The two Democrats campaigning to become the Valley’s chief prosecutor found themselves at home and at the top of their games Tuesday night in front of a packed crowd in Tempe, the stronghold of Democratic politics in the East Valley.
It was the first time Gerald Richard and Tim Nelson took to a debate in the race, which has churned on since late last year, and each candidate found his own niche during the matchup.
Richard, a former high-ranking Phoenix police administrator, tried to show that the stage belonged to him from the start. Winning a coin toss to begin the forum, he opened by turning down the chance to use a microphone, and instead used just his voice to reach the large audience at Changing Hands Bookstore.
He began his remarks with a story about going to school at Arizona State University in 1973 on a track scholarship and spending hours reading and browsing books at the very place where the debate was being held.
“I grew up at Changing Hands,” he said. And with that, the charismatic attorney went on to lay out his resume, including two years as a prosecutor in the mid-1980s and his efforts leading a division of the Phoenix Police Department.
Richard proved to be the more engaging speaker of the night, at times joking with the audience.
At one point, Richard told a story about a 15-year-old boy named “Little T” who ran away from home and was caught by the police making some sort of trouble. Little T knew Richard from a community event the candidate had done and called him up for help. Richard said he told the boy he would help him avoid jail only if he obeyed his mother.
“You either let your mother be your jailer,” Richard recalled telling the boy, “or you let Bubba be your lover.”
The audience of more than 100 laughed and Richard followed up, saying it was a point about how to handle prosecutions: “It’s a caseby-case basis.”
Nelson, too, had a strong showing, brandishing his own credentials, including his prosecution of white-collar cases and his most recent five-year stint as chief counsel for Gov. Janet Napolitano.
He spent much of his time aimed at the work of the current county attorney, Andrew Thomas, a Republican who is running for re-election this fall.
He accused Thomas of unwise spending, conflicts of interest and poor judgment on crime policies.
Having outraised Richard, his Democratic opponent, in campaign contributions more than three to one, Nelson also tried to position himself as the candidate who could unseat Thomas.
On top of the fundraising, he said he had been gaining the key endorsements, including a one from U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., whose district is based in Tempe.
“We need a candidate who’s going to win,” he told the crowd. “And I submit that I’m the best person for the job.”
Mostly, the candidates avoided a direct confrontation with each other, sticking more to own their résumés and issues they both believed in.
Richard and Nelson have three more forums scheduled between now and August, including one next week on the KAET show, “Horizon.”