PHOENIX — In October, during speculation that Arizona's embattled Republican Gov. Evan Mecham might resign, Secretary of State Rose Mofford put in a call to a good friend in Flagstaff.
"Good morning," she said. "This is Gov. Mofford."
"What," the friend exclaimed. "Did he resign?"
"No," Mofford said. "I was just kidding."
It's no longer a joke. "Aunt Rose," as she is known to her friends, is now acting governor of Arizona, pending the outcome of a Senate trial for Mecham, who was impeached Friday by the state House of Representatives.
Mofford, 65, a Democrat known as much for her sense of humor and her distinctive silver beehive hairdo as her political longevity, has served with 12 of Arizona's 17 governors.
She says she is such a fixture around the capitol that whenever confused visitors wandering its halls need direction, "People say: 'Go up to the lady with the white hair. She's been here since statehood.' "
To Capitol in 1941
Mofford got her first push toward public office in 1941, when, as a high school valedictorian who had won a national typing test, she took a job as a secretary in the state treasurer's office.
During her 47 years in state government, she has worked her way up the political ladder, with stops in the Tax Commission office, as business manager of Arizona Highways magazine, as assistant secretary of state for 22 years and as assistant director of the Revenue Department for two years before being appointed to secretary of state in 1977.
Since 1978, she has been elected to the office for three consecutive terms.
Chatty, folksy and unpretentious, Mofford, a divorcee with no children of her own, often has been called "the grandmother of Arizona." And now she is being called its governor.
Sitting in the governor's chair, however, is nothing new to her.
During the years when some Arizonans were contending that then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt was out of state more than he was in, Mofford assumed his duties for no fewer than 889 days.
It was on one of those days, after working late on a Friday night, that she and an aide got stuck in the elevator at the empty Capitol. Pushing the emergency button, they heard a prerecorded message in Babbitt's voice: "I'm out of state right now, but don't worry, our secretary of state, Rose Mofford, will get your emergency call . . . "
Just how long Mofford, a class president from 7th through 12th grades and graduate of U.S. Defense Industrial College, will remain governor has become a topic of debate here. Some state officials believe that if Mecham is convicted and removed from office by a two-thirds vote of the Arizona Senate, Mofford would serve out his term.
Others say that, under the Arizona Constitution, a May 17 gubernatorial recall election must go forward even if Mecham is no longer governor at that time. In order to retain her position, they say, Mofford must enter the race.
Mofford said she does not know what she will do.
Many 'What Ifs'
"We have a lot of 'what ifs' because we've never faced this situation before," she said. "I have to leave my options open because I may have to be a candidate."
Mecham, meanwhile, said at a town hall meeting Saturday in Willcox that he believed House members had wanted to impeach him because they thought he would win his May 17 recall election. He added that his lawyer would tear his accusers "to bits" during his trial in the state Senate.
Mofford said that during her tenure she will hold a steady hand on the administration's reins and continue the programs that Mecham started.
"I won't tear down anything he's built up," she said. "Anything I can do to help the programs he's been working on, I'll do.
"I've always had a very fond, warm relationship with him, the same as all the other governors," she said. It was Mofford, in fact, who decorated Mecham's Capitol office.
Her own office has become a prime tourist attraction around the Capitol. Her collection of Kachina dolls, considered one of the finest in the nation, coupled with an array of antique guns and Southwestern artifacts, have turned her seventh-floor "museum" into a must stop and a reflection of Mofford's whimsical nature.
A first-generation American whose Austrian parents came to the United States in 1912--the year Arizona became a state--Mofford is known to be quick with a quip.
In a joke she wrote to a friend, she said the only indication she had seen that U.S. Rep. Morris K. Udall can keep his mind on two things at once is his poster of Dolly Parton.
"I like to live, laugh and love," she said, "I like to roast people, but I have a serious side. I run my office with a very strong hand. I'm very assertive. I'm tough when I have to be, but you can also be equally kind. I have found that kindness certainly pays off in the long run."
A commanding presence at 5-feet-8 ("and I always wear heels"), Mofford lives alone in a Phoenix apartment. But she said she is not without "family."
She and her former husband, a police captain, now deceased, reared 15 boys, she said, "and they still call me today." She said she had wanted to adopt many of them, but she was not allowed to because at age 35 she was considered too old.
Every year, she sends out 3,000 handwritten Christmas cards bearing a caricature of herself that suggests that her silver beehive is as much fun for her as for everyone else.
She also is a tireless worker for charities. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, she has been known to wait tables at Goodwill and she often raises money for United Way and other charities.
And she is an avid sports fan, dating back to the days when she was an all-American in softball on the Globe Cantaloupe Queens, and turned down a professional contract in basketball.