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Candidates to top Arizona election job to face off in debate

Vote, election
Adrian Fontes
Mark Finchem
Posted at 6:52 AM, Sep 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-22 09:52:56-04

PHOENIX — A Republican Arizona lawmaker who embraces election conspiracies and has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement will spar with the Democrat who helped oversee the 2020 election in Maricopa County Thursday evening as they both seek the state’s top election post.

State Rep. Mark Finchem has built a national following among Trump supporters and those who believe without evidence that the former president lost in Arizona and other battleground states because of fraud.

Finchem will debate Democrat Adrian Fontes, the former Maricopa County Recorder who lost his 2020 reelection bid. Fontes says Finchem's claims have eroded faith in democracy and he's in the odd position of having “to debate someone who doesn’t believe in reality.”

The 30-minute debate sponsored by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission is the public's only scheduled chance to see the two candidates for secretary of state side-by-side. The secretary acts as Arizona's top election official, oversees many business filings and is next in line if the governor leaves office prematurely. The debate will be broadcast at 5 p.m. on Arizona PBS and moderated by longtime Arizona Horizon host Ted Simons, who has handled Clean Elections debates for more than a decade.

Finchem was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and has been subpoenaed by the Department of Justice as it investigates the insurrection. He's joined a lawsuit with the Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake, that seeks to require all ballots to be hand-counted in a state that saw 3.4 million ballots cast in 2020 covering more than 100 races. A federal judge dismissed the case in August but they have appealed.

Finchem insists the courts and the media are ignoring legitimate concerns about problems with the 2020 election. He's a retired Kalamazoo, Michigan, police officer who been a member of the Arizona House since 2015.

“People are, they’ve had a gutful of the narrative that there was nothing wrong” with the 2020 election, Finchem said in an interview the day after he won the four-way Aug. 2 Republican primary. “The whole false narrative that the national media has tried to portray for the last two years has fallen apart -- and now I’m vilified by rags like the Guardian and the Atlantic.”

Fontes is an attorney and former Marine who ran primary ads saying he would protect voting rights for all Arizonans and that election deniers like Finchem were making a full-fledged attack on democracy.

Fontes said Finchem's statements are detached from reality and that makes it difficult “to have a cogent debate.”

“His cognitive dissonance is so far out of whack that nothing he says can be trusted,” Fontes said Wednesday. “And that’s unfortunate, because I’m in the awkward position to have to debate a person who doesn’t know what reality is.”

Finchem says he will run the secretary’s office without favor for either party, and his first priority is to rewrite the state elections procedures manual, which sets out rules for county officials to administer elections. The manual was the source of controversy earlier this year with the Republican attorney general sued Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs over a new manual Brnovich refused to approve. A judge refused to force changes the attorney general demanded.

Finchem said the current manual “is filled with defects.” It is written by the secretary, and the attorney general and governor must sign off on it each election cycle. If Finchem and Republicans running for attorney general and governor all win, they will be able to make sweeping changes to election administration rules.

“My campaign is going to speak to one priority, and that is restoration of the rule of law, holding people accountable for following election law,” Finchem said in the post-primary interview. He has not returned repeated calls and messages in recent weeks.

Finchem continues to insist that the 2020 election was unfair, and recent reports have documented that him accusing former Vic President Mike Pence of orchestrating “a coup” when he called for the military to stop the attack on the Capitol. He’s also said he believes Trump won Arizona because he’s never met anyone who voted for President Joe Biden.

Fontes said he expects Finchem to attack him for his efforts to send all county residents mail ballots during the March 2020 presidential primary, a move that happened early in the coronavirus pandemic and was blocked by the courts. He stands by those efforts to boost voter access and on his record of running the recorders office well.

“I think he’s going to try to come across as a humble small town law enforcement guy and ignore the fact that he participated a violent insurrection that resulted in the death of police officers,” Fontes said of the upcoming debate (Finchem did not enter the Capitol). “He’ll try to distract away from his responsibility for essentially eroding our democracy.”