Many people heard of Stephanie Grisham, President Donald Trump’s new White House press secretary, for the first time Tuesday.
What they don’t know is the bumpy ride — much of it in Arizona — that preceded her move into the national spotlight.
Grisham, 42, was born in Washington state and began her professional career in Arizona, records show.
She declined to comment about her path to one of the most high-profile jobs in government. Those who know and worked with Grisham describe a woman who brought professionalism and dogged advocacy to her jobs, even as she faced personal challenges behind the scenes.
Jobs with increasing pressure, financial problems and drunken-driving arrests shaped her life before she became the new voice of the White House.
If Trump seems under siege from his many critics, he has tapped a spokeswoman who has helped manage high-profile embattled officials before.
Grisham’s mother, Ann Schroder of Nebraska, told The Arizona Republic she is “excited and thrilled” for her daughter, but otherwise declined to discuss Grisham’s life.
Similarly, Grisham’s ex-husband Dan Marries told The Republic he’s happy for Grisham.
Marries, a former firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management, is an evening news anchor for KOLD News 13 in Tucson. Marries said he and Grisham married in 1997. Court records show the couple filed for divorce in 2004.
Marries called the divorce amicable. They have a son. She has a second son.
Grisham began voting in Arizona as a registered Democrat in 1997, when she was in her early 20s, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. She didn’t become a Republican for at least a decade.
There is no record she voted in the 2016 election in which she was heavily involved.
Grisham rose from Arizona State Capitol to the White House
Grisham’s rapid rise within Arizona Republican politics can be traced to her meeting Republican Tom Horne, who was the state’s superintendent of public schools. At the time, he said, she was working with the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
According to Horne, Grisham saw how Horne handled historical trivia questions from students and decided to work with him after he was elected Arizona attorney general in 2010.
She also worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, for AAA Arizona, and had formed Sound Bite Public Relations LLC.
Grisham’s tenure as Horne’s press secretary, who served one term as attorney general, thrust her name into the Arizona news. Horne wound up the target of an FBI investigation into allegations of campaign-finance wrongdoing. Grisham tried to cast him and the office as functional even as Horne’s political career was unraveling.
After Republican Mark Brnovich defeated Horne in the 2014 GOP primary, Grisham landed as a spokeswoman for the Republican caucus for the Arizona House of Representatives.
Then-House Speaker David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, soon found himself under public scrutiny for charging $12,000 in personal and campaign travel expenses to taxpayers.
During Grisham’s tenure at the state House, Gowan issued a new rule in 2016 that required reporters to undergo extensive background checks in order to access the floor of the chamber.
The unprecedented order was widely viewed as retribution for hard-hitting coverage by the Arizona Capitol Times’ Hank Stephenson, who broke the story of Gowan’s use of state vehicles while running for Congress.
Gowan, who said the measure was for security reasons, relented after reporters refused to submit to background checks and after criticism by state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. No other state required a criminal background check for reporters to be issued a press credential or obtain access to the legislative floor.
Stephenson described Grisham as “very firm with her opposition or complaints” about his coverage.
The stories triggered apparent retaliation, he said.
“I still don’t know how much of it was her brainchild or her job to deliver orders from her bosses,” he said.
The newspaper’s access to the House floor was revoked — but later reinstated — for opening day ceremonies.
Then came the background checks, which were widely seen by the Arizona press corps as retaliation for Stephenson’s reporting, a view he shared.
“There’s no question in my mind that’s what that was about,” Stephenson said.
Former Democratic state Rep. Ken Clark of Phoenix said Grisham was “the constant apologist” for Gowan’s “terrible” leadership during his tenure as speaker.
Former state Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, said Grisham didn’t deserve the blame.
“She was very good at getting out the message that she was asked to get out,” he said. “She performed very well at a time with a lot of turmoil, quite candidly. I think she was blamed for a lot of things she didn’t do. … She took … the hit.”
Sometimes hits came from her own party.
State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican who served in the House in 2015, tangled with Grisham publicly at a party after a political awards show, according to a June 24, 2015, write-up of the altercation that relied on anonymous sources in the Yellow Sheet Report, a political insider newsletter published by the Arizona Capitol Times.
Grisham won the “Best PR Person” award from the Arizona Capitol Times that year.
There were no signs of bad blood this week.
“Look, I’m not interested in tearing someone down,” Ugenti-Rita said. “She’s a qualified individual who has accomplished some really amazing stuff, and I sincerely wish her all the best and only congratulations are going to come from me.”
Not long after the incident, Grisham connected with Trump’s nascent presidential campaign in 2015 as he was set to make an early appearance in downtown Phoenix.
State Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, dealt with Grisham as she helped organize a later Trump event in the hangar of a Mesa business that Grantham owned at the time.
“She helped set up the stage, set up the angles, made sure the event ran smoothly,” Grantham said in an interview from Afghanistan, where he is deployed. “She did a great job. … We were very happy with how the event turned out.”
So was Trump.
He kept Grisham on the campaign and brought her into the White House after his surprise victory. On the campaign, she helped manage the traveling press corps. In the White House, she was named deputy press secretary before becoming first lady Melania Trump’s spokeswoman.
Even as Grisham’s professional success grew, she grappled with personal problems at home.
Grisham got into legal trouble while working for Horne, Trump campaign
On Jan. 9, 2013, when she was working for Horne, Gilbert police arrested Grisham on suspicion of driving under the influence and driving faster than reasonable, records show.
She planned to go to trial and the matter dragged out for more than a year before she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving in August 2014. She spent a night in jail and was placed on two years’ probation.
The case returned to court twice over Grisham’s failure to pay the $779 in fines and her not completing a session with Mothers Against Drunk Driving about the impact of impaired driving.
Horne said Tuesday he wasn’t aware of Grisham’s run-in with the law.
“I don’t know about it, but I don’t think it’s really relevant,” Horne said of Grisham’s DUI case. “She did a fabulous job. She was a great colleague, very friendly, conscientious, great advocate, had a good relationship with the press, and she’ll do a great job.”
On Dec. 5, 2015, months after joining the Trump campaign, Grisham found trouble again.
Scottsdale police arrested her that night on suspicion of DUI and driving without her headlights on shortly after midnight.
She failed to show in court on Jan. 19, 2016, a day when Trump received the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in Ames, Iowa. Her absence in court cost Grisham her driver’s license for a month.
Grisham pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI in July 2016, days before her attendance at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Trump officially became the GOP nominee.
As part of that case, she had to pay nearly $1,600 in fines and fees, records show.
Two weeks after Trump’s victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Grisham failed to appear in Scottsdale court again. That was the day Trump convened a meeting with national media figures at Trump Tower in New York to shred them for coverage of his campaign.
Grisham finished paying her debt in the case on Jan. 9, 2017, less than two weeks before Trump was sworn into office.
She disclosed the DUI arrests to the White House during the transition, according to the Washington Post.
Grisham had another debt to settle at that time.
In March 2017, Capital One Bank sued Grisham in Maricopa County Superior Court over an unpaid debt totaling about $1,700. Three days later, Melania Trump named Grisham her communications director.
The debt wasn’t settled until April 2018, according to court records.
Her co-workers said her work never suffered.
Robson recalled Grisham as a professional who worked with the dozens of GOP lawmakers to arrange media interviews, write opinion columns and posts for social media.
“I knew (the arrests) were there, but I didn’t think they inhibited the job,” he said. “There are people that work with DUIs in newspaper reporting. It’s unfortunate, but that stuff will happen. Human frailty has to be dealt with.”
Arizona Republic reporter Jeannette Hinkle contributed to this report.
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