The future of public safety in the Valley will be molded — in large part — by whomever is elected the first new Maricopa County attorney in 16 years.
Richard Romley, county attorney since 1989, is not seeking a fifth term.
A crowded field of six Republicans and two Democrats is vying for the post, leading some pundits to predict an intense campaign before the Sept. 7 primary.
"This is probably one of the most significant campaigns that will be taking place this year," said Scottsdale-based political consultant Bob Grossfeld. "The office itself is so critical, and so broad in powers."
The chief prosecutor sets the criminal justice policy in the region, so the priorities of the person holding the office — as well as his or her aptitude for the job — make a big difference, said Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.
"We’re the ones who get to decide what gets charged and prosecuted," said LaWall, the Tucson-area county attorney since 1996. "We’re the ones who decide what gets investigated."
The next Maricopa County attorney will decide his own crime -fighting priorities, which include how often to take cases to trial and how to manage the 300 prosecutors who annually handle more than 40,000 criminal cases. The office handles nearly all felony cases prosecuted in the Valley and is also responsible for providing legal counsel to the county’s various departments.
All eight candidates are attorneys — as required by law — and all have worked as prosecutors under Romley.
"People need to pay attention to the county attorney race, to see what’s really important to whoever is running — what’s their platform," said Gilbert Police Chief John Brewer.
One of the hot-button issues emerging is illegal immigration — an issue best left to the federal government, some candidates and political observers said.
Andrew Pacheco, a Republican candidate endorsed by Arizona Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, has proposed a plan to fight smuggling and other immigrationrelated crime. It would "use state laws to investigate and prosecute alien smugglers," he said.
Another Republican, Andrew Thomas, emblazoned his campaign signs with "Stop Illegal Immigration."
He said he would offer illegal immigrants who commit felonies tougher plea agreements than citizens or legal residents prosecuted for the same crime.
His stance is drawing criticism from some competitors.
"He’s oversimplifying the issue," Republican candidate Jerry Landau said. "When he ran for (state) attorney general two years ago, this wasn’t an issue. He didn’t raise it. Now he is."
Landau — the candidate endorsed by Romley — launched his campaign with a vow to tackle identity theft, sex offender clustering and automobile theft.
Democrat Don Harris bristled at Thomas’ plea agreement idea for illegal immigrants, saying it sounded unconstitutional. Harris said his goals are fighting illegal drugs by focusing on treatment, "cleaning out" top management in the office and improving morale among employees.
"There are about 35 open slots in that office," Harris said. "When I was a young lawyer, people were killing to get into that office."
One of Romley’s chief deputies, Barnett Lotstein, said Harris’ claim is "reckless." Of the 40 positions open in the office, which employs more than 900 overall, only nine are for prosecutors, he said.
"There is not a morale problem," Lotstein said.
More criticism of the current office came from Republican Rick Poster, who said his work as a defense attorney gives him insight into the office’s workings that others don’t have.
"Cases are not being treated very fairly to defendants, victims and police," Poster said. In one case he defended, it took prosecutors "a long time to want to get around to seeing our side of the story," he said.
Mike Bailey, a Republican, said he would focus on putting more resources on "victim crimes" such as robbery and rape, while streamlining prosecution of other crimes. He also suggests handing off more prosecution to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
"We’re so inundated with crimes, we have to prioritize," he said.
Democrat Jonathan Warshaw also wants to prioritize crimes and focus resources on violent criminals. He said he is also concerned some criminal defendants get special treatment "because of who they are or know."
"I want to restore the idea or the principal of equal justice," he said.
Republican Tom McCauley said he wants to discuss ways to reduce domestic violence, which he said is the No. 1 crime in Arizona. But illegal immigration is one of the prime concerns of Republicans right now, judging from questions he gets at debates, he said.
"We can respond by going after the coyotes and prosecuting the drug dealers that come up illegally from Mexico," McCauley said.
Maricopa County attorney candidates
Democrats Don Harris: 65, Paradise Valley Jonathan Warshaw: 37, Gilbert
Republicans Mike Bailey: 39, Phoenix Jerry Landau: 53, Scottsdale Tom McCauley: 44, Paradise Valley Andrew Pacheco: 33, Phoenix Rick Poster: 43, Phoenix Andrew Thomas: 37, Phoenix