Bush and Quayle at the time. And I'm just like, 'Hi!'"

Another pivotal experience: Her father refused to give her much spending money for school, so she did telemarketing for USC. "I give good phone," she said, by way of explaining her fund-raising abilities.

Later, running her own political fundraising business, she'd force candidates to "give phone," too. She pointed out the window of her north central home, to the guesthouse out back, where she officed.

"I mean, I've had congressmen over at my house, making phone calls only when they misbehave." That meant failing to call the list of potential donors she'd given them. Pawlowski described saying to the likes of former congressman Matt Salmon, "'You don't want to come to my house.' And Matt Salmon's like, 'No I don't. No I don't. I'll make the calls.'

"I make it painful" for those who didn't listen, she said. "Like, 'We'll make four hours' worth of calls,' and then they're like, 'Shit, I'm never doing that again.' I'm like, 'Good! So you'll behave and now we'll just do one hour at a time.'"

Pawlowski's first job, as a fundraiser for the Arizona Republican Party, paid $24,000. She moved back in with her parents. They charged her $300 a month for room and board, and she was required to be home every night at 6 for dinner.

"If I didn't show up, the next day my dinner would be wrapped in Saran Wrap in front of my cereal bowl. It was awesome . . . Then you'd be like, 'Oh, shit. I forgot to call Mom.'"

It was 1992; John McCain was running against Claire Sargent, post-Keating Five. Pawlowski wasn't particularly frightened — or impressed — by his temper, though she did see him slam his fist on a desk and demand 70 percent of the vote.

"They say he's got a temper — I don't think it's a temper, per se, no more so than the other guys I've seen."

"So, I just distinctly remember his saying, 'I want 70 percent of the vote!' but Phil Gordon said the same thing," she said of the Phoenix mayor, one of the few Democrats she'd worked for.

"Phil Gordon actually takes it one step further and says, 'I want to know the 30 percent who voted against me.' Like he's going to go and convince them next time. Which is funny, I think, because you're always going to have 20 percent who disagree with you on one side, 20 percent who disagree with you on the other side and your whole thing is to fight over 60 percent, you know?"

It was never all work and no play, Pawlowski recalled. She learned that from her days working with Republicans in D.C.

"Even when Lee Atwater had a stroke and was in a wheelchair cruising around, they would start happy hour at 3 o'clock," she said. "I was coming off of college so I was a big beer drinker . . . And I kind of learned that a lot of political decisions — slogans, for example, the design of signs, for example — came from going to dinner and having drinks with people."

The war stories go on. Pawlowski drove Dan Quayle around in her Jetta ("I love him. He's much smarter than spelling potato wrong.") She knew Karl Rove and Haley Barbour and had to "zip it" when she was fundraising in more conservative states, where her salty language and progressive views on abortion didn't play so well.

Eventually, she started Capital Connection in 1996, with McCain as her first client. She immediately broke records, with a dinner that brought in almost $750,000.

She parted ways with McCain and worked for Steve Forbes. ("Flat tax — mmm. Such a good idea. Love that idea.") He still sent her birthday cards. Eventually, she worked more for causes than candidates, like the Arizona Meth Project and the homeless campus in downtown Phoenix.

In 2005, she married Scholz, who's not at all involved in politics. Among other things, he's a trained chef. By May 2006, she was pregnant. She did a lot of pre-natal genetic testing because she was over 35 and a lot of worrying over the fact she was having a boy. ("'Are you shitting me? I'm going to have a boy? Am I going to be a good boy mom? But I forgot I work in politics that's 98 percent men, so clearly, I can be a good boy mom.")

The baby was fine. Pawlowski was not.

She recalled the early days, after she got the news.

"Everyone's like, 'Oh, you're taking this so well.' And it's like, well, your choice is, sit on the couch and say, 'Woe is me. How the fuck did this happen?' Or be positive . . . To me, it just never was an option. But I had a baby, a husband."

She drank wine while Will shaved her head (the eyebrows were the hardest to lose) and got herself a "hot Posh Spice wig." She wore sock monkey pajamas and fought with Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman (because she continued to work, even once the cancer moved to her brain) and had plans to go to something called the Living Foods Institute in October.

Some friends insisted on throwing her a birthday party in June, where she saw people she hadn't seen in years. She was really touched.

"It sounds morbid to say it this way, but you go through life thinking, 'I just want to be a good person and I want to do some change in the community.' That's all — affect peoples' lives in a positive way. Have I been a bitch? Yes. Have I, you know, been aggressive? Yes. People hired me for that — blah blah blah. But I, seriously, that's kind of all I wanted, you know? And you kind of go, 'Yeah, maybe I'm a good person.'"

St. Francis Xavier Church was packed for Stacey Pawlowski's funeral. Her husband, father, and sister spoke eloquently about her. Will described his life as black and white before he met her and color after. The place did empty out significantly, by the end — partly because of Hugh Hallman's long eulogy. (New Times actually received an anonymous call afterward, from someone who had been at the funeral and was stunned that someone managed to make Pawlowski's life sound boring.)

But mostly, people left early because they had to get over to a John McCain fundraiser that had been scheduled for the same morning.

Stacey Pawlowski wouldn't have had it any other way.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at