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PHOENIX - There is ongoing drama surrounding the race to become Arizona's next governor, amid an ongoing refusal by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Katie Hobbs, to debate her Republican opponent, Kari Lake.
While Hobbs' decision not to debate Lake came during September, a controversy of sorts surrounding her decision was reignited in October, following a decision by the PBS station in the Phoenix area to do a 30-minute interview with her.
The Arizona Governor debate drama appears to be over after an interview with Republican candidate Kari Lake.
The pre-recorded Q&A aired on the night of Sunday, Oct. 23. The interview happened instead of a debate after Democrat Katie Hobbs refused to take part.
Hobbs took part in a one-on-one interview with KAET-TV.
"I am fighting every day to win this election to fight to protect our freedoms in Arizona," said Hobbs, in the interview.
During the 30-minute interview, Hobbs fielded a slew of questions from KAET-TV host Ted Simons. The pair discussed rising inflation, how to improve education and teacher pay, the best way to conserve water for the state, Governor Doug Ducey's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current rise in inflation.
"We propose tax breaks on everyday items, like over-the-counter medication and diapers. We put people back to work by expanding child care assistance, and refundable tax credit for pursuing a career in technical education," said Hobbs.
Hobbs also talked about the topic of abortion. She said she does not support the current 15-week limit, and instead wants abortion care to be accessible to all who need it.
"There is no one size fits all limit that’s going to address really extreme circumstances, and this idea that there is rampant late-term abortion is just false," said Hobbs. "Late-term abortion is incredibly rare, and when that happens, it is often devastating to a woman and her family."
Hobbs also talked about border security. Her stance on border security came after several tours and endorsements from officials.
"We need the Biden administration, frankly, to do more about border security, and we need comprehensive immigration reform to address some of the crisis that we are seeing," said Hobbs.
During the interview, Simons grilled Hobbs on claims of racism, and why she wouldn’t agree to a debate against Lake.
"Well, you know I’ve said from the beginning that I want to be able to have a substantive conversation about the issues that Arizonans are facing, that I’m talking to them every day about on the campaign trail, and I think this is a great opportunity to do that, to make my case directly to the voters," said Hobbs.
Arizona Clean Elections announced it will hold its gubernatorial event on Sunday, Oct. 23. Both campaigns have been informed of the event, which will be broadcast on AZTV7. Kari Lake tweeted that she is "looking forward to being there." If Katie Hobbs chooses to not take part, it will once again be a one-on-one interview with Lake.
Lake released a letter to KAET-TV, in which she asked the PBS station to cancel Hobbs' 30-minute interview, or hold a traditional debate.
In the letter, Lake wrote that by not participating in a debate, Hobbs is "denying the voters of Arizona a chance to see both candidates discuss and debate their plans for our state." Lake also added a 12:00 p.m. deadline for PBS to make a decision.
Since the deadline passed, Lake issued a statement on her Twitter page, which reads:
"The 12pm deadline has come and hone and our campaign has not received any response to our letter to PBS or ASU asking if there will be a debate on [Oct. 18]. We thus assume their answer is no. We are disappointed that we did not hear back, but not surprised. By going behind the back of the Clean Elections Commission and running interference to kelp Katie Hobbs avoid debating me, ASU, PBS and [ASU President Michael Crow] have made it clear they are picking a side in this race. I will not be taking part in anything involving PBS for the remainder of this election, and look forward to working with the Clean Elections Commission on keeping this tradition alive. I will not be a part of any attempt to destroy a two-decade tradition of gubernatorial debates in Arizona and set a new standard allowing weak candidates like Katie Hobbs to avoid debating."
As of the afternoon of Oct. 14, Hobbs is still scheduled to be interviewed on KAET-TV on Oct. 18.
The Executive Director of the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, Tom Collins, said he was surprised to learn about the Hobs interview, and accused KAET-TV of breaking existing practices.
"The Clean Elections Commission has never tried to dictate to Arizona PBS who to interview and who not to interview," said Collins. "The issue here is the way [KAET] went about soliciting this particular interview, and then having one candidate announce it on the day another candidate, who had followed a specific set of rules that ASU had agreed to as well, made it look like ASU was playing favorites with the candidates. Well, that’s not acceptable for an agency like the Clean Elections Commission to be involved in."
Officials with KAET said they offered a 30-minute interview with both candidates.
"It is our responsibility, as a news agency, to provide the public with access to the candidates who are running for office, so they can learn more and make informed decisions," read a portion of KAET's statement on the matter.
The Arizona Clean Elections Commission postponed an interview with Lake, amid controversy over a decision by KAET-TV to host a separate interview with Hobbs.
Officials with the commission say they were surprised to learn that KAET-TV (also known as Arizona PBS) has decided to host an interview with Hobbs.
"This decision is disappointing, especially following the multiple attempts on behalf of all the partners involved in producing this year's General Election debates, to organize a traditional Gubernatorial debate between the two candidates," read a portion of the commission's statement.
Commission officials say they will "identify a new venue, partner and date" for Lake's interview. Once the event is rescheduled, Clean Elections Commission officials say they will pitch it to both Lake and Hobbs, and it will be a debate if both agree to it. If only one agrees, it will be a one-on-one, 30-minute interview.
In lieu of the highly anticipated interview, Lake summoned reporters to a news conference to attack the decision, her rivals and the mainstream media. She has made Hobbs’ refusal to debate a central plank of her campaign, saying it shows Hobbs lacks the strength to be governor.
"You keep reminding the world that you're a coward and afraid to do a debate," said Lake. "She said I might yell at her. I would never yell at her. Only cowards would say something like that."
Officials with Hobbs' campaign said Hobbs will not debate Lake, and called off any negotiations with Lake and the Clean Elections Commission.
The announcement came after more than a week of efforts by Hobbs to change the debate into separate half-hour interviews. That proposal was rejected by the Clean Elections Commission.
Nicole DeMont, Hobbs' campaign manager, has expressed the campaign’s concerns that debating Lake would "just create another spectacle, like we saw in the GOP primary debate. But on top of that, I would just add, you can’t debate a conspiracy theorist and at the last debate, she brought the conversation back to the 2020 election no less than a dozen times."
Political expert weighs in on debate fracas
The refusal to debate Lake has been a major liability for Hobbs, producing weeks of negative headlines and alarming some of her supporters. It was also not the first instance of Hobbs skipping a debate: she also skipped a debate between her and her Democratic primary opponent, Marco Lopez.
"This issue does not cut well for Katie Hobbs," said Michael O'Neil with O'Neil Associates - Public Opinion Research. "That strategy might make sense if you're 10% ahead, but nobody was ever ahead by 10 points, or even, I think, by five points. This was always destined to be a very close race."
O'Neil said the debate itself normally doesn't put in a lot of voters for a candidate, and he thinks a 30-minute interview would be more instructive. However, he thinks the principal of it is that Hobbs is refusing a 20-year-old tradition that Arizonans have come to expect.
"Does it make her look a little weak? Of course, to the extent the issue percolates," said O'Neil. "If you ask anybody about any candidate, should they debate, the answer will always be yes, because it's a part of our culture."
While Hobbs has said many times that she believes any debate with Lake would turn into a shouting match, O'Neil says if she wants to pull head, she should debate anyway.
"Even at this late date, when it would look a little lame, make this go away, It has very little to do with somebody's capacity as governor," said O'Neil.
The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.