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At political events, voters and Democratic candidates for governor ask: Where's Katie Hobbs?

Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is running for governor, speaks at a press conference on Nov. 4, 2021.

At a Democratic forum in Phoenix last week, a voter in the front row asked what a candidate for governor would do to maintain access to abortion if the Supreme Court overturns a 50-year-old precedent legalizing it. 

The question went first to Marco López, the former mayor of Nogales, then to Aaron Lieberman, a former state representative, who in turn addressed the crowd of about 40 people.

Lieberman responded with a dig that has increased in frequency along the campaign trail, aimed at someone who wasn't there.

"I don't know how you can run for governor of Arizona and not be willing to engage and talk to Democratic voters," Lieberman said. "Doesn't make any sense to me."

The leading contender for the Democratic nomination, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, did not attend the Wednesday evening forum. Her absence that night —and from other events — has opened a window for her opponents to paint her as uninterested in engaging with the people she would represent, if elected.

On May 9, the state Democratic party had a press conference to decry the expected Supreme Court ruling on abortion, and pledged to protect abortion rights. Hobbs didn't attend, and the state party chair said she had a scheduling conflict. About a week later, Hobbs did speak at a pro-choice rally in Phoenix that drew thousands.

Lieberman said he has counted 16 local events that Hobbs has missed. López has asked "¿Dónde está Katie Hobbs?" — Spanish for 'Where is Katie Hobbs?' — in social media posts and along the campaign trail.

And earlier this month Hobbs said she would skip a televised primary election debate, a collaboration of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission and Arizona PBS. (The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com help host the debates.) 

It's noteworthy when a candidate for statewide office skips this debate because it happens so infrequently. Some candidates who accept public financing have to appear, but in the last three elections, every candidate for governor but one has appeared, according to information from the commission.

Arizona governor candidate Marco Lopez attends Chicanos Por La Causa's announcement of a $10 million campaign to increase voting in the Latino community in Arizona on April 14, 2022, in Phoenix.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey skipped a primary debate in his 2018 re-election bid — an aide at the time dismissed challenger Ken Bennett as a "fringe" candidate whom Ducey had debated and defeated in the primary race four years prior. The sitting governor easily defeated Bennett.

A Hobbs campaign aide told The Republic last week that Hobbs had events in Tucson the day of the debate and couldn't attend. López subsequently sent a letter to the Clean Elections Commission asking them to reschedule, taking jabs at Hobbs in his request.

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López suggested Hobbs' team was worried about her ability to debate candidates without changing her stance on issues. In doing so he joined a chorus of Republicans who have accused Hobbs of flip-flopping her position on a Biden administration plan to roll back Title 42, a public health policy that allowed the U.S. to immediately expel asylum seekers, and that a federal judge in Louisiana last week ruled should stay in place for now.

"I think it’s bogus," López said in an interview about Hobbs ditching the debate. "Let's just be truthful. If the truth is you don’t care to talk to the voters, just say it. Don't flip flop on this."

He questioned whether Hobbs could debate a "GOP bully like Kari Lake" in a general election. Lake, a former Fox 10 news anchor in Phoenix and Republican candidate for governor, has a Trump-esque style and sometimes combative approach. A leading candidate for the GOP nomination to replace Ducey, she has built her bid around false claims the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

“Katie is afraid; I'm not afraid," López said. "These are bullies, you’ve got to take the bullies on.”

Hobbs confident in a win

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs

Whether the absent-candidate line of attack resonates with voters is unknown. Arizonans will cast ballots in the Aug. 2 primary, nominating candidates from each party to appear on the November general election ballot.

On the Democratic side, Lieberman and López are seeking a leg up in a primary race in which Hobbs has led polling and fundraising, thanks in part to her role as secretary of state and national attention from defending the 2020 election in Arizona.

Hobbs' campaign didn't answer questions about whether Hobbs would agree to a rescheduled debate date, nor did it respond to criticisms from her opponents about whether Hobbs was prepared to debate.

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The campaign didn't answer questions about what events Hobbs decides to attend and which she chooses to skip, but sent a statement saying she regularly interacts with voters.

"Katie's out talking to Arizona voters every day, hearing directly from them about their most pressing concerns like how much groceries will cost next week or if their child will get a good education," Hobbs' campaign manager Nicole DeMont said in a statement.

"She’s the only candidate on either side of the aisle with a clear path through the primary, and she remains focused on defending Arizona from Kari Lake’s conspiracy theories and never-ending lies that threaten Arizonans’ freedoms.” 

Emails show clean elections officials had already offered to reschedule the debate even before López's request. Thus far, however, it's still on for June 30.

Republican candidates for governor are scheduled to debate on June 29, and so far all five plan to attend: Matt Salmon, Karrin Taylor Robson, Scott Neely, Paola Tulliani Zen and Lake.

More:See the full candidate debate lineup here

Voters want to hear from candidates

In the months leading up to an election, candidates typically make a circuit of events big and small where they can get their names and messages before voters, and raise money along the way. They stump in cul-de-sacs, on stage at rallies and in the private living rooms of donors.

Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley and Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, look on during debate of HB 2898, a K-12 education bill, during the House Appropriations Committee hearing at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on May 25, 2021.

Thanks to her national profile following 2020, Hobbs may not need to make the rounds as intensely as a less well-known candidate. The night after she skipped the event with Lieberman and López at Paradise Valley Community College, Hobbs was again on MSNBC, where she told viewers she was running for office to defend democracy, and asked for help to "to make sure that we are protecting our democracy in every way possible."

But Hobbs is often not in the room to defend herself, or her policies, as her opponents paint her as unresponsive to the people of Arizona, meanwhile touting their own visions for the Grand Canyon State. 

Hobbs declined an invitation to appear at a candidate forum with the Grand Democrats of Surprise in April, according to Barbara Nelson, who organizes the club's programs.

Nelson, who donated thousands of dollars to Hobbs' bid, said she decided to support López after Hobbs wouldn't show up. She likes López's experience in the Obama and Napolitano administrations, she said, while she questions whether Hobbs would disappear when facing controversy if she's elected governor.

“It means that she won’t be with us, she’ll find places to hide again, and I don’t want that," Nelson said.

Don Johnsen, a lawyer and precinct committee person who attend the forum last week in Phoenix, said it didn't matter to his vote that Hobbs wasn't there, though he'd consider it "strange" if she was intentionally skipping events where she could talk with voters.

He's donated money to all three Democrats in the race and likes each of them. His top issues are protecting voting rights and education, and he said he's not yet sure who he'll vote for.

"I will confess, I'm really torn," he said. 

Also undecided was Janet Johnson, of Phoenix. She dislikes the extreme partisanship of politics, the us-versus-them attitude of the two major parties, she said, and so she liked Lieberman's message that he would work across party lines. Lieberman's first advertisement of the cycle hit on the theme — showing him extinguishing a fire in a Dumpster.

"Right now, Arizona's politics are a Dumpster fire," he says in the ad, which ends: “As governor, I'll be focused on solving problems, not making them worse.”

Johnson's ultimate criteria is a candidate who can defeat a Republican in November. She hasn't ruled out Hobbs but wants to learn more about her.

"I would like to see her at these events and I would like to hear from her and what her priorities are and how her campaign, should we make her the Democratic candidate, how she would beat the Republican," Johnson said. "I would love to hear that."

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.