Few answers, plenty of nastiness in first GOP debate of attorney general's race

By Nick R. Martin | June 5th, 2010 | 11:33 am | 13 Comments »

Andrew ThomasTom Horne
Andrew Thomas (left) and Tom Horne

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Part 6 | Download (5.5 MB)

It began with a prayer from an audience member asking for the night to be entertaining yet civil.

But the first Republican debate in the Arizona attorney general’s race quickly descended into a conservative cage match Thursday in Scottsdale, with candidates Andrew Thomas and Tom Horne ignoring many of the moderator’s questions and instead trading smears for nearly two hours.

Each man came to the debate, hosted by a Scottsdale tea party group, carrying a stack of paper that he said proved an ugly narrative about his opponent.

For Horne, it was a thick binder he leafed through all evening. He painted Thomas as a corrupt prosecutor who spent five years as Maricopa County attorney caring more about his own political ambition than the law itself.

For Thomas, it was a stack of plain white paper with typewritten notes and excerpts from newspaper articles. He portrayed Horne as a closeted liberal who made scores of lefty decisions in his years as a state legislator and now as Arizona’s school superintendent.

Neither one could be moved from his accusations.

The questions from moderator Sheila Muehling, a co-chair of the Greater Scottsdale Tea Party, were generally friendly and focused on illegal immigration and the politics surrounding it. But she and her fellow debate organizers were unable to convince the candidates to stay on track, despite imposing time limits on answers and pleading with Horne and Thomas to stick to the issues.

“I have to tell you gentlemen that I worked long and hard on these questions,” Muehling told the candidates at one point. “And you’re just messing up future questions.”

One of the clearest examples of that came only a few minutes later.

She set up her question by saying Arizonans were tired of seeing local politicians file huge lawsuits against one another over simple policy conflicts. Then she asked how the candidates planned to resolve such differences if elected.

Thomas immediately began on an impassioned speech about how “nobody is above the law.” He promised to investigate crime at all levels, even by top government officials. But he never came close to answering the question. He also used it as a chance to attack Horne as being an devout insider.

“If you want somebody who will not rock the boat,” Thomas said, “who cares more about being part of the establishment than about enforcing the law equitably and taking on the tough cases even when you might lose because you’ve got so much against you— If you want somebody who’s gonna support the status quo, you should not vote for me. You should vote for Mr. Horne. I will apply the law fairly, equally. Nobody is above the law in this country.”

Horne responded by acknowledging that the question had something to do with lawsuits and money, but he, too, ignored it anyway. He went on the attack against Thomas, accusing him of bringing unwinnable lawsuits against his political enemies.

“The Republic reported that over $3 million has been spent on lawsuits that Mr. Thomas brought against other public officials who criticized him,” Horne said, his voice rising. “And he lost every single case. Every single case was dismissed or dropped. And he said he dropped the case against the judges for a good reason? Yeah, he had a good reason; he had no evidence.”

Thomas was given a chance to respond, but he said he was “at a disadvantage” and unable to offer evidence because lawsuits were still pending.

The two men were out of breath from their heated rhetoric, but neither had offered a solution to the problem Muehling asked about.

So it went for another hour after that. The two men accused each other of lies and distortions. They repeated the same attacks over and over, only rarely lapsing into real discussions of the issues.

As the debate grew longer and the room inside the Fox Sports Grill in Scottsdale grew warmer, the audience began to get restless.

The crowd was stacked with volunteers and staffers from both campaigns, and many of them cheered wildly for their own candidate early in the evening. But their mood shifted as the debate got nastier. Boos and insults started coming from the crowd. At one point, a woman in the back shouted “You’re a liberal!” while Horne was speaking. A few minutes later another woman shouted, “Not true!” at Thomas.

When they did talk about issues, both men largely agreed with each other. They said they supported S.B. 1070, Arizona’s new immigration law. And they said they would join the lawsuit to repeal federal health care reform. Thomas said he supported Horne’s decision to ban ethnic studies in public schools. And Horne said he agreed that agencies should use only English when doing state business.

In the end, after spending two hours tearing each other apart and hurling every accusation they could think of at each other, both men agreed on another thing: They would support whoever wins the Republican nomination for attorney general.