In 2018, career prosecutor Rachel Mitchell briefly thrusts the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office into the national spotlight.
At that time, Mitchell was the chief of the county’s sex crimes division. She was tasked by Senate Republicans to question US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings, as well as Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused him of assaulting her decades earlier.
The high-stakes case drew some national criticism that Mitchell, a registered Republican, was using her position in a partisan fashion.
Now, Mitchell is once again in the spotlight. On Wednesday, she launched her campaign to become Maricopa County Attorney, armed with insider status, a long and distinguished career, and the endorsement of former county attorney Rick Romley.
Mitchell is joining a fast-paced race for the county attorney’s seat. The powerful position oversees tens of thousands of criminal prosecutions in the county each year. Mitchell’s bid for the top job comes just weeks after she and four other top county prosecutors signed a letter calling for the resignation of their boss.
Mitchell continued her criticism in announcing her bid on Twitter Wednesday. “As the next county attorney, I will not be learning the job while doing the job,” she wrote.
The race began abruptly on Monday, when County Attorney Allister Adel, who had been subject to months of mounting scrutiny over her handling of the office, announced her resignation. It was an about-face from her insistence for weeks that she had no plans to step down.
In the hours that followed, many on the left quickly rallied behind Adel’s challenger in the 2020 election: Julie Gunnigle, an attorney and former prosecutor.
Back in 2020, Gunnigle lost to Adel by just two percentage points. Since, she has continued to be a vocal critic of Adel and MCAO and is now positioning herself as the progressive, reform-minded candidate. Within just 24 hours of Adel’s resignation, Gunnigle had garnered enough signatures — over 4,000 — to secure her a spot on the August primary ballot.
She was thrilled by the momentum, she told Phoenix New Times: “I don’t even have the words to describe what this run looks like. The difference between this time and last time has been absolutely palpable.”
Days later, Mitchell is now emerging as a strong conservative opponent. She’s a Republican who donated to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s campaigns in 2013 and 2018, according to state campaign finance records.
But it’s not Mitchell’s first bid for the office, either. Though she did not challenge Adel in the 2020 race, she did apply for the job back in 2019, vying to fill Bill Montgomery’s seat after he was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Mitchell did not immediately respond to New Times’ interview requests Wednesday but laid out her credentials in her Twitter announcement.
“For the past 30 years I’ve dedicated my career to protecting families by prosecuting crimes against children, ensuring the integrity of our legal system, and leading teams of prosecutors holding dangerous criminals accountable,” Mitchell tweeted.
In 2018, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, Mitchell received blowback from both sides of the political aisle. Critics at home and on the left said it was inappropriate for her to question a victim in partisan proceedings. Republican pundits complained that she did not take a harsher approach against Ford.
In a memo following her questioning, Mitchell wrote of Ford’s case: “A ‘he said, she said’ case is incredibly difficult to prove. But this case is even weaker than that,” saying that a “reasonable prosecutor” would not bring charges.
She was speaking from experience. For decades, Mitchell has led the sex crimes division at MCAO. Eventually, she rose to deputy chief under Montgomery, amid political turmoil in the office.
She has overseen some key cases at the county, including a major sex abuse case involving the Catholic church. One pastor involved, Paul LeBrun, received a maximum sentence of 111 years.
In a phone call with New TimesRomley praised Mitchell’s work on that case, saying that it demonstrated her skill and fairness as a prosecutor.
“The thing that a person brings most to the office of county attorney is judgment,” he said. “You have a tremendous amount of power, and how you wield that power is absolutely critical.”
Of course, Romley had also endorsed Allister Adel for her 2020 run, calling her a “serious-minded reformer” at the time. Then, her office became embroiled in scandals.
As Adel began to face mounting scrutiny, due to MCAO’s political prosecutions of protesters and questions about her sobriety, Romley changed his tune. Once a mentor to Adel, he issued several public calls for her to step down.
On Wednesday, Romley speculated that the public pressure forced Adel to resign — in tandem with the prospect of discipline from the Arizona State Bar over misconduct while in office.
“I think she saw the snowballing effect was beginning to occur,” Romley said. “What I’ve heard was that the state bar was approaching her, and there was potentially a suspension of her license.”
The state bar has confirmed that Adel was facing multiple investigations. The organization has provided few specifics, but has said it is investigating allegations of extended absences and misconduct raised in the letter from Mitchell and other top prosecutors. According to reports by ABC15, another investigation by the State Bar concerns the political prosecutions of protesters in 2020.
Romley said he did not expect a similar pattern with Mitchell. He had hired her and worked with her for decades, he said, and trusted her character. “I know what I’m getting with Rachel,” he said. “We just can’t afford to take another chance and have it blow up in our face.”
Gunnigle, meanwhile, pulled no punches in speaking about her opponent.
“I do not believe the voters can trust someone who saw the political prosecutions coming out of that office and said nothing,” Gunnigle said of Mitchell. “She represents the status quo.”
Gunnigle said MCAO has “a legacy of lies, corruption and collusion,” and that an insider was not the right person to fix it. She to praise Mitchell for her February letter demanding Adel’s resignation, saying she had waited too long to speak out about the turmoil at the office.
And as for the Kavanaugh hearings, that was a “blatantly partisan usage of the county attorney’s office,” Gunnigle argued.
Jamaar Williams, a public defender and organizer with Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, said that Adel’s tenure at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office should have proved that conservative promises of reform were empty. “Adel already made promises to change the office. She already made promises to change the practices. And she utterly failed,” he said.
Before her resignation, Adel had touted her work on expungements of old pot charges and victim advocacy. The office has proactively expanded over 10,000 cannabis charges from records and invested in new diversity programs for other minor charges.
As for Mitchell and other insider candidates that have lined up, Williams said: “They’re not interested in [reforms]† It doesn’t suit their narrative. It doesn’t suit them politically.”
Throughout her long career at MCAO, Mitchell has overseen some scandals. Back in 2003, New Times exposed how Mitchell’s office had dropped a serious sex abuse case involving a disabled woman, despite strong evidence backing up the victim’s story.
Per Maricopa County Recorder’s records, seven candidates have put their hat in the ring for the Maricopa County attorney’s seat. They include Gunnigle and Mitchel, as well former county prosecutor and now Goodyear city prosecutor Gina Godbehere, Doug Ducey’s general counsel Anni Foster, local attorneys Stephen Walker and James Woods, and former Libertarian Party chairman and attorney Michael Kielsky.
All are running as Republicans, save for Gunnigle, a Democrat, and Kielsky, a Libertarian.
Before voters head to the polls, county supervisors will appoint an interim county attorney to oversee the office.
Though it’s not clear yet who might be their pick, the individual will have to be a registered Republican. Rules require the appointee to be part of the same political party as the person they are replacing. Adel is a registered Republican.
In the meantime, county attorney hopefuls have just two weeks to collect the signatures needed to get on the primary ballot. That election will be held on August 2.