PHOENIX - Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who was disbarred for failed corruption investigations that he and county Sheriff Joe Arpaio launched against political opponents, has entered Arizona's 2014 gubernatorial race, joining a growing list of candidate jostling to replace Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.
Thomas, who continues to maintain his innocence a year after a disciplinary panel of the Arizona courts found his office wrongfully criminally charged two county officials and a judge to embarrass them, said Friday he will fight "border violence" and "broken government" if elected.
"In Mexico, prosecutors who take on the powerful got shot or blown up. In Arizona, they are disbarred, and that has to change. And I believe the voters will agree with me," Thomas said Friday after he submitted campaign paperwork.
A chaotic scene greeted Thomas at the state election office, where a handful of anti-Arpaio and anti-illegal immigration activists shouted over each other and traded insults as Thomas spoke with the press, illustrating the ugly divisions Thomas will have to overcome to win office.
Some Republican leaders said Thomas, with his high name recognition and tea party connections, would be a viable candidate with hard-right primary voters, but it is unclear how he might prevail in a general election, when Democrats and independents would likely take a harder stance on his legal woes and association with Arpaio, a divisive figure in local politics.
"He's coming into this political arena with a lot of baggage, of course," said Rodolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University. "The association with Sheriff Joe is something really hefty that is going to be impossible to run away from."
Thomas served as county attorney from 2005 until he resigned in 2010 to unsuccessfully run for Arizona attorney general. He is one of several Republicans looking to get ahead in the gubernatorial race, along with Sen. Al Melvin and Secretary of State Ken Bennett.
Democrat and former Arizona Board of Regents Chairman Fred DuVal, Republican and ex-Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman and Americans Elect party candidate John Mealer have already formally filed to run.
Thomas and Arpaio brought the criminal charges in December 2009 after becoming embroiled in a yearlong political feud with county officials. The disciplinary panel also concluded that Thomas and a key deputy prosecutor violated criminal intimidation and perjury laws in knowingly bringing false bribery charges against the judge.
Other county officials and judges who were at odds with Thomas and Arpaio also were investigated by the pair, but weren't charged with crimes.
"His actions were seen by a lot of people as using his political office to carry out his conservative agenda and, unlike anyone else in politics, he had the power of bringing felony charges and arresting people and essentially ruining reputations," said Stephen Gerst, a law professor with the Phoenix School of Law and a former Maricopa County Superior Court judge. "It was a little scary for a lot of people."
Keith Alexander, chairman of the Graham County Republican Party in southern Arizona, said he was surprised by Thomas' gubernatorial run.
"There were a lot of people that were concerned that he was sidetracked with facing down people that disagreed with him rather than attending to the duties of the office," Alexander said.
As county attorney, Thomas was also known for confronting illegal immigration, an issue that has divided Arizona voters in recent years.
"It's a badge of honor for certain constituents, but keep in mind that Arizona is changing," Espino said. "That's not the top concern for many Arizona voters the way it used to be."
Thomas said Friday he lost his 2010 primary fight against Attorney General Tom Horne after being outspent and targeted by "every dirty trick." Thomas is running for governor under the state's public campaign financing option.