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County attorney foes face off

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Posted: Tuesday, October 26, 2004 10:36 am

October 26, 2004

The Democratic candidate for Maricopa County attorney compared his opponent to Nazis during a fiery debate Monday night in Phoenix.

Democrat Don Harris repeatedly took the offensive against his Republican opponent, Andrew Thomas, in an hourlong match attended by about 200 people in an auditorium at Phoenix College. Thomas kept his own message positive for most of the forum, but also managed to slip in some attacks of his own.

Harris "has frankly become an embarrassment," Thomas said. "Arizona does not need to be the butt of late-night jokes."

The public will elect one of them on Nov. 2 to replace Richard Romley, a four-term county attorney who has suggested he will run for governor in 2006.

Responding to questions from four panelists and members of the audience, the candidates discussed automobile and identity theft, the prosecution of nonviolent crimes and morale at the prosecutor’s office. Answering a question by panelists about prisoner rehabilitation, Harris rebuked Thomas for helping rid the state prison of a law library.

"They did that in Germany in 1932," he said.

Thomas, 38, was the former chief counsel for the state Department of Corrections. He said he was proud of closing the taxpayer-funded library because prisoners were using it to learn how to file frivolous lawsuits. And he slammed Harris for the Nazi comparison, calling it outrageous, and the audience responded with applause.

Harris, 66, has made shootfrom-the-hip comments his trademark. When he served as interim county attorney in 1976, a judge declared a mistrial in a notorious murder case after Harris commented about the case to "60 Minutes."

However, the defense attorney and former U.S. Marine captain was a forceful speaker Monday, saying he would boot out top officials at the prosecutor’s office to improve morale among employees. Harris emphasized his experience to contrast himself with his younger opponent, and said he would be tough on rapists and murderers while trying to steer nonviolent criminals away from prison.

Thomas said his primary concern was justice, not rehabilitation. The court system has tried rehabilitation for decades, but 66 percent of Arizona prisoners still go on to commit more crimes, he said.

Touting his endorsement by Romley, Thomas stopped short of admitting a morale problem at the office. But he would fight for higher pay at the office, which would lower turnover by enticing more employees to stay, he said.

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