4 Takeaways From the First Arizona Gubernatorial Debate
PBS Arizona

4 Takeaways From the First Arizona Gubernatorial Debate

Candidates for governor sparred publicly in their first of two debates Monday evening. PBS Arizona aired the matchup at 5 p.m, which — are you kidding me? How could any sensible person watch boring men in expensive suits blow hot air during the Frasier rerun hour?

Anyway, if you missed the debate, we spent the hour in the press room of the PBS building, a snack-less, booze-less cramped beige space filled with reporters watching not Frasier on TV together.

The evening featured Republican incumbent Doug Ducey, Democrat David Garcia, and Green Party candidate Angel Torres. Torres does not stand a chance in November, so this recap will focus on the two major party candidates. (Our apologies to Torres, whose support for labor unions is unyielding and principled, but hoo boy. Wrong state.)

1. Education is the biggest issue. By far.

Everybody already knew education dominates the governor’s race, but the time devoted to the issue really hammered that point home. Roughly half the hourlong debate was spent on questions related to teacher pay, charter schools, and education-related propositions.

Garcia stressed that 75,000 teachers walked out of their classrooms under Ducey’s watch, and that political pressure drove the governor to commit to raising teacher pay 20 percent by 2020. Critics of Ducey's plan say it doesn't offer up many details.

He also took shots at Ducey for joining an effort to impose new regulations on charter schools despite years of lawmakers calling for reform.

"This is another example of Ducey being a follower and not a leader," Garcia said. He accused Ducey of stacking the state Supreme Court to ensure that the InvestinEd ballot measure to fund education by raising income taxes on high earners would fail. In 2016, Ducey added two justices to Arizona's high court, which last month struck the initiative from the ballot over confusing language.

Ducey countered that Garcia has been short on specifics on what he would do to increase funding for education.

"He is still talking about the things he wants to do, but there is no funding plan," the governor said of his opponent.

When pressed by reporters for specific details after the debate, Garcia offered squat, saying vaguely that he would meet with teachers and legislators and support another ballot initiative.

Ducey also repeatedly asked Garcia whether he stands behind his support for the deceased InvestInEd ballot measure, dubiously accusing him of "rigging" an election. Garcia would not commit to an answer.

The governor defended his record on education, highlighting his 20x2020 plan and emphasizing that he inherited a $1 billion deficit.

"I came into office three years ago in a straitjacket," he said.

2. Border security is the other one.

As he's done throughout the campaign, Ducey accused Garcia of being weak on crime and border security. He said Garcia wants to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, and defund Arizona's  Border Strike Force, a multi-agency team started by Ducey in 2015 targeting drugs and trafficking on the border. Garcia has not specifically called for abolishing ICE. His stated position is to "rebuild the immigration system top to bottom."

The governor also attacked Garcia for hiring a staffer who wrote tweets telling Arizona "fuck you," and calling the United States a "shithole country" in response to President Trump's January remarks on African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador. That staffer resigned. Ducey repeatedly said "S-hole country," which was funny because it sounded like the Governor of Arizona was saying "asshole" on PBS. Garcia countered that Ducey hired several department heads that have had legal trouble.

Garcia also criticized the governor for failing to meet a promise to have highway patrols along the border 24 hours a day. As the Arizona Republic reported last week, the Ducey administration has spent more than $80 million on a Border Strike Force, but the Department of Public Safety only has full coverage of the border highways 20 hours a day. He criticized Ducey's campaigning with border patrol agents as an insincere photo op.

"When politicians who have never worn a uniform to protect anything prance in front of those who have for political gain, that is a political ploy," said Garcia, a U.S. Army veteran.

3. Garcia wants you to see Ducey as a failure. Ducey wants you to see Garcia as a radical.

“Half-measures and broken promises.” Garcia repeated this phrase over and over when describing Ducey's record on education and border security. He made the case that Ducey has only taken his self-touted positions, such as the teacher-pay raise, when backed into a corner. Trump was not a focus of the debate, with Garcia only making a couple of attempts to tie his opponent to the president.

The governor labeled Garcia's positions on education and border security as "radical." He did this many times, as he's done throughout the campaign. (As a side note, this attack line was blunted by Torres' presence at the debate. Sure, Garcia could be considered a lefty, but he is a radical like kale chips are a health food. Torres is the real deal.)

4. Ducey stands behind RGA's anti-Garcia ads, which some have decried as racist. With minutes to go, moderator Ted Simons brought up a couple Willie Horton-esque ads sponsored by the Republican Governor's Association accusing Garcia of being dangerous for Arizona. One of the ads features a porcelain-white family warning of Garcia's supposed weak-on-crime positions, while moody images of a heroin needle and a man wearing a hoodie flash across the screen. A darkened portrait of Garcia claimed he won't protect the southern border. Civil rights groups have called the attack racist.

Garcia pressed Ducey to respond to the third-party ads, asking whether he agrees with their content and tone. He called the ads "bigoted."

Ducey called the ads "public service announcements." The governor rejected claims that the ads were bigoted, touting his support from some Latino public officials.

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