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Thomas becomes everyone’s favorite target in AG race

The moment Andrew Thomas jumped in the attorney general’s race, the former Maricopa County attorney became everybody’s favorite target.

Shortly after Thomas announced his resignation, the three candidates on the Democratic side issued a joint statement denouncing him, with former state prosecutor Vince Rabago sending out another on his own for good measure. And much of their criticism was echoed on the right, where fellow Republican candidate Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, savaged Thomas for alleged abuses of power.

After announcing his pending resignation on April 5, Thomas almost immediately became the focal point of a race in which he was a dominant figure even before becoming an official candidate. Thomas’ aggressive efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants and his battles with judges and other county officials have made him both one of the most admired and hated public figures in the state.

Thomas said the legal troubles he’s facing, including a federal grand jury, and the harsh words from his fellow candidates are nothing more than election-year insults.

“They’re election-year smears and mudslinging. That’s happened to me in
every campaign,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to
see me become attorney general.”

Thomas’ ability to fight back may depend largely on a pending court case involving Arizona’s Clean Elections system. He is running a publicly funded campaign, but a federal appeals court may soon abolish the matching funds provided to Clean Elections candidates. The end of matching funds could leave Thomas lagging behind opponents with more money to spend in the primary and general elections.

Over the past year-and-a-half, Thomas has filed criminal charges against county Supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox, as well as Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe. The case was later dismissed by Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo, who said Thomas had a conflict of interest that had an “appearance of evil,” and even wrote in his ruling that Thomas had prosecuted his enemies for political gain.

The U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating him on allegations of abuse of power, and the State Bar of Arizona is investigating ethics complaints against him.

“The last thing we can afford is to elect someone like Andrew Thomas as our attorney general, who has shown that he puts political vendettas ahead of keeping Arizonans safe,” said Rep. David Lujan, a Democrat who is running for attorney general.

Rabago, a former assistant attorney general, said Thomas’ decision to run was foolhardy. With the possibility of a federal indictment hanging over Thomas’ head, some wondered whether he would ultimately run, despite his popularity among voters.

“I think it goes without saying that anyone who’s under FBI investigation and a state Bar ethics investigation and a court ruling finding that he criminally prosecuted political opponents for political gain ought to be
seeking to mend their ways,” he said.

Criticism from Democrats is nothing new for Thomas, who has become a bogeyman to the left in Arizona since he was elected county attorney in 2004. But Horne, who said he wants to form partnerships with other law enforcement agencies to fight illegal immigration, joined Democrats in
lambasting Thomas.

“I don’t believe anybody who values their constitutional rights wants an attorney general who prosecutes people for political advantage or political retribution,” Horne said.

Bruce Merrill, who runs the Cronkite/Eight poll, said the criticism might actually help Thomas. Voters like leaders who take a hard-line stance

against illegal immigration, he said, and Thomas gains strength with his base when he starts taking flack from his opponents.

“They never learn,” Merrill said. “The more people criticize him, for particularly being tough on illegal immigrants and all the things he’s done, the more it will actually help the guy.”

Thomas said voters support the unconventional strategies he’s used to fight illegal immigration as county attorney, and he plans to take similar steps as attorney general.

“I would have to modify that program to reflect the different laws and legal authority that I would have. But that could be done,” he said.

Democratic candidate Felecia Rotellini, like her fellow primary opponents, downplayed Thomas’ impact on the race, saying she will focus on her record as a state prosecutor and her positions on the issues. But the joint statement against Thomas tells a different story.

“We didn’t do a joint statement on Tom Horne, that’s right,” said Rotellini, former superintendent of the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions.

Depending on the outcome of the federal court case over the matching funds provision in Arizona’s Clean Elections law, Thomas could find himself at a financial disadvantage against the traditionally funded Horne, who has raised about $300,000 so far. Clean Elections candidates for attorney
general receive $183,000 for the primary.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the case on April 12. If the court upholds the lower court decision ending the matching funds system, Thomas might opt out of Clean Elections and become a traditionally funded candidate, according to his consultant, Jason Rose.

“We have a plan to win whether matching funds exist or it doesn’t exist,”
Rose said. “We have all plans, all contingencies in place.”

As an icon to anti-illegal immigration activists and a close ally of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Thomas would have access to a substantial fundraising base that has donated more than $2 million to the sheriff since his last re-election in 2008, Rose said.

Merrill said he was surprised Thomas didn’t run a traditional campaign.

“I thought he would have been smarter not to run clean,” he said.

“Although, if all of his opponents run clean, he certainly has an initial advantage because he’s better known.”

The end of matching funds also would affect the Democratic primary, in which Rabago and Lujan are running publicly funded campaigns against the traditionally funded Rotellini, who reported about $115,000 in contributions in February.

“It certainly impacts me in a positive way,” Rotellini said of the possibility that there will be no matching funds. “That’s what’s great about running traditionally – I will have the funds available that I need.”

Merrill called Thomas a “pretty darn strong candidate,” but said a federal indictment could severely damage his campaign, despite his popularity with many Maricopa County voters.

“You’re kind of looking to see if that shoe drops. If it does, then it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said.

Thomas, who said his prosecutions against Donahoe, Stapley and Wilcox are about fighting corruption, said the abuse of power allegations are unfounded.

“Certainly, if I were truly concerned that we had done something wrong, I would be hunkering down in the County Attorney’s Office, rather than resigning and running,” Thomas said.

But Thomas refused to speculate on whether the Department of Justice would ultimately bring an indictment against him.
“I’m not even going to answer such an absurd question,” he said.

Former assistant attorney general Tajudeen “Taj” Oladiran is also seeking the Republican nomination in the attorney general’s race.

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