Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor died Friday at the age of 93, and as is our wont at Daily Kos Elections, we'll be documenting her trailblazing career in Arizona electoral politics in the years before she became the first woman on the nation's highest court.
O'Connor first entered elected office in 1969, when state Sen. Isabel Burgess, the first Republican woman to serve in the upper chamber, resigned to join the National Transportation Safety Board. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors was tasked with filling the seat in the eastern Phoenix area, and the Arizona Republic's Ronald J. Hansen writes that O'Connor, who was a member of the Young Republicans and an assistant state attorney general, successfully convinced them to choose her.
The new senator, as Evan Thomas writes in his 2019 O'Connor biography "First," did not have to campaign to keep her new seat in this heavily Republican district. "No door-to-door canvassing required; the property lots were too large to make it worthwhile," Thomas says. In 1973, shortly after winning her second full term, O'Connor became the first woman to serve as majority leader of any state Senate.
The majority leader, as Dustin Gardiner wrote in the Arizona Republic in 2019, was "dogged about facts, but congenial." Alfredo Gutierrez, a Democrat who succeeded her as majority leader, recounted, "Often when debate got heated, she was the adult in the room who would calm things down. But she was not a backslapping politician. She was much more reserved than other members of the leadership."
O'Connor didn't remain in the legislature long, though. In 1974, she challenged incumbent Maricopa County Superior Court David Perry. Perry, as Thomas writes, dubbed O'Connor "not a real lawyer." "She hated campaigning," her legislative aide remembered, "She liked talking to groups, but she wasn't warm. She was still stiff. But she had a good name and people knew her." O'Connor ended up securing 70% of the vote in what would turn out to be the only serious contest of her career.
O'Connor considered running for governor in 1978 against incumbent Bruce Babbitt, who had ascended to the office earlier in the year, following the death of fellow Democrat Wesley Bolin. Party leaders tried to convince her to get in, and former Arizona Senate President Leo Corbet recounted that made the case to O'Connor. "I suggested that it was time for Arizona to get a woman governor," Corbet said.
However, O'Connor remained skeptical about the idea. Thomas writes that she didn't believe the state Republican Party could provide her with the financial support she'd need to unseat the popular governor, and that she feared she'd have to use her own funds to compensate. She also feared that she'd need to go through an ugly primary against far-right foe Evan Mecham that would "leave scars." "Meacham was a goofball car dealer who wore white socks with business suits," her son told Thomas. "He was a clown. But he was crazy enough to run even if the establishment greased the skids for mom."
While several influential Republicans, including Sen. Barry Goldwater, came to her home to persuade her to run, one member of the gathering recounted O'Connor responding, "Look, if you want me to run, I've got to be sure there is enough money. So don't talk to me until you've raised enough money to run a campaign." She never got those assurances, in part because major donors didn't like the idea of a Gov. O'Connor. "They knew they couldn't just walk into her office and get something done, right or wrong," one sympathetic state legislator said.
O'Connor sat out the race, and Babbitt went on to beat Mecham 52-45. (Mecham eventually won in 1986, but the GOP legislature removed him for misuse of public funds and obstruction of justice less than two years later; Democratic Secretary of State Rose Mofford, who was next in line for the governorship, became the first woman to lead the state.) O'Connor, though, believed things could have gone differently if she'd been the GOP nominee. U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger recounted a conversation years later in which O'Connor "fixed me with those steely eyes and told me, 'Babbitt was a good governor. But I could have taken him.'"
O'Connor's decision to sit out the 1978 race marked the end of her career in GOP electoral politics, but that move helped her rise further in a new profession. Babbitt appointed the moderate Republican to a seat on the Arizona Court of Appeals the following year, and she held that post during the 1980 presidential election, when Republican nominee Ronald Reagan pledged to appoint the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. The new president got his chance when Justice Potter Stewart stepped down the next year, and he chose O'Connor for this history-making role.