Who can best whup Andy Thomas' tuchis, Gerald Richard or Tim Nelson?

The two Dems scrappin' to take on Candy: Gerald Richard (left) and Tim Nelson (right).

As I mentioned briefly in this week's Bird column, I made the spring meeting of the Maricopa County Dems this past Saturday, mainly because I wanted to size up the two guys looking to replace Republican County Attorney Candy Thomas this year, Gerald Richard and Tim Nelson.

Both men have beaucoup more experience than Thomas did before he was elected. Richard just retired from the PHX PD after 18 years as a lawyer/administrator for them. In 1993, he became the first Director of the PHX PD, a civilian position on par with an Assistant Chief. And most recently, he's been responsible for keeping us safe during the SuperBowl, the immigration protests at Pruitt's, and the massive pro-immigration marches that occurred in 2006. Also, before he was with the PD, he prosecuted hard-core criminals as a Deputy County Attorney. That's unlike Thomas, who's never personally prosecuted a felony case that anyone knows about.

Tim Nelson is the Governor's boy, having been Napolitano's general counsel for the last five years. He also worked for Janet back when she was AG, and prosecuted some big-time white collar cases involving the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. As I mentioned in The Bird, the word on the street is that Napolitano's already making calls on his behalf, though both he and the Guv's flack deny it. Currently, he's working for the law firm of Osborn Maledon, known as a nesting place for Nappy loyalists. He expects the governor's endorsement, and he informed county Dems during his speech that he plans to raise a buttload of cash from all of his bigshot lawyer buddies.

"I’m going to raise so much money," he promised the Dems assembled in a central Phoenix union hall. "I’m going to raise more money I predict by June 1st than Andy Thomas raised in the entire last cycle. That’s my goal. We’re going to bring the kind of financing to beat this guy. We have to win this race. It’s too important, and we need all your energy."

I'm no fan of Janet. She's a do-nothing governor, a Clintonesque fence-straddler who never expends any political capital unless it benefits her career. I suppose she'll be of help with fundraising, but I doubt the value of her endorsement for Nelson or anyone else. It didn't get Obama over the hump to take Arizona in the Presidential primary here. Nor did it assist Laura Pastor, who failed to nab a Phoenix city council seat with the Guv's backing. Nelson shouldn't be so sure he's a shoe-in because of it.

On the other hand, I did like Nelson's pointed criticism of our current County Attorney, particularly regarding Thomas' employment of his ex-boss Dennis Wilenchik as a special prosecutor in the New Times case. Nelson spoke eloquently of Thomas' abuses of power.

"Abuses like these bogus subpoenas to the New Times seeking information about every one of us that read that paper online," emphasized Nelson. "Not just that, but the records of what Web sites you visited immediately prior to visiting the New Times Web site. Think about how invasive that is.”

Later, he declined to criticize Thomas for approving RICO funds for the MCSO's Honduras excursion (as did Richard), but he quickly turned his answer into an attack on Thomas.

"I don’t know enough to know whether the CA was involved in misusing RICO in the Honduran case," said Nelson. "But I can say for sure that he’s misused RICO money on the advertising that we’ve seen...on ads that are shameless like these DUI ads where his name takes up a third of the billboard. Or these truancy ads where he’s the talking head on TV."

By contrast, Richard is more charismatic on the podium than Nelson. This is just an initial impression, but he has a dynamic and forthright style, almost like a preacher. And he speaks with a certain authority. Some of that may be age. Nelson is 44. Richard will be 53 in May. The years, and what he's done with them, add gravitas to Richard.

He mostly spoke of himself during his speech, spending less time on attacking Thomas this time around and more on introducing himself to the crowd. I liked the joke he opened with, an oldie but a goody:

"I’m from the South Side of Chicago," he explained. "I came here in 1973 on a track scholarship. When you’re born in Chicago, you’re automatically a Democrat. And should I die and they send my body back, I get four more years to vote."

Richard spoke of his experience prosecuting criminals and working with the Arizona Supreme Court, having chaired the Arizona Supreme Court Commission on Minorities for many years. After his remarks, I sat down with him for a few minutes. I asked if his work on the Supreme Court's Minorities Commission would give ideological ammunition to Candy.

"I’m waiting for someone to call me a liberal," said Richard. "Because when they do, I’m going to tell them, ask the guy I put away for 10.5 years how liberal that was. Ask the one who got 15 years how liberal that was."

Like Nelson, Richard told me he supports the suggested changes to the PHX PD's operations order regarding the questioning of individuals about their residency status. He did, however, object to the CA's focus on demonizing illegal aliens.

"I’m going to use the same resources and prosecute anyone who breaks the law, keeping them here in the U.S., so you don’t have situations where they’re going across the border and coming back and killing another one of my officers," Richard promised.

There's plenty of racism in Maricopa County, even though Phoenix itself tends to lean left-of-center. Two of the most powerful county-wide positions are held by men who're pursuing bigoted policies, Thomas and Arpaio. So how does Richard, as an African-American, plan to overcome that racism?

"When [voters] look at the candidate what I ask of them is take a look at the man and the experience, and ask who is best to beat Andrew Thomas in this upcoming race," said Richard, speaking of Democratic voters here, obviously. "That’s all I’m asking. Now when they look at everything else, after they’ve seen all of that, there are going to be those who say I just can’t do it. And there are going to be the others who say that man has everything that it takes."

But it's not the Democratic voters I'm worried about, but rather those he'll face in the general election. On the other hand, this is the age of Obama, and Richard cuts an impressive figure as a candidate, a Samuel L. Jackson-esque politician ready to put his foot in Candy Thomas' ass, then in the asses of the county's criminals.

The good news for Dems is that either Nelson or Richard has the chops to take Candy, who is hobbled by scandal and clinging desperately to Sheriff Arpaio's pant legs. So let the best man win, and then get busy making sure Thomas returns next year to his old employer Wilenchik & Bartness.

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