Commission rejects Hobbs’ request to scrap traditional gubernatorial debate

Commission rejects Hobbs’ request to scrap traditional gubernatorial debate

Hobbs, Lake, Clean Elections Commission, debate, gubernatorial
A sign points voters in the direction of the polling station as the sun beats down as Arizona voters go to the polls to cast their ballots in the primary election on Aug. 2 in Phoenix. Members of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission on Sept. 8 rejected a demand by Democrat Katie Hobbs to scrap the traditional gubernatorial debate.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Members of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission rejected a demand by Democrat Katie Hobbs to scrap the traditional gubernatorial debate.

The panel voted 3-1 Thursday to spurn a request by the Democratic nominee, who is currently Arizona’s Secretary of State, to replace the 60-minute moderated head-to-head debate instead with a “town hall.” That would give each candidate 30 minutes alone, subject only to questions by Ted Simons, host of the Horizon show on the Phoenix PBS affiliate.

“I don’t support the town hall style,” said commission Chairman Damien Meyer.

“Our mission is to have debates, not town halls,” added Citizens Clean Elections Commissioner Galen Paton. He said candidates are free to make such arrangements elsewhere.

Hobbs, Lake, governor, debate
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs

But they agreed Thursday to give Hobbs one week to agree to some conditions under which she would be willing to share the stage Oct. 12 with Republican opponent Kari Lake in a debate. Plans are to have the event aired live not only on PBS but other stations throughout the state

The odds of that happening, though, appear slim, as Nicole DeMont, Hobbs’ campaign manager, told commissioners her candidate has no interest in participating in what has been the traditional back and forth moderated by Simons. DeMont said Lake’s actions during the GOP primary debate show she would make the general election debate into a “spectacle.”

“You can’t debate a conspiracy theorist,” she said.

And she sidestepped a question from commission Chairman Meyer on whether there were any conditions under which Hobbs would appear for a debate.

“I’m not going to answer a hypothetical question,” DeMont responded.

But if Hobbs ultimately won’t participate, that doesn’t kill the entire plan. Commissioners said they instead would give Lake, who already has agreed to a full debate format, 30 minutes on her own to answer questions from Simons — with no input from or opportunity for Hobbs to respond.

Lake, Hobbs, gubernatorial, debate, Clean Elections Commission
Kari Lake

The commission has conducted debates every election since being created by voters in 1998.

Strictly speaking, only candidates that get public funds for their campaigns, administered by the commission, are legally required to participate. And both Hobbs and Lake are using private donations.

The record, however, shows every gubernatorial candidate has agreed not only to participate but also to the format which consists of not just questions directed at them by the moderator but also the opportunity for them to enact with and question each other.

It is that format that Hobbs finds unacceptable.

“She is willing and enthusiastic to participate in a substantive conversation that would allow Arizonans the chance to compare the ideas, policies and solutions of their candidates,” DeMont told commissioners.

“However, we don’t believe that is what Kari Lake’s intention is here,” she continued. “It’s pretty clear that she only wants to create another spectacle.”

And that includes Lake resurrecting her theories of how the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

“So, when she decides to come back to reality, accept the results of our free and fair elections, then we can start to have a real policy debate,” DeMont said.

Attorney Timothy LaSota, who represents Lake, told commissioners they should not change the rules to protect Hobbs against uncomfortable questions.

“This is an unprecedented request by a gubernatorial candidate to alter the rules of the debate,” he said. And LaSota said there’s no reason to believe that Simons cannot keep the discussion fair, calling Hobbs’ excuses for not wanting to debate “a cop out.”

“The fact that Katie Hobbs tries to blame someone else because she’s simply unwilling to show up on the same stage and debate her record, debate the issues, that is nobody’s fault but Katie Hobbs,” he said.

But LaSota, in saying Lake wants a debate on issues, also provided a hint of what his candidate is likely to say in a head-to-head with Hobbs.

He told commissioners this blame shifting is “reminiscent of when she was found to have racially and sexually discriminated against Talonya Adams.”

That is based on two separate civil trials in federal court where jurors concluded Adams, a Senate Democratic staffer, was the victim of retaliation for asking to be paid the same as white staffers. Hobbs was the Senate minority leader at the time.

A free-form debate would open the door for Lake to pose directly to Hobbs on live TV the accusation she has been making on the campaign trail: that Hobbs is a racist.

Commissioners, while ruling a town hall is off the table and insisting on the debate format, did acknowledge at least some of the concerns Hobbs has about a freewheeling event. They said they would consider some possible guardrails — if she agrees to participate.

“I think that there is merit to trying to maybe give a little more structure and some minor modifications to this debate process, just so we have — both candidates have — a complete understanding of what the rules will be, what the consequences will be if those rules are broken,” Meyer said. And that, he said, even could include turning off someone’s microphone.