Julie Gunnigle, who is running for Maricopa County Attorney, said at a Young Democrats at ASU meeting last Friday that if elected, she would bring progressive reforms to the county. Reforms on her list include working to ensure expungements for marijuana drug charges are "universal and automatic" and addressing racial disparities in sentencing.
Gunnigle lost to Allister Adel in the 2020 election for Maricopa County Attorney by less than 38,000 votes. Adel resigned last week.
Adel's brief time in office was fraught with controversy. She spent time out of state receiving treatment for alcohol use and mental health issues. In her work to lead the office, Adel approved charges the Phoenix Police Department made for 17 Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020 and attempted to list them as part of a gang that doesn't exist. More recently, attorneys in her office missed deadlines to file charges on 180 misdemeanor cases.
Last Monday, Adel resigned. She had been elected to serve until January 2025 with the office appearing on the ballot in 2024.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, an elected group that approves a budget and allocates money to other elected offices, were caught off guard by Adel's resignation. Deadlines are tight and potential candidates rushed to gather signatures to appear on the ballot later this year.
Gunnigle is the only candidate in either party to receive the required signatures which she gathered in less than 24 hours. Gunnigle collected the needed signatures after Adel resigned by quickly getting the word out through Twitter and reaching her supporters.
"To ask a candidate to get as many signatures out quickly, there's no other word for it, I believe the legal term is 'bonkers,'" Gunnigle said at the event.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office is the third largest public prosecutorial agency in the nation, according to its website, handling all felony prosecutions and misdemeanor filings in the county's court system and providing civil legal services to all county agencies.
"So the county attorney's role in all of this is that they get to choose, and that discretion is absolute, right?" Gunnigle said. "You can't ever go after a seated county attorney for failing to take a case."
Gunnigle said it is important to have a county attorney who uses the option of choice the office affords. She used the controversial abortion law that was approved by the Arizona Legislature on Thursday and sent to the governor's desk, which outlaws abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, as an example of the type of case she would choose not to prosecute.
"We need to make sure that we have someone in this office and that shares our values, that's committed to never prosecute a person or their health care provider ever based on this highly misogynistic and unfair abortion law," Gunnigle said.
Around 30 people joined Young Democrats to hear Gunnigle speak.
"I really like that she's not afraid to call out the 'tough on crime' B.S. narrative, because it's super easy," said Ricardo Serna, president of Maricopa County Young Democrats who attended the event. "'Bad guy does bad thing, we do bad thing to bad guy.' Right? But it's much harder to explain, 'Well, you know what? These things don’t actually work the way we thought.'"
Kassidy Wheeler, social chair for Young Democrats, was one of over 4,000 people to sign the petition within the first 24 hours of Gunnigle's new campaign. Wheeler supports Gunnigle's stance on eliminating mandatory minimums and using discretion in sentencing.
"I'm probably more on the left spectrum, but rehabilitative justice and distributional justice needs to be improved in America," said Wheeler, a junior studying political science and justice studies. "But I also think that having good prosecutors that'll say 'OK, this guy has one offense for smoking weed, we shouldn't ruin his life over it,' I think that's just as important as having good public defenders."
Sahara Sajjadiankhah, president of Young Democrats, said she and other members followed the 2020 Maricopa County Attorney's race closely.
"I honestly think that was the one we were most upset over losing," said Sajjadiankhah, a junior studying political science. "I really believe in restorative justice, and I know that she (Gunnigle) is pretty strong in that department and creating a better environment, and reforming the system as a whole."
Sajjadiankhah considers Gunnigle's passion for expunging marijuana charges a necessary first step toward reform.
"Our club members really love her, so I was really excited to have her in here and talk to us, because her politics are outstanding as well," Sajjadiankhah said. "The way she presents, the way she speaks, it’s all very captivating."
James Doyle Brown, Jr. is an opinion columnist at The State Press. He is also in his final semester as a graduate student studying investigative journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He has previously reported for the State Press politics desk, The Howard Center of Investigative Journalism and Carnegie-Knight News21.