Katie Hobbs wants to avoid a debate with Kari Lake, but Clean Elections rejected her town hall proposal

Democrat Katie Hobbs will not get her wish for separate televised town hall interviews of herself and fellow gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Arizona’s Clean Elections Commission decided Thursday. 

The decision was a blow to Hobbs, whose campaign had requested the elimination of direct interaction between the candidates, arguing that Lake “only wants a spectacle.” 

The commission on Thursday gave Hobbs’ campaign one more week to agree to the terms of a televised debate, set for Oct. 12. 

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Lake’s campaign has aggressively criticized Hobbs for refusing to share a debate stage. 

“I will be taking part in the debate format that I already agreed to, and if Katie Hobbs grows a spine between now and Oct. 12th, she is welcome to join me,” Lake tweeted Thursday. 

The commission voted 3-1 Thursday to deny Hobbs’ request, with Democrat Damien Meyer, Republican Galen Paton and Independent Mark Kimble voting in favor and Democrat Steve Titla voting against. Commissioner Amy Chan recused herself from the day’s votes because she works for Hobbs in the Secretary of State’s office. 

The commission also voted 3-1 to give its staff seven days to work with both the Lake and Hobbs campaigns to work out details and rules surrounding a debate. Paton, Titla and Meyer voted in favor and Kimble voted against because he said he didn’t want to see any more delays. 

If Hobbs agrees to participate, the debate is set to air for an hour Oct. 12 on Arizona PBS. If she refuses, the commission will instead conduct a 30 minute question and answer session with Lake. 

The debate is to be moderated by Ted Simons, a veteran journalist and the host of “Arizona Horizon” on Arizona PBS, who commission members said they trusted to keep things in check. Simons struggled to maintain control of the GOP candidates for governor during a debate ahead of the August primary. 

Hobbs believes that the people of Arizona deserve a fair and substantive debate, but she doesn’t think Lake is interested in that kind of discourse, Hobbs’ campaign manager Nicole DeMont told commissioners during the meeting. 

“You can’t debate a conspiracy theorist,” DeMont said, referring to Lake’s continued claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. 

When asked if Hobbs would be willing, under any circumstances, to debate Lake, DeMont answered that she would have to see a specific proposal before making a decision. 

Without a debate, how do we know who stands where?

Tim La Sota, Lake’s campaign attorney, argued that Hobbs’ request to alter the debate format was an insult to the voters, the commission and to Simons’ skill as a moderator. 

“Katie Hobbs has already told you ‘no,’” LeSota told the commission. “She doesn’t want to debate tough questions about her record.” 

During Thursday’s meeting, the commissioners agreed that they should take steps to ensure that candidates do not speak over one another and that neither of them dominates the speaking time.

“We are living in a political environment that we have not seen before, with divisiveness that we have not seen before,” Meyer said. “I think there’s merit in ensuring that candidates know the rules and consequences.” 

But all the commissioners agreed that Arizona voters deserve to see a true debate between the candidates for the state’s top office and that it was the commission’s duty to attempt to make that happen. 

Titla initially agreed with Hobbs’ campaign that a change in debate format might be warranted to avoid people hurling insults or speaking over one another, like what happened in the Republican primary debate. But following numerous public comments in favor of a typical debate format, Titla changed his mind. 

Around a dozen members of the public spoke during the meeting in favor of a traditional debate, while a few others touted the benefits of a revised structure. 

Dawn Penich-Thacker, a liberal activist, pointed out that those who aren’t native English speakers and the hard of hearing struggle to follow debates when candidates continually speak over one another. Commission staff later promised they were already making efforts to ensure the debate was accessible to Spanish speakers and those with hearing impairments. 

Another public commenter, Wendee Saunders, asked how someone who couldn’t handle the pressure of a public debate would deal with the stress of running Arizona’s top office. 

“Without a debate, how do we know who stands where?” she asked.

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