Challenger Bill Montgomery pulled out a major upset in the Republican race for Maricopa County attorney on Tuesday by unseating one of the most familiar names in Arizona politics, Rick Romley.
Romley conceded the race within hours of the polls closing after unofficial results showed him down by almost 12 percent. Montgomery was leading 50 percent to 38 percent.
“In a way, it feels very satisfying to have hard work pay off like this,” Montgomery said in an interview afterward.
The challenger had the backing of the county’s powerful Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who not only endorsed him but spent big money on an ad campaign attacking Romley in the final weeks of the race. Elections officials on Tuesday determined some of the ads were illegal, but the ruling came down after the damage had already been done.
Montgomery said Arpaio’s overall support was a bigger key to his victory. But he acknowledged the attack ads were effective, too.
“To the extent that it educated voters about my opponent’s record, sure, it helped,” said Montgomery.
But the former deputy prosecutor, who used to work under Romley at the county attorney’s office, gave even more credit to the driving political force known as S.B. 1070, Arizona’s new immigration law.
Even though the most controversial parts of the law were blocked by a federal judge in July before they could take effect, Montgomery said the issue helped cement him as the tougher of the two candidates on illegal immigration.
Romley vowed to enforce the law, but he also urged Gov. Jan Brewer to veto it earlier this year, saying it was tearing apart the community.
With the win, Montgomery is all but guaranteed to be elected as the county’s next chief prosecutor in November. Democrats chose to stay out of the race this year. So his only opponent will be Libertarian Michael Kielsky, who has yet to raise any money or even launch a campaign website.
Romley, who had the support of a number of Democrats in Arizona, also put to rest any speculation that he would try to run as a write-in candidate in the fall.
“I just don’t see it,” he told Heat City. “We just move on. I’m just going to keep doing the job through November.”
It was the first loss of Romley’s long political career. He held the county attorney’s office for 16 years, winning his first election in 1988 and earning three more terms after that until he retired in 2004.
Then in April, after a five-year absence, he agreed to accept an appointment to his old seat when his successor, Andrew Thomas, resigned to run for state attorney general. Tuesday’s primary and November’s general elections are part of a special process to find someone to finish out the final two years of Thomas’ vacated term.
“It’s my first loss,” Romley said. “And it’s not easy here.”
During the five years he was gone from the office, Maricopa County’s government descended into a major feud among most of its high-ranking leaders.
On one side were Thomas, Arpaio and a handful of other agency heads. On the other side were the Board of Supervisors, the county’s chief administrator and several judges. The battle resulted in numerous lawsuits and criminal charges, and the fallout from it continues even now.
Romley was picked by the board to help smooth out the mess. He said Tuesday that he hopes his brief return to the office will ultimately prove to have done that.
“When (Montgomery) comes in, if he prevails in November, it will be in much better shape,” Romley said.
He also said he and his staff tried to stay out of the mud during his campaign, a difficult feat given the volume of Arpaio’s attacks against him.
“Campaigns today are very nasty and when I chose to come back in, I really meant it when I said I was going to try to restore the dignity of the office,” Romley said. “We took the high road. And you can question whether it was good or wrong. But I think we conducted ourselves in a manner that we’re very proud of.”
In the end, he believes those very attacks by Arpaio were what did him in. He estimated that Arpaio spent $700,000 to defeat him, though the official tally won’t be known for several more weeks.
The most recent records from the county Elections Department show that Arpaio had spent $236,000 on “media buys” as of the end of July. His ads against Romley have been running regularly on network TV ever since.
“Maybe I was naive,” Romley said. “We knew it would have a tremendous impact, but I guess I’m surprised it was that big.”
Romley, by comparison, raised $172,000 for the race and Montgromery put together $99,000.
For his part, Montgomery pledged to stay out of the ongoing Maricopa County feuds. Though many of his law enforcement policies are staunchly conservative and similar to those of Andrew Thomas, he said he wants to be a no-drama officeholder.
“What I’ve pledged to the sheriff and the people of Maricopa County is that I’m going to be a partner in law enforcement,” he said. “I’m not interested in feuds and battles.”
Arpaio celebrated the victory of his likely future partner, too. “That’s going to make my job very easy,” he said. “It’s a great night for the Republican Party.”