The two leading candidates to be Maricopa County's top prosecutor angrily exchanged allegations about each other's commitment to fight domestic violence Wednesday night in downtown Phoenix.
"We have a system that has not been holding offenders accountable as they should be," said Tim Nelson, the Democratic nominee for county attorney.
Andrew Thomas, the Republican incumbent, derided Nelson's proposal to create a separate court to handle domestic violence cases exclusively.
"We do not need to expand 'group hug' courts, which is what my opponent purposes," Thomas said.
The Men's Anti-Violence Network sponsored the debate and limited it to questions on domestic violence issues. Despite that, the candidates rarely strayed from their campaign platforms.
Thomas argued that Nelson is unqualified and unwilling to fight for stiff penalties. Nelson countered that Thomas has failed to effectively prosecute some serious crime, particularly domestic violence.
Michael Kielsky, the Libertarian candidate, argued that domestic violence is a serious crime, but that laws related to it are sometimes improperly enforced.
"Thank God I'm here in the middle because otherwise it'd be a bloodbath tonight," Kielsky joked about being seated between Nelson and Thomas, whose exchange had become heated.
Wednesday night's debate was the first time Thomas and Nelson met face-to-face during the campaign. They have harshly criticized each other, questioning their rival's ability or willingness to prosecute serious crimes.
Nelson said Thomas failed to support legislation that would have required anyone charged with domestic violence a second time to face a felony.
"We need a domestic violence champion," Nelson said. "Mr. Thomas has not been one. I will be."
Thomas dismissed the statement. "You want to send a message?" he asked in response. "You send these thugs to jail the first time."
Nelson also said Thomas' office has failed to file domestic violence charges quickly. Thomas said that, with 40,000 criminal cases each year, "there are going to be times when things aren't done perfectly."
That said, Thomas said Nelson's proposals would increase such problems.
Every seat was filled in the small auditorium, primarily by politicians, campaign supporters and media who reserved spots in advance. Several audience members wore small, white stickers that said, "Fire Andy Thomas," in red letters.
Thomas' campaign handed out a one-page list of talking points touting the incumbent, and ridiculing Nelson, to people as they entered.
Mark Curtis, anchor of KPNX-TV (Channel 12), moderated the debate and thanked the candidates for their "passion."
"Maybe I should just stand back and let these guys go at it," Kielsky said in his closing statement, "and then I'll be county attorney."