Arizona Republican governor candidates meet in heated debate
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Three of the four Arizona Republicans who hope to replace Doug Ducey as governor lashed out at him and some of the things he did, including how he handled COVID, promising something radically different if they are elected.
"I think Doug Ducey's done some great things,'' said former TV anchor Kari Lake. But she said he failed to act like the CEO of the ice cream company he used to run.
"Unfortunately, during COVID, he shut our businesses down, he shut our churches down, and he shut our schools down,'' Lake said. "And he put masks on our children. And I find that unacceptable.''
Business owner Paola Tulliani-Zen said while she was OK with Ducey's original mask mandate when the virus was first on the scene.
"We all panicked the first three, four months,'' she said.
"And we all did what they told us to do,'' Tulliani-Zen continued. "But you know, after that, when science comes out, we should have had a choice,'' saying Ducey "didn't have the backbone'' to repeal the mask mandates before he eventually did.
Scott Neely, also a business owner, went a step farther, saying all Ducey's COVID policies did is "help the oligarchs,'' closing small business while allowing major retailers like Wal Mart, Home Depot and Amazon to prosper.
"It was intentional, absolutely intentional,'' he said.
That left only Karrin Taylor Robson, a former member of the Board of Regents -- a position she was appointed to by Ducey -- to defend his record, at least indirectly.
"We now have the lowest flat tax in the nation, courtesy of the Republican majority in the House and Senate,'' she said. And Robson said she understands the important of that and lower regulation because "I am a small business owner.''
"Your husband's a billionaire,'' shot back Neely, noting her marriage to Ed Robson who owns Robson Resort Communities.
Wednesday's event sponsored by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission and aired on KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, is the only one where all GOP candidates attended.
It also comes only about a week before early ballots go out for the Aug. 2 primary -- and right after former Congressman Matt Salmon quit the race, endorsing Robson and giving her a chance to catch up to Lake who has been leading in many polls.
Each of the contenders took advantage of the televised opportunity to lob charges at others.
Lake charged that Robson, as regent, had the opportunity to exempt students out of the masks as temperatures reached 115 degrees..
"That is a lie,'' Robson responded, uttering the phrase "Fake Lake'' the first of several times during the hour-long debate, though she acknowledged she did not vote on it. "I will not vote on anything I didn't read,'' she said.
"I'm not going to be called 'Fake Lake' when I'm telling the truth,'' Lake said.
The candidates also discussed the fact that the state budget has ballooned since Ducey became governor, from $9.1 billion in 2015 to the $18 billion plan he just signed. Tulliani-Zen said it's hard to say all that was justified, saying there's been a lack of transparency.
"Everything's hidden,'' she said.
And Neely called the new budget "bloated,'' though he said that Ducey shares the blame for that with the Republican-controlled legislature.
"Now they're spending money like drunken RINO sailors,'' a reference to the charge that some politicians are "Republicans in name only.''
And then there was the question of who really is a Republican.
Lake has never denied being a Democrat at one time and even voting for Barack Obama. She has defended the move, saying that she became disenchanted with the party just like former Democrats Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
"She's no Ronald Reagan,'' responded Robson. "She found God, guns and the GOP about a day and a half before she decided to run for governor.
Neely said that switching political positions is "not a bad thing if you're honest about it.''
That enabled him to bring up the question of whether Lake, who attacked "drag'' shows where kids are present, was dishonest by initially denying that her daughter was at a show by Rick Stevens. She has since acknowledged attending a party where Stevens was an "impersonator'' but said that is different than a drag show. And she denied Stevens has been to her home.
There also was some division on the results of the 2020 election -- and how much Arizonans were interested in revisiting that issue.
"We had a corrupt, stolen election,'' said Lake, who repeatedly mentioned that she has been endorsed by Trump, turning the question on Robson.
"I'm not going to play your stunts,'' she responded.
Lake was no more impressed by comments from Ted Simons, who hosted the debate, that multiple courts have reviewed the results and confirmed that Joe Biden won.
"The courts haven't looked at the evidence,'' she said. "We have evidence.''
"Then turn it in,'' Robson said, refusing to take a position on whether, as governor, she would have certified the results.
"I did not have the evidence in front of me,'' she said.
Tulliani, however, suggested that Republicans were paying far too much attention to the 2020 race.
"We are beating a dead horse,'' she said.
"We're still stuck on this,'' Tulliani continued, saying the focus should be on ensuring the next election is fair.
"I think most people want to move forward,'' said Neely.
Robson appeared to agree.
"Republican voters now are worried about putting food on their table and gas in their gas tank,'' she said.
But Robson said she believes the elections "weren't fair.''
"You look at what liberal judges did across this country to usher in new rules and new laws the days and weeks and months before the election,'' she said, referring to decisions, mainly in other states, to alter rules to accommodate for the restrictions caused by the COVID outbreak.
"You look at the media suppressing the news,'' Robson continued, saying they have not paid attention to allegations that Hunter Biden, the president's son, was involved in criminal financial dealings and that "Big Tech'' was "suppressing conservative voices.''
But on the question of looking forward, only Robson made a clear statement that she will accept the results of the primary.
"We're going to see what happens,'' said Neely. And he said the primary hasn't been fair, saying that GOP Chair Kelli Ward has been an unabashed backer of Lake.
"We don't have fair elections,'' Lake responded to the same question of accepting the results. And Tulliani Zen said "I want definite proof of everything.''
There were some areas of agreement.
All four pronounced themselves opposed to abortion, declaring that life begins at conception, though Tulliani-Zen said there might be reason to provide exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
And they all made at least brief comments about securing the border, with Neely, who is in construction, saying, "I know where the steel is.''
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