Rose Mofford, Arizona's first female governor, dead at 94

Rose Mofford

Photo by Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services.

Rose Mofford

UPDATE: PHOENIX — When Rose Mofford was thrown into the role of Arizona’s governor, she was also plunged into a political hailstorm. With her predecessor impeached, a budget deficit and the state refusing to enact the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Arizona was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

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Former Arizona Governor Rose Mofford is a charter member of the Arizona Softball Hall of Fame at the Grace Sparkes Activity Center in Prescott. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier)

As Republicans and Democrats questioned what the future would bring, the state’s first female governor worked with a steady hand to navigate the tumultuous era and turned out to be the right leader at the right time.

“She was a healing force because she was so well known and trusted,” said Alan Stephens, a Democrat and state Senate minority leader during Mofford’s tenure. “We went through a chaos ... but then we went through the restoration and the return to civility.”

Mofford died Thursday at age 94. She was injured in a fall and went to a hospice facility last month, former spokeswoman and longtime friend Athia Hardt said.

A Democrat known for her signature beehive hairdo, Mofford served as governor from 1988 to 1991. She was secretary of state when she took over for Republican Gov. Evan Mecham, who was impeached and removed from office by the GOP-led Legislature. Arizona does not have a lieutenant governor.

She proclaimed Prescott as Arizona’s Christmas City in 1989 and that designation is still used to this day, according to Chamber CEO David Maurer. “The Prescott Chamber of Commerce has a copy of the proclamation in our Visitor Center”

Carol Springer, Republican, former Arizona State Senator, former Arizona State Treasurer, former Yavapai Co. Supervisor remembered Mofford, “She was just a strong lady, and she was her own person. She did things her own way.”

“She never planned on being governor; I think she was content to be secretary of state. I do think she rose to the occasion when she had to. By then, she had become so beloved in the state and such a fixture that I think people felt comforted by her.”

“She was never disagreeable…and she had a sense of fairness about her.”

Elisabeth Ruffner, who knew Mofford, said she was a “wonderful woman, (a) good friend. She would do anything asked her to do.”

Ruffner, well known in Prescott as a historian, writer, open space advocate and supporter of the arts, continued, “She had that great big beehive of white hair, always perfectly dressed, perfectly made up. She was a very good, sensitive, feeling governor,” and she got along with politicians of either party “not because she gave anything away, but because she was honest and straightforward and everyone admired her.”

The state was reeling on many levels when she took office, with a bruised economy and negative headlines over the MLK holiday. Mecham had rescinded his predecessor’s decision to create a state holiday, setting off national outrage against the state that included the NFL canceling an agreement to have the 1993 Super Bowl in Arizona.

Mofford argued that not having the King holiday was hurting the state’s economy, but voters rejected measures in the 1990 election that would have created a paid state holiday. It wasn’t until two years later, when Mofford was out of office, that a ballot initiative enacting the holiday was approved. In 1993, the NFL awarded the 1996 Super Bowl to Arizona.

Mofford finished her predecessor’s term but decided not to run in the 1990 governor’s race to try to keep the job. She was succeeded by Republican Fife Symington, who resigned amid a real estate scandal in 1997. His fraud conviction was later overturned.

The Democrat in a traditionally Republican state was revered by members of both parties. Her death prompted an outpouring from Democrats and Republicans alike.

President Barack Obama, who met Mofford during an August 2009 visit to Phoenix, praised her “trailblazing spirit.” In a statement, he recalled how Mofford once told him she was fired from a government position because her boss thought a man could do a better job.

“Rose showed us all what to do when somebody says we’re not good enough because of who we are — don’t believe it,” Obama said.

GOP Gov. Doug Ducey ordered flags be lowered to half-staff in her honor.

“Rising through the ranks of state government to our state’s top office, she shattered a once-thought unbreakable glass ceiling and served as an unparalleled role model to many,” Ducey said.

Mofford was the first of four female governors to lead the conservative state over the next two decades, including Republican Jane Hull, Democrat Janet Napolitano and Republican Jan Brewer.

“During challenging times for our state, Governor Mofford was the steady hand that led us through and held us together,” Ducey said.

Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, a Republican, said Mofford “stepped up when she needed to step up.”

“I don’t think she ever really necessarily wanted the spotlight or wanted to certainly be governor, but she believed in public service and she believed strongly in the state, especially the rural areas of the state,” Woods said.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, called Mofford an “Arizona original, a gifted and groundbreaking leader” who provided the state with calming leadership.

Mofford came close to the governor’s office once before. She had been appointed secretary of state and was serving in that post when Democratic Gov. Wesley Bolin died in 1977. She was not eligible to succeed him because she had been appointed, so Attorney General Bruce Babbitt became governor.

When Mofford took over for Mecham more than a decade later, Hardt said she served on the transition team.

“There was no staff, so everybody went up as volunteers,” Hardt recalled. “We felt like we were liberating the state and doing something that was doing good for the state.”

Hardt, a former newspaper reporter and the daughter of a longtime legislator, said Mofford “had this very wonderful image of being a mother — ‘Mother Mofford’ she’d call herself — and also being humorous and knowing everyone in the state. She had Rolodexes that were incredible.”

Born Rose Perica, Mofford grew up about 85 miles east of Phoenix in the town of Globe.

She was married to T.R. “Lefty” Mofford. They divorced in 1967 and had no children.

Mofford was often spotted out with friends at the same Phoenix restaurant. Nate Hopper, managing partner of the Sierra Bonita Grill, said Mofford ate there every night —and sometimes twice a day— for nine years. Paintings, statues and other gifts from her can be seen throughout the restaurant, and a plaque in her honor sits above what was her regular booth.

“It was really neat, not to see how she treated me personally, but how she treated everyone that came into the restaurant,” Hopper said. “People would just come into the restaurant to see if she was here.”