Katie Hobbs, a Democrat running for governor in Arizona, has declined to participate in a debate with her opponent, but Republican Kari Lake allegedly disrupted a candidate town hall by trying to force the problem.
The candidates were not supposed to be onstage at the same time, and Hobbs was supposed to speak first, according to the established rules for the pre-recorded event, which was taped on Monday and will air at 7 p.m. Saturday Arizona time.
Before Hobbs even took the stage, though, there was a problem: Lake was seated in the front row, straight from where her opponent would be.
In front of a crowd of over 200 people, the organizers claimed that Lake was required by the rules to be in a holding area; however, they would not give NBC News a copy of the rules. Lake protested, claiming she was not aware of that rule and requested that Hobbs confront her face to face. Hobbs declined.
After some time, Lake complied and departed, leaving behind Mexican telenovela star Eduardo Verastegui as her campaign surrogate.
“Kari Lake brought along a Mexican telenovela star and she brought the drama. It was like a telenovela,” said Joe Garcia, an independent voter and the executive director of voter outreach for the group Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund, which was a co-sponsor of the event along with the state and national Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.
Five witnesses, including representatives from both campaigns, conﬁrmed Garcia’s account of what happened, and video provided by Lake’s campaign showed the Republican arguing her case with moderator León Krauze, a Univision News anchor, and event producer Mary Rabago.
Garcia thinks Lake’s actions were a prank intended to startle Hobbs, which, in his opinion, appeared to be successful because the Democrat delivered an uneven performance.
Of Lake, Garcia said: “She rattled her opponent. She was big, brash, and very larger than life, Trump-esque. Anyone who thinks she was there to follow all the rules doesn’t know Kari Lake.”
The scene served as a symbol for Lake and Hobbs’ contrasting styles: Lake is a former local TV anchor, while Hobbs was elected secretary of state of Arizona, one of the most competitive swing states in the country. An observer at the town hall described the contest as involving “a Trump Republican and an NPR Democrat.”
In September, Hobbs’ campaign stated that debates were off-limits due to Lake’s tendency for “chaos” and her embrace of wrong conspiracy theories about a stolen election. Lake notes that Hobbs also declined to debate Democratic primary opponents and has repeatedly referred to Hobbs as a “coward” for her refusal to share the debate stage.
A Phoenix police officer was called over to make sure, despite Masino’s assurances to NBC News that they weren’t recording.
“This is ridiculous,” Masino said. “She has a police officer watching a police officer make sure that police officer doesn’t videotape when he’s not videotaping.”
Lake said she wanted “a real debate” and Krauze repeated that he would ask Hobbs about it.
“Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to share the stage with Miss Hobbs,” he said, reminding Lake that she would join him later onstage. “I cannot invite her to the stage if you are in the audience. This is not me. This is the … the campaign agreement.”
Lake then stood and partly faced the audience as a few people clapped, saying, “I’m happy to be here. I don’t think I should be trapped in my room. I’d love to be part of this. We should be talking about the issues that affect everyone. … I want the people here to know I’m willing to sit on stage with Miss Hobbs and talk about the important issues.”
Rabago then walked onstage and asked Lake to “do us the honor to go to your designated area … This is a town hall. That was the agreement that we have. I really want to make sure that the audience … can hear you both. So if you don’t mind — continue with our agreement. I would really appreciate it so we can respect the time of everyone.”
More people applauded, and Lake said she was complying at that moment.
“You will have plenty of time, I promise,” Rabago said. “We designated the same amount of time for both of you guys. We’re going to have you onstage. This is the opportunity for you guys to share your platform, your ideals … your vision. But please respect that agreement that we have.”