Carolyn Warner dies; she ran for Arizona governor in tumultuous political times

PHOENIX — Carolyn Warner, who died Tuesday at age 88, was the Democratic nominee for Arizona governor in 1986.

If it weren’t for an independent candidate that year who split the vote, Bill Schulz, Warner could have been the state’s first woman governor.

Instead, Republican Ev Mecham won, and ended up getting impeached and convicted as a sitting governor.

After losing the race in ’86, Warner, who had been state schools superintendent, said she thought that Arizona just wasn’t ready for a woman to be the state’s chief executive.

The truth is more complicated. And her defeat by Mecham did lead to the first woman governor two years later, as Secretary of State Rose Mofford filled the seat after Mecham was ousted. He was impeached for improperly loaning inaugural funds to his Glendale Pontiac dealership and for trying to impede a state investigation.

Warner, born in 1930 in Oklahoma, grew up to be active in Democratic politics there.

After moving to Arizona in 1953 she and her husband, Ron Warner, ran a high-end furniture store in Phoenix before she decided to get directly involved in statewide politics by running for schools chief in 1974. She was elected as the first non-educator to that position, serving for three four-year terms, as this was before term limits.

She made a bid in 1976 for U.S. Senate, but lost the primary to then-Pima County Attorney Dennis DeConcini, who went on to win the Senate seat.

The 1986 gubernatorial race came as incumbent Democrat Bruce Babbitt chose to focus his energies on a bid for president.

Warner became the party’s nominee, with Mecham becoming the GOP standard-bearer after defeating House Majority Leader Burton Barr in a bitter primary.

But then Democrat Schulz, who had run for U.S. Senate in 1980 against Barry Goldwater, decided he wanted a shot at the state’s top office. So he became a political independent and poured $2.2 million of his own cash into the race, a huge amount at the time.

The result was that Mecham picked up 343,913 votes against 298,986 for Warner — and Schulz tallied 224,085.

State lawmakers subsequently got voters to amend the Arizona Constitution to require a candidate receive at least 50 percent of the vote to get elected. But that was repealed after the 1990 gubernatorial race forced a runoff between Democrat Terry Goddard and Republican Fife Symington.

In the years after leaving politics directly, Warner and former state schools aide Dave Bolger formed Corporate/Education Consulting Inc., a consulting, speaking and training firm. But she remained an active supporter of Democratic candidates and was a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton in 2008 even as then-Gov. Janet Napolitano backed Barack Obama.

Four years ago Warner endorsed David Garcia in his unsuccessful race for schools superintendent against Republican Diane Douglas.

That did not stop Douglas from having some nice words about Warner on Wednesday.

“Although we were from different sides of the political aisle, there was no other former superintendent of public instruction that was nearly as gracious and kindhearted to me as Carolyn,” Douglas said in a prepared statement. Douglas also said Warner remained active on education issues, with the pair serving together as co-chairs of the Career and Technical Education Quality Skills Commission.

Warner was the author of four books, including “The Last Word: A Treasury of Women’s Quotations.”

Arizona got its first elected woman governor in 1998 in Republican Jane Hull. She actually had become governor the year before, as she was secretary of state when Symington was forced to resign the governor’s office after being indicted on fraud charges.

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