Arizona attorney general debate gets heated as candidates discuss abortion, elections and experience

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

The candidates for Arizona attorney general exchanged heated arguments on abortion, elections and job experience during a televised debate Wednesday, emphasizing their contrasting positions.

Republican Abe Hamadeh sparred with Democratic opponent Kris Mayes during the 30-minute event, as well as moderators Ted Simons of Arizona PBS and Stacey Barchenger of The Arizona Republic.

Sponsored by the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, the event was the only televised debate between the candidates and gave voters a brief yet detailed overview of some of the race's most important questions. The debate is available to view at azcentral.com.

Hamadeh made clear he would enforce the state's 158-year-old anti-abortion ban upheld last week by a Pima County judge and that he would not have helped certify the 2020 election in Arizona because of concerns over possible fraud. Mayes used his positions to paint him as dangerous to democracy and to women.

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"My opponent apparently is OK with forcing the victims of rape and incest to carry to term," Mayes said while discussing the pre-statehood law that mandates prison time for abortion providers. "That's outrageous."

Hamadeh said the attorney general can't pick and choose which laws to uphold.

"I could disagree with the law, but ultimately I am tasked to enforce the law," Hamadeh countered. "It’s a sign of maturity to understand your role as an attorney general is not to put your personal beliefs into your decision-making."

The Arizona attorney general wields considerable power as the state's top prosecutor and civil lawyer representing state agencies in legal matters. Attorneys general and the secretary of state are official witnesses when the governor certifies elections. They investigate voter fraud and sign off on the wording of ballot propositions.

Candidates criticized about experience

The candidates criticized each other repeatedly for alleged lack of experience.  

Hamadeh, 31, is an U.S. Army Reserves captain and intelligence officer who worked as a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for four years, quitting last year to begin his run for office. He said before August's primary election that being the son of Syrian immigrants helped distinguish him from a crowded field of GOP competitors.

Endorsed by Trump, he has claimed repeatedly that Biden's win in 2020 was due only to rampant election fraud. Multiple court hearings and a Republican-led ballot review resulted in no legitimate evidence to support that belief, but polls show that most Republicans in Arizona and other states believe something similar. Hamadeh supports "prosecutions" of people involved in the supposed 2020 fraud and wants policies in place that would thwart future fraud.

Mayes, a former reporter for the Phoenix Gazette and The Arizona Republic, became a lawyer after leaving journalism more than two decades ago and later was spokesperson for former Gov. Janet Napolitano.

The ex-governor, a Democrat, appointed Mayes to fill a position on the five-member Corporation Commission in 2003, where she won re-election twice. Mayes was a registered Republican then, changing her registration to Democrat in 2019. She now works as a senior scientist at Arizona State University's Global School of Sustainability and teaches a course on energy law at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

Mayes warned that Hamadeh was bad for democracy, detailing in comments to reporters after the debate that she feared Trump wanted him and other hand-picked attorney general candidates in place for a possible "coup" in 2024.

Accusations of voter fraud debated

During the debate, Simons reminded Hamadeh that he vowed to prosecute Arizonans for alleged voter fraud, and asked whom he would target for prosecution. Mayes added to the question, going through a list of names including Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer and telling Hamadeh that his "lock them up" mantra has sparked death threats against government officials.

"I won't put up with that," she said.

Hamadeh didn't answer the question about who he would like to see prosecuted, instead remarking that some fraud cases in Arizona have resulted in prosecutions, mentioning the current case of a former mayor for San Luis who was convicted for ballot harvesting. He questioned whether Mayes would have prosecuted the case.

He didn't note that the case involved the primary election in 2020, not the general election in which Trump was on the ballot, or that authorities have not alleged that the San Luis scheme involved any other Arizona counties.

He also responded to accusations that he potentially committed voter fraud when he was a teenager. He said it was a "ridiculous argument" because he was helping a parent vote, prompting Barchenger to point out that his youthful statements included a post on social media where he wrote that he had changed his mother's vote while submitting her absentee ballot.

More debate coverage: Finchem reveals interview with Jan. 6 committee in debate

Hamadeh grew angry at the question, claiming that he was now debating not just Mayes but "all three" of the people on stage. He said Mayes was accused of "insider trading" while she was a reporter at The Republic, causing Mayes to push back strongly.

"I was not accused of anything," she said. "You ought to be very careful about your statements."

In an October 2003 Arizona Republic article, Mayes, who no longer worked for the newspaper, "acknowledged that she was one of 10 reporters and editors accused" of breaching the newspaper's policies by purchasing stock in the newspaper's owner, Central Newspapers, Inc., after hearing rumors that Gannett would buy the company.

She said while she did nothing improper because the rumors about a purchase weren't specific, she wouldn't have done it if she knew she'd be questioned about it.

After the debate, Hamadeh took questions from reporters but criticized The Republic for asking about his father's order of deportation, which occurred years after his father had overstayed a visa and was living in the country as an undocumented resident.

Hamadeh has taken hard-line positions on illegal immigration as a candidate.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

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