Democrat Katie Hobbs won’t debate her opponent in Arizona’s race for governor, yet Republican Kari Lake tried to make it happen at a candidate town hall that organizers say she disrupted.
Under the agreed-upon rules for the pre-recorded event, which was taped Monday and airs at 7 p.m. Saturday Arizona time, the candidates were not supposed to be onstage at the same time and Hobbs was supposed to go first.
But a problem arose before Hobbs even took the stage: Lake was sitting in the front row, in a direct line of sight at where her opponent would sit.
As a crowd of more than 200 watched, organizers said Lake was supposed to be in a hold room under the rules, a copy of which they refused to provide to NBC News. Lake protested, saying she was unaware of that rule and said Hobbs should come out and debate her. Hobbs didn’t.
After several minutes, Lake complied, leaving behind her campaign surrogate, Mexican telenovela star Eduardo Verástegui.
“Kari Lake brought along a Mexican telenovela star and she brought the drama. It was like a telenovela,” said Joe Garcia, an independent voter and the executive director of voter outreach for the group Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund, which was a co-sponsor of the event along with the state and national Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.
Garcia’s description of the scene matched the account of five eyewitnesses — including representatives from both campaigns — as well as video provided by Lake’s campaign that showed the Republican pleading her case with moderator León Krauze, a Univision News anchor, and event producer Mary Rabago.
Garcia believes Lake’s actions were a stunt designed to rattle Hobbs, which he said appeared to work, because the Democrat gave an uneven performance in his view.
Of Lake, Garcia said: “She rattled her opponent. She was big, brash, and very larger than life, Trump-esque. Anyone who thinks she was there to follow all the rules doesn’t know Kari Lake.”
The scene was emblematic of the contrasting styles of Lake and Hobbs: Lake is a former local TV anchor, while Hobbs is the elected secretary of state in Arizona, one of the nation’s most competitive swing states. One observer of the town hall described the race as a clash between “an NPR Democrat and a Trump Republican.”
Hobbs’ campaign said in September that debates were a no-go, pointing to Lake’s penchant for causing “chaos” and her embrace of false conspiracy theories of a stolen election. Lake has repeatedly called Hobbs a “coward” for her refusal to share the debate stage and points out that Hobbs also refused to debate Democratic primary rivals.
Reached for comment about the incident, both campaigns issued statements to NBC News about the forum that echoed their candidates’ talking points about one another, with Lake questioning Hobbs’ courage and Hobbs denouncing Lake for causing chaos.
TV viewers won’t be able to see the spectacle that unfolded at Monday’s forum. It was pre-recorded to give Univision time to translate the event into Spanish before it airs Saturday night.
The English-language version is scheduled to be webcast online by Univision, which forbade audience members from recording the event on video.
But Verástegui did uploaded video to 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 weren’t authorized to discuss the matter on the record.
The video was subsequently deleted from social media.
Later, when Lake was onstage for her one-on-one with Krauze, an event staffer suspected the candidate’s husband was recording another video with her security volunteer, Scott Masino, a local sheriff’s deputy volunteering his time for the candidate who relayed the story to NBC News.
Masino told NBC News they weren’t recording, but a Phoenix police officer was called over to make sure.
“This is ridiculous,” Masino said. “She has a police officer watching a police officer to make sure that police officer doesn’t videotape when he’s not videotaping.”
According to Masino, a different event staffer had told them that Lake couldn’t leave her green room until it was her turn to be on stage. Lake ignored the request and went to her seats in the front row ahead of the town hall’s start, which Masino said he picked because it was close to the aisle and an exit door — not because it put her potentially in Hobbs’ line of sight.
But Garcia and another official from his group, Max Gonzalez, both said the rules of the town hall were “absolutely clear” and that Lake wasn’t supposed to be in the audience while Hobbs was onstage.
“I can understand why, perhaps, Hobbs is hesitant to appear on stage with Lake. This was staged. This was planned,” said Gonzalez.
The Lake campaign disputes the suggestion that the disruption was staged.
Neither Gonzalez or Garcia negotiated the town hall’s terms with the campaigns and referred related questions to the event’s cosponsors 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 on the record about the event confirmed Garcia’s account of the incident.
The Hobbs campaign provided a pre-event email from the organizers that said “each candidate will have their own separate green room to prep and hold prior to going onto the main stage.”
The Lake campaign said it did not receive the email and that the language about the hold room read like an offered amenity, not a demand she remain sequestered.
The show got off to an awkward start when Krauze gave his introduction and welcomed Hobbs to the stage, the eyewitnesses told NBC News. But Hobbs didn’t come out. Instead, they said, Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Monica Villalobos came onstage to talk.
Krauze, after putting his finger to his ear piece that was connected by remote to the control room, then told Lake she was supposed to leave the room.
Lake initially refused and another staffer soon shot video of her that was provided to NBC News.
“I would love to be on the same stage actually. Is that possible?” Lake asked.
Krauze responded: “I know it would [be something you would want to do]. And I’m going to ask [Hobbs] about that. Trust me.”
Lake said she wanted “a real debate” and Krauze repeated that he would ask Hobbs about it.
“Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to share the stage with Miss Hobbs,” he said, reminding Lake that she would join him later onstage. “I cannot invite her to the stage if you are in the audience. This is not me. This is the … the campaign agreement.”
Lake then stood and partly faced the audience as a few people clapped, saying, “I’m happy to be here. I don’t think I should be trapped in my room. I’d love to be part of this. We should be talking about the issues that affect everyone … I want the people here to know I’m willing to sit on stage with Miss Hobbs and talk about the important issues.”
Rabago then walked on stage and asked Lake to “do us the honor to go to your designated area…This is a town hall. That was the agreement that we have. I really want to make sure that the audience … can hear you both. So if you don’t mind — continue with our agreement. I would really appreciate it so we can respect the time of everyone.”
More people applauded, and Lake said she was complying at that moment.
“You will have plenty of time, I promise,” Rabago said. “We designated the same amount of time for both of you guys. We’re going to have you onstage. This is the opportunity for you guys to share your platform, your ideals … your vision. But please respect that agreement that we have.”
Once she departed, the forum began.