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The way we were

Veteran county recorder served as model for public-service employees

Though they often operate with a low profile, county "row officers" — namely the assessor, recorder, school superintendent, sheriff and treasurer — do much of the public-facing grunt work of local government. For the most part, Pima County has been fortunate to have serious and committed individuals in these positions. The remarkable career of one small, humble and hard-working woman serves as an example of this tradition of public service.

Anna Sullinger was born Anna Simpson in a house on Meyer Street in Tucson in 1885 to Marianna Trujillo Simpson and prominent local butcher James Buchanan Simpson. In October 1911, she married Wilford "Sully" Sullinger, a professional baseball player and team manager. Wilford became active in local Democratic Party politics and would eventually be elected to the Tucson City Council and serve in an appointed role as Pima County undersheriff. Like her husband, Anna was active in politics and civic causes.

Wilford died suddenly of a stroke in April 1932. Anna, serving at the time as secretary of the Pima County Democratic Party, announced shortly after his death that she intended to run for county recorder in the upcoming election and was qualified for the ballot by the middle of July. Anna promised to conduct herself in office in an "efficient, courteous and economic manner." Even some of her supporters admitted, however, that one reason that Sullinger was running was because, newly widowed with two teenage daughters, she needed the salary.

The Republican incumbent, Mabel Cooper, the first woman to hold the office, was serving her second two-year term. (All county-level officers served two-year terms until 1968, when terms were extended to four years.) Cooper had run a competent office and Democrats were hard-pressed to argue that she needed to be replaced. Implying that she was unqualified, Republicans for their part argued that Sullinger was merely trying to appeal to "sympathy."

But this was the year when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the top of the Democratic ticket, so Sullinger benefited from national political sentiment as well as her proficiency in Spanish and the goodwill she had earned from decades of work in the community. However, in November, as the Democrats swept federal, state and county offices, Sullinger won with only 52 percent of the vote. This was a markedly lower margin than other Democrats on the countywide ballot, which may show that the doubts expressed by Cooper's partisans had some currency in the community.

These doubts, however, quickly dissipated. She soon developed a reputation for competence and efficiency, never having exceeded her budget. Despite her partisan background, Sullinger operated without favor, saying that "the party label applies only during campaigns." She maintained visibility by interacting with the public at the courthouse and making presentations to various groups around the community about the mechanics and importance of voting. All the while, she managed to remain above the controversies that would rock county government from time to time during what proved to be a long tenure. Sullinger was unopposed for re-election in 1934, would rarely face opposition in subsequent elections, and almost always led the ticket in the vote tally.

In 1968, Sullinger, running for her 18th term, faced a challenger in the Democratic primary for the first time. Virginia Oakes, a one-time employee of the Sheriff's Department, announced her candidacy in March, calling for "modernization" of the office. Sullinger's supporters countered that her office had kept current in terms of technology as the county grew. When Sullinger had taken office in 1933, they pointed out, she had a staff of 15 that recorded 12,007 documents, but by 1967, thanks to the use of innovations like microfilm, a staff of 22 was sufficient to handle 89,516 records. Oakes' campaign nonetheless argued that Sullinger had been in office too long and that it was time for "change." Democratic voters disagreed, and the incumbent was re-nominated in the September primary with more than a two-to-one margin. She went on to defeat her Republican opponent by a similar majority the following November.

But, Sullinger, now well into her 80s, was in increasingly poor health. Once a fixture at the courthouse, she came into the office with less frequency, though, thanks to her able and efficient staff, day-to-day operations did not suffer. In March 1970, recognizing that she could no longer do the job, she resigned. At her recommendation, her chief deputy, Ida May Smyth, was appointed as her replacement. Sullinger passed away two weeks later at the house that her parents built in the West University neighborhood in 1908.

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At the time of her resignation, Sullinger had been in office for 37 years, longer than any individual in Arizona history save for U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden. She was eventually knocked out of second place by State Rep. E.C. "Polly" Rosenbaum (D-Globe), but she remains the longest-serving Pima County elected official.

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