Dangerous Mind

Imagine Joe Arpaio as a dewy intellectual, and you've got County Attorney wanna-be Andy Thomas

During a televised debate a few weeks ago, Thomas claimed that mistakes "in the packaging" of his anti-plea bargain stance hurt him in the 2002 campaign. He apparently was referring to how the media reported his position, not to his own myopic views.

Fellow candidate Jerry Landau snapped back at Thomas during the debate with a nice zinger: "I don't think there was a problem with the packaging. I think there was a problem with the mouth that said it."

Even fervent Thomas supporter Steve Twist concedes, "Some people have a perception of Andy as a rigid, arch, intolerant, unyielding guy."

Jerry Landau
Jerry Landau
The first and most inflammatory of Thomas' four books.
The first and most inflammatory of Thomas' four books.

But he quickly adds, "That's a caricature. He's really not like that. And I think he's going to be the next Maricopa County Attorney."

Twist, chief assistant Arizona attorney general under Bob Corbin and now assistant general counsel for Viad Corporation, isn't the only one who thinks that.

Political pundits of all stripes call Thomas the front-runner of the six Republicans who want to succeed Rick Romley, who's leaving the office after 16 years.

Whoever wins the Republican primary will be favored to beat either Democrat Jonathan Warshaw or Don Harris on November 2. But moderate Republicans are expressing concern (and Democrats hope) that Thomas' X-Game politics could make a Democratic upset entirely plausible.

Unquestionably, the new County Attorney will become one of the most powerful people in this sprawling county, largely able to dictate who gets prosecuted for felonies and how long they'll spend locked up.

It's not that Thomas' five Republican foes haven't been touting their own conservative credentials. But Thomas comes across as the true believer of the crew, an honest-to-goodness ideologue.

"The root of our crime problem is a rights-happy radical individualism," he wrote in a 1995 essay that promoted greater government spending on jails, prosecutors, police and other law enforcement functions (without a word about how to combat the underlying causes of much crime, such as poverty and mental-health issues).

Thomas' anti-individualism would seem to run counter to that of Arizonans who pride themselves on their fierce, leave-me-to-my-own-devices mindset.

Mr. Conservative himself, Barry Goldwater, might turn over (to the right, naturally) in his grave after hearing Thomas' rant about the proliferation of individual rights in America. After all, Goldwater himself once warned Americans: "A government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have."

Thomas also wants certain folks to do their parts to stem what he sees as an ongoing crime wave. He wrote in 1995: "All able-bodied men without a criminal record should once again be subject to obligatory service for community crime surveillance."

Those men, he said, should patrol neighborhoods, armed with walkie-talkies. "Their sole duty would be to inform police of crimes in progress," he went on. "Women should not be subject to such conscription for the same reasons that they have traditionally been spared combat duty."

Then came the kicker: "Properly strong criminal penalties would deter those who might be tempted to dodge this draft [to patrol the neighborhoods] by committing a crime and acquiring a criminal record."

Let's get this straight. Guys would pick up a criminal rap to avoid having to snitch on the guys and gals next door?

In Andy Thomas' wacky world.

Prosecutors at the County Attorney's Office are expressing trepidation at what an Andrew Peyton Thomas administration might bring.

"I'm already putting out feelers because of what Mr. Thomas stands for," says a veteran deputy county attorney who would never be accused of being soft on crime. "To Andy, things are black and white, us against them. But that's not the way things are in real life with every single case. Andy is an intellectual, no doubt. But he just doesn't understand nuance, and that's what this system is about."

Only one current employee of the County Attorney's Office has given money to Thomas' campaign -- controversial Romley special assistant Barnett Lotstein.

"Andy has a clear understanding of the big issues in the criminal-justice system," says Lotstein, who has donated $100 to Thomas (and an equal amount to former colleague Jerry Landau). "Obviously, he has some definite views, but he listens to opposing points of view, and he can change his mind. He's really a moderate person."

Even Thomas never has publicly called himself "moderate." Several of Lotstein's colleagues say he's angling for a new gig in the event of a Thomas win, which Lotstein, of course, denies.

Romley himself won't say a bad word about Thomas, which has given rise to speculation that he's already courting the far-right vote for a likely 2006 run against Governor Janet Napolitano.

A far more common view of Thomas inside the County Attorney's Office comes from another prosecutor who has put literally hundreds of people behind bars.

"Personally, he's nice," she says. "And I agree in principle with some things he's for. But he's a zealot. He believes women ought to be home mothering, not pursuing careers. He thinks gay people are going to rot in hell. He's against any rights for those accused of crimes. Hell, I'm a career prosecutor, and I think his views smack of something out of a George Orwell book. He's impractical, inexperienced and thinks he's got it all figured out. That's dangerous."

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Looking incredulously at the antics of this latter-day Huey Long from Europe, one can hardly help feeling that in his scribblings, Thomas is precisely one of the heartless ideologues Dickens decried as "philosophers" in "Oliver Twist". Who would have thought a Dickensian character would come to life in 21st century - complete with bucket-sized crocodile tears.

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