The race to become the next Maricopa County District Attorney, just weeks later, begins to heat up. And not in a good way.
On May 11, Acting Maricopa County District Attorney Rachel Mitchell — currently the Republican frontrunner for the vacant seat — emailed supporters, urgently asking for donations.
“George Soros is back!” read the subject line.
The message marked a change in the tone of the county attorney’s race – which will determine who will steer the powerful Maricopa County Attorney’s Office out of troubled waters.
In November 2020, in the last election for the office, Republican and Democratic candidates — Allister Adel and Julie Gunnigle, respectively — ran on a reform platform. Despite distinct approaches, both have promised to review certain policies deemed harsh and decisive.
If his initial campaign message is any indication, Mitchell apparently takes a different approach. She initially presented herself as a reasonable and pragmatic conservative. It only took him a few weeks to start exposing Soros, a bogeyman on the repressive right.
“Soros and his daughter are behind efforts to ‘defund the police’ and attempt to undermine our criminal justice system at every turn,” she wrote in the May 11 email soliciting donations. This had led to an “increase in crime across the United States”.
If not elected, Mitchell hinted, this push would come to Maricopa County: “Can I count on your support to help fight the Soros machine?
Mitchell’s campaign explained the email in a statement to Phoenix New Times.
“The Maricopa County prosecutor’s race is vitally important and it’s critical that voters understand how special interest groups have contributed to policy failures in other cities like Chicago and San Francisco where the violent crimes are on the rise,” it read. “The safety of this community is Rachel’s number one priority.”
Mitchell’s current chief of staff in the county attorney’s office, Jennifer Liewer, said she could not comment on campaign matters.
Former county attorney Adel resigned from her post in late March, just over a year into her first elected term. Adel’s time in office has been marked by scandal, over political lawsuits against Black Lives Matter protesters, which were dropped after an outcry, and questions about his sobriety. Adel died aged 45 on April 30.
After Adel’s resignation, candidates quickly lined up to fill the vacancy. As things stand, Mitchell and Gina Godbehere, who both spent decades as prosecutors in the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office, are vying for the Republican nomination. Gunnigle, a private attorney who narrowly lost to Adel in November 2020, is the only Democratic candidate.
Last month, the County Board of Supervisors appointed Mitchell as acting county attorney until voters choose a full-time replacement. That means Mitchell heads into the August primaries armed with the incumbent advantage.
Mitchell had a long tenure with MCAO and served in its highest ranks, working for a time as second in command. She is perhaps best known for her role during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in 2018, when she questioned him and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual assault.
She has positioned herself as a seasoned and respected conservative prosecutor. In previous interviews with new times and while making other public statements, Mitchell emphasized that she had the experience required to deal with the problems and instability that many have seen in office during Adel’s tenure.
But while she touted a focus on victims’ rights, she made less pretense to talk about broader issues of criminal justice reform than her predecessor.
This recent email signals that, unlike Adel, Mitchell is beginning to adopt the tough-on-crime posture that once defined the agency. Crime was on the rise, she wrote in her email last week, due to liberal prosecutors advocating criminal justice reforms and the “special interests” supporting them.
Gunnigle was quick to criticize Mitchell for his latest statements, calling them “a conspiratorial and anti-Semitic campaign stunt.”
“Anti-Semitism must always be rejected and I believe it will be firmly rejected by voters,” she said, adding, “My financial records are public. Rachel Mitchell’s comments, as usual, are lies at its core.
Mitchell’s campaign dismissed Gunnigle’s accusations: “[Mitchell] focuses on solving problems like prosecuting dangerous criminals and drug cartels to make our neighborhoods safe, without bringing baseless accusations against those who run against it.”
Gunnigle declined further interview requests and said she stands by her claims.
Soros, a philanthropist and businessman, is Jewish. At times, critics of his philanthropy deploy anti-Semitic tropes, as noted by Jewish civil rights organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. It is true, however, that Soros has spent millions on local prosecutor races over the past few years, among other political causes.
And he’s entered politics for this county in the past, most memorably in 2016. That’s when he donated $2 million to a group working to stop Joe Arpaio’s re-election as sheriff. of Maricopa County. He also spent more than $1 million on the county attorney’s run that year. A review of all active and inactive Independent Spending Committees registered with Maricopa County shows that Soros has not spent money independently in a county race since 2016.
Gunnigle never received direct funding from Soros, records show. In 2020, Gunnigle reported donations from five political action committees. Two were labor unions, two were local political groups supporting Arizona Democrats, and one was Emily’s List, a Washington, DC-based group that donates money to pro-choice Democratic female candidates.
Emily’s List has reported donations from Soros in the past, but the organization has a wide range of donors and has no strong ties to him, specifically. Emily’s List gave Gunnigle $6,450, according to campaign finance records. The majority of his fundraising, $360,900, came from individual donations (Soros was not one of them).
Mitchell’s campaign has provided no evidence of Soros’s independent spending in the 2020 county prosecutor’s race. “, says the email about the 2022 race.
Although it’s still early days, in first-quarter reports for the county attorney’s race, Gunnigle reported funding of $39,133, all from individual donations. Mitchell reported no fundraising in his first-quarter filing except for $25,000 of his own money.