Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell keeps ducking primary debates | Phoenix New Times

Rachel Mitchell ducked a GOP county attorney debate. We re-created it

The Maricopa County Attorney said she missed primary debates due to "scheduling conflicts." Unopposed, her rival attacked.
Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell is running to hold onto her position in the GOP primary, though she won't debate her opponent.
Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell is running to hold onto her position in the GOP primary, though she won't debate her opponent. Gage Skidmore via Flickr
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There have been two televised debates in the GOP primary for Maricopa County Attorney this year. Rachel Mitchell, the frontrunner and incumbent, hasn’t appeared at either of them. And in Mitchell's absence, fellow county prosecutor candidate Gina Godbehere has gone on the attack.

Unopposed and speaking to only a moderator at Wednesday’s Arizona PBS debate, Godbehere laid out all the ways she said Mitchell is failing in her position. She lambasted Mitchell as soft on crime. She criticized Mitchell’s "epidemic of leniency” and overreliance on plea agreements and deferred sentencing programs.

If there were rebuttals to be made in Mitchell’s defense, no one was there to make them.

The result has been a debate on tape delay. On TV, Godbehere lays into an opponent who has declined to appear in her own defense. Then, at Mitchell’s biweekly press conferences at the county attorney’s office, the debate comes to Mitchell as reporters ask question after question about Godbehere’s broadsides.

Why hasn’t she debated Godbehere? “Scheduling conflicts,” Mitchell said at her Thursday presser. Is she ducking her opponent? No, she’s appeared at events that Godbehere attended, and “there will be more.”

Will Mitchell commit to a televised debate with Godbehere? “If the schedule allows, but reach out to my campaign,” Mitchell said. “I want to keep this about (the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office).”

At Wednesday’s debate, Godbehere did keep it about the county attorney’s office. Speaking to reporters a day later, Mitchell responded.

Here are the highlights of the debate that didn’t happen.

Gina Godbehere
Republican county attorney candidate Gina Godbehere blasted Mitchell's office for an "epidemic of leniency."
Gage Skidmore via Flickr

The background

Godbehere has an extensive background as a prosecutor in both the county attorney’s office and as the city attorney for Goodyear, but she’s never been an elected county attorney. Reminded of that fact at her Thursday press conference, Mitchell was not amused.

"I know, she's tried four times," Mitchell said."Next."

Godbehere ran in the 2022 Republican primary for county attorney, which Mitchell won. Godbehere also twice applied to be appointed to fill the position after it was vacated by previous occupants – when Bill Montgomery was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court in 2019 and when Allister Adel, who was appointed to replace Montgomery and later became the first woman elected to that office, resigned in 2022.

When Adel resigned, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors tapped Mitchell as interim county attorney. Mitchell went on to best Godbehere in a special Republican primary later that year and then defeated Democrat Julie Gunnigle in the general election.

The drumbeat of Godbehere's campaign this time around has been that Mitchell is not tough enough on criminals. Mitchell has “liberal” policies toward perpetrators, her opponent has suggested, adding in Wednesday’s debate that “we no longer hold people accountable like we used to.”

A day later, Mitchell dismissed that idea out of hand.

"This office is not soft on crime," Mitchell said. "But my opponent certainly wants to be county attorney really, really bad again. That's all I'm going to say on that."

But Wednesday, Godbehere brought more than just vague critiques. She came with specifics.

click to enlarge
Former Arizona Department of Corrections chief Charles Ryan got off without jail time despite pointing a gun at Tempe police officers in a three-hour-long drunken standoff in 2022.

Too timid to prosecute?

During Wednesday’s nondebate debate, Godbehere rattled off several cases in which she said Mitchell was too timid. One appeared in Godbehere’s former jurisdiction.

In February 2023, Pedro Quintana-Lujan plowed his truck into a group of cyclists in Goodyear, killing two and injuring 19. Mitchell declined to prosecute, saying Quintana-Lujan had not been speeding, and though he had a small amount of THC in his system, the prosecutors could not prove impairment. The evidence was "not sufficient to obtain a felony conviction."

At Wednesday’s debate, Godbehere told moderator Ted Simons, "These victims, they deserve justice." She said the cyclists were going "two by two by two in a bicyclist lane, and this truck plowed over all of 'em." The driver "didn't break," claiming that there were issues with his steering, "but there was no confirmation of that in any of the analysis done on the vehicle."

The Goodyear Police Department agrees with Godbehere. After Mitchell dropped the case in November, the department issued a press release expressing disappointment with Mitchell's decision and stating that "we believe the evidence, facts and circumstances meet the statutory elements for multiple felony and misdemeanor offenses.”

During her appearance on PBS, Godbehere also slammed Mitchell's much-criticized plea deal with former state prisons boss Charles Ryan earlier this year. Ryan conducted a tequila-fueled confrontation with Tempe police in 2022, barricading himself in his house and pointing a gun at two police officers.

Mitchell allowed Ryan to plead no contest to a disorderly conduct charge, receiving two years probation instead of the far more severe felony of aggravated assault on a police officer. Several Tempe police officers objected, and even the judge was troubled by the county attorney’s sentencing recommendation.

Godbehere called it a "sweetheart" plea deal. "I spent 25 years in that office trying mostly dangerous violent crimes," Godbehere said at the debate. "Nobody else got a plea deal like that." The fact that Ryan was drunk was no excuse under the law.

"She chose to do probation, no jail because she claimed he had been using alcohol,” Godbehere said. “Well, voluntary intoxication is not a legal defense.”

When Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes raised similar concerns in May, Mitchell shot back that Mayes was being "legally irresponsible” and maligning the "experienced prosecutors" who worked the case.

click to enlarge Jacob Pennington during court hearing
Jacob Pennington was given three years probation as part of a plea deal with the Maricopa County Attorney for a Gilbert Goons aggravated assault.
Pinal County Sheriff's Office

Future debate fodder?

In other cases, Mitchell's charging decisions – or lack thereof – have come under fire.

Earlier this month, Mitchell revealed that her office declined to bring felony charges against a former certified nursing assistant at Goodyear long-term care facility Palm Valley Post Acute who was accused of raping and impregnating a patient. The man, Bobby Lee Williams, surrendered his CNA certificate, and the Arizona Department of Health Services fined the facility $2,000 for negligence and improper reporting.

Mitchell turned down a criminal case, though, saying that there was "no reasonable likelihood of conviction."

Mitchell also has been criticized for how her office has handled the so-called Gilbert Goon cases. Recently, alleged goon Jacob Pennington, 20, was arrested for underage drinking on June 13, the same day he was sentenced to three years of supervised probation and deferred jail time as part of a plea deal with Mitchell's office.

The county attorney’s office recently filed a court motion to revoke probation for Pennington, who also was convicted on June 10 of aggravated assault in Pinal County. The saga raises the question of why Mitchell made a deal with Pennington in the first place.

When asked about the case on Thursday, Mitchell said Pennington had been charged with a class 6 felony for aggravated assault, the "lowest level of felony in our criminal justice system” and one that could be knocked down to a misdemeanor at trial. In that case, it would be “overwhelmingly likely” that Pennington would get probation anyway, she said, “and so we made that offer.”

We gonna debate or what?

There are no more debates scheduled for the Republican race for Maricopa County Attorney. In the Democratic primary, Tamika Wooten is running unopposed. In a statement provided to New Times, Godbehere all but accused Mitchell of hiding from voters.

“By refusing to engage in public debates, shutting down reporters, and dismissing the concerns of community members, she is demonstrating a blatant disregard for the voters to make an informed decision,” the statement said. “Her actions continue to indicate she is more concerned about protecting her own interests than serving the needs of the public.”

Should Mitchell’s scheduling conflicts clear up, Godbehere added, the Republican challenger is more than willing to add another debate to the election calendar.

“I will make it simple,” the statement continued, addressing Mitchell directly. “I will meet you at any time at any station to inform the public of the reasons why they should remove you as county attorney.”
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