Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and Democratic candidate David Garcia wrangled Monday over border policies and public education in the first of two televised debates this week, with Garcia complaining about attack ads he characterized as "bigoted."
During the debate aired live by PBS Arizona, Garcia decried the ads by the Republican Governors Association, saying: "They are bigoted in the sense that they darken my face and scare families."
The fourth-generation Hispanic also criticized Ducey's frequent mention of his own Latino supporters, saying that "the heart of this is bigoted and racist."
"When politicians get in trouble they start to pit people along the idea of race and class," said Garcia. He also flatly denied a key claim of the ads that he wants to "abolish ICE."
Ducey didn't respond to Garcia's complaint that the ads are bigoted. RGA spokesman Jon Thompson called Garcia's suggestion of bigotry "absurd" and a "desperate attempt to mislead voters."
Earlier in the debate, the governor insisted that Garcia holds a "radical" stance on the border and immigration. Garcia opposes President Donald Trump's plans for a border wall and has said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be rebuilt top to bottom.
"My issues are not with you as a person, they are with your policies," Ducey told Garcia.
The RGA last week unveiled the fourth spot in a series of ads targeting the Arizona Democrat, a video called "So Liberal" that claims "Garcia opposes tougher border security." Thompson has estimated the immigration-themed spots have aired thousands of times and has said the group has spent nearly $10 million on TV ads in the Arizona governor's race, most of them targeting Garcia.
When Garcia asked the governor what he thought of the spots, Ducey said "I think the ads that have been out on you are public service announcements. People need to know where you stand."
A third candidate who participated, Angel Torres of the Green Party, during the debate focused on his support for unions and helping people climb out of poverty.
"We need to ensure that the economies of Mexico and Central America have strong, resilient economies" to address the root causes of illegal immigration, Torres said.
Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue that runs deep in Arizona, a border state that is home to a large Latino population and some of the toughest laws in the nation targeting migrants living in the U.S. illegally. Ducey has stressed increased security along Arizona's southern border aimed at stopping the flow of drugs and illegal immigration.
Garcia, who has served in the military and now works as an education professor, has focused on the state's public education system, another key issue in the race.
The Democrat said that Arizona is in an "education crisis" and called Ducey's plan to deal with the problems "half measures and broken promises."
An unprecedented teacher strike in Arizona shut down public schools for six days in the spring. The teachers returned to class after Ducey signed a plan to give them a 20 percent pay raise: 9 percent in the fall and about 5 percent in each of the following two years. A previously agreed upon raise makes up the remainder.
Ducey has also announced plans for an academy for public school instructors.
Garcia said school funding still lags nationwide and that Arizona is "one of the worst places in the country for teachers." He said many of the state's teachers work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
"You will never have a governor more committed to public education than me," said Garcia.
A second televised debate will be held Tuesday night in Tucson.