Democrat Katie Hobbs will not debate her opponent in the Arizona gubernatorial race, but Republican Kari Lake tried to make it through a town hall of candidates that organizers say she disrupted.
According to the agreed rules for the pre-recorded event, which was taped Monday and airs at 7 p.m. Arizona time Saturday, the candidates were not supposed to be on stage at the same time and Hobbs was supposed to go first.
But a problem arose even before Hobbs took the stage: Lake was sitting in the front row, in direct line of sight to where her opponent would be seated.
As a crowd of more than 200 watched, organizers said Lake was supposed to be in a waiting room under the rules, a copy of which they refused to provide to NBC News. Lake protested, saying that she was unaware of that rule and said that Hobbs should come out and debate it. Hobbs did not.
After several minutes, Lake complied, leaving behind his campaign replacement, Mexican soap opera star Eduardo Verástegui.
“Kari Lake brought in a Mexican soap opera star and she brought in the drama. It was like a soap opera,” said Joe Garcia, an independent voter and executive director of voter outreach for the group Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund, which co-sponsored the event along with state and national Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. .
Garcia’s description of the scene matched five eyewitness accounts, including representatives from both campaigns, as well as video provided by Lake’s campaign showing the Republican arguing her case with moderator Leon Krauze, a TV host. Univision news and events producer Mary Rabago.
Garcia believes Lake’s actions were a stunt designed to unsettle Hobbs, which he says seemed to work, because the Democrat performed unevenly in his opinion.
Of Lake, Garcia said: “She shook her opponent. She was big, brash and way bigger than life, Trump style. Anyone who thinks she was there to follow all the rules doesn’t know Kari Lake.”
The scene was emblematic of Lake and Hobbs’ contrasting styles: Lake is a former local TV host, while Hobbs is the elected secretary of state in Arizona, one of the most competitive swing states in the country. A city hall observer described the race as a clash between “an NPR Democrat and a Trump Republican.”
Hobbs’ campaign said in September that debates were off limits, pointing to Lake’s penchant for causing “chaos” and his embrace of bogus stolen election conspiracy theories. Lake has repeatedly called Hobbs a “coward” for his refusal to share the debate stage and notes that Hobbs also refused to debate his rivals in the Democratic primary.
Reached for comment on the incident, both campaigns issued statements to NBC News about the forum that echoed their candidates’ talking points with each other, with Lake questioning Hobbs’ courage and Hobbs denouncing Lake for causing chaos.
Viewers will not be able to see the show that took place at the forum on Monday. It was pre-recorded to give Univision time to translate the event into Spanish before it airs on Saturday night.
The English version is scheduled to be broadcast online by Univision, which has prohibited audience members from recording the event on video.
But Verastegui posted a video on social media of the pre-event back-and-forth between Lake, Krauze and Rabago, according to two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on record.
The video was later removed from social media.
Later, when Lake was on stage for her one-on-one with Krauze, a staffer at the event suspected that the candidate’s husband was making another video with his security volunteer, Scott Masino, a local sheriff’s deputy who offered his time volunteering for the candidate who told him the story. NBC News.
Masino told NBC News they weren’t recording, but called a Phoenix police officer to make sure.
“This is ridiculous,” Masino said. “She has a police officer keeping an eye on a police officer to make sure the police officer doesn’t videotape when she’s not recording.”
According to Masino, they had been told by another event staffer that Lake couldn’t leave his green room until it was his turn to be on stage. Lake ignored the request and went to her front-row seat before the start of town hall, which Masino said she chose because she was close to the aisle and an exit door, not because it potentially put her in line. Hobbs’s vision.
But Garcia and another official from his group, Max Gonzales, said the town hall rules were “absolutely clear” and that Lake was not supposed to be in the audience while Hobbs was onstage.
“I can understand why, perhaps, Hobbs is hesitant to appear onstage with Lake. This was staged. This was planned,” Gonzales said.
Lake’s campaign disputes the suggestion that the outage was staged.
Neither Gonzales nor Garcia negotiated the town hall’s terms with the campaigns and referred related questions to the event’s co-sponsors at the state and national Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.
Those organizations declined to comment, as did Univision. Another person, who was not authorized to speak officially about the event, confirmed Garcia’s account of the incident.
Hobbs’ campaign provided a pre-event email from organizers that said “each candidate will have their own separate green room to prepare and hold before taking the main stage.”
Lake’s campaign said she did not receive the email and that the language about the waiting room read as a service offered, not a demand that she remain sequestered.
The show got off to an awkward start when Krauze made his introduction and welcomed Hobbs to the stage, witnesses told NBC News. But Hobbs didn’t come out. Instead, they said, the president of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Monica Villalobos, took the stage to speak.
Krauze, after putting his finger on the earpiece that was remotely connected to the control room, told Lake that he was supposed to leave the room.
Lake initially refused, and another staff member soon shot video of her that was provided to NBC News.
“I would love to be on the same stage actually. Is that possible?” asked the lake.
Krauze responded, “I know it would be [be something you would want to do]. and I’m going to ask [Hobbs] about it. Trust me.”
Lake said he wanted “a real debate,” and Krauze repeated that he would ask Hobbs about it.
“Unfortunately, you won’t be able to share the stage with Miss Hobbs,” he said, reminding Lake that she would be joining him onstage later. “I can’t invite her onstage if you’re in the audience. This is not me. This is the… the campaign agreement.”
Lake then stood up and partially faced the audience as some people clapped and said, “I’m happy to be here. I don’t think I should be stuck in my room. I would love to be a part of this. We should talk about the issues that affect everyone… I want people here to know that I’m willing to sit onstage with Miss Hobbs and talk about the issues that matter.”
Rabago then took the stage and asked Lake to “do us the honor of going to your designated area… This is a town hall. That was the agreement we have. I really want to make sure that the audience… can hear you both. So if you don’t mind, go ahead with our deal. I would really appreciate it so we can respect everyone’s time.”
More people clapped and Lake said he was obeying at the time.
“You’ll have plenty of time, I promise you,” Rabago said. “We have designated the same amount of time for the two of you. We’re going to have you on stage. This is the opportunity for you to share your platform, your ideals… your vision. But please respect that agreement we have.”
Once he left, the forum began.
CORRECTION (October 8, 7:45 pm ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of one of the Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund’s voter outreach officers. This is Max Gonzales, not Gonzalez.