PHOENIX – Attorney General Mark Brnovich found himself defending the decisions he made to challenge various federal laws, challenges that his Democrat foe said Wednesday worked against the interests of average Arizonans.
During a televised debate on KAET-TV, January Contreras lashed out at Brnovich for working to overturn a decision by the Obama administration to put about a million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon off limits to mining. Federal appellate judges did not agree with him.
Brnovich has had no better luck in joining with other Republican attorneys general to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its mandate to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions.
And Brnovich also sided with Americans for Prosperity in challenging a California law that would require the organization, part of the Koch brothers network, to disclose its donors.
All that, Contreras charged, showed that Brnovich during his four years as attorney general was more interested in pursuing cases that helped special interests than those that helped average Arizonans.
Brnovich shot back that Contreras, a former assistant attorney general under Democrat Janet Napolitano, would follow her own political agenda if she was in charge of the office.
His prime example is the challenge his office filed against the Maricopa community colleges over the decision to charge resident tuition to "dreamers."
"I would not have litigated that case," Contreras conceded. She said that's because she believed that they were entitled to in-state tuition if they met other Arizona residency requirements.
Contreras pointed out that those accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were entitled by the federal government to not only remain but also to work.
But Brnovich said that ignores the role of the Attorney General's Office.
He pointed out that Arizonans voted by a 2-1 margin in 2006 to spell out that any person who is not a U.S. citizen or legal resident, or is "without lawful immigration status," is ineligible to be charged the same tuition as residents at state colleges and universities.
"Even if you don't like the policy, you have to defend it," Brnovich said.
"As prosecutors, we enforce the law," he said. "If you don't like the law, you run for governor, you run for the Legislature or you run for Congress."
Ultimately the Arizona Supreme Court sided with Brnovich and concluded that DACA recipients are not entitled to resident tuition.
As to the other cases Brnovich did pursue – and lose – the incumbent defended his decisions.
Take the mining case where he supported a challenge by the National Mining Association to the 2012 decision by the Obama administration to put a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims around the Grand Canyon. The Department of Interior said that would provide the time to study the effects of new mining on the environment, particularly water quality.
"As Arizona's attorney general, when the federal government and the Obama administration tried to unilaterally remove one million acres of land without any congressional veto, I thought it was important," Brnovich said. "We want to make sure we have a check on the federal government."
Contreras said she has no problem with an attorney general seeking to exercise a check on the power of the federal government. But she argued that Brnovich was choosing the wrong issues – and the wrong side.
"You look at the separation of kids and parents at the border," she said, noting that some attorneys general – but not Brnovich – went to federal court to protect the constitutional rights of those involved.
"What is alarming to me is how often, in the case of the cases I'm talking about, it's aligning with political donors," she said.
That question of money and politics spilled into the decision in August by Brnovich to alter the description of Proposition 127, a mandate that utilities use more renewable energy, which the Secretary of State's Office had crafted. He added language that some considered to be unfair and uneven.
Contreras charged that Brnovich was influenced by money that Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of Arizona Public Service, has given to the Republican Attorneys General Association; RAGA, in turn, helped Brnovich get elected in 2014 and is spending money on his reelection campaign.
Brnovich responded that California billionaire Tom Steyer, who is financing the Prop 127 campaign, is now funding a $3.6 million media campaign urging Arizonans to turn him out of office. He called such out-of-state influence to help Contreras win the race "improper."
"I think it's funny coming from you when you have Arizona in a California courtroom defending the secrecy of donors to the Koch brothers network," Contreras responded.
In that case, Americans for Prosperity sought to overturn a California law that requires certain nonprofit corporations to submit on a confidential basis a report of their large donors to that state's attorney general as part of enforcing its laws governing tax-exempt groups. While Arizona was not affected – and Arizona has no similar laws – Brnovich submitted an amicus brief urging the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule that California had no "legitimate governmental interest" in such a mandate.
The federal appellate court concluded otherwise.
After the debate, Brnovich defended his decision to intercede on behalf of Americans for Prosperity. He said forcing release of the names of donors amounts to "trying to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights."
Brnovich said even if he did take positions on these cases, it does not reflect the vast majority of how his office has operated.
"My opponent wants to point out one or two or three cases," he said.
"We have almost 500 lawyers in our office," Brnovich continued. "What we do touches people's lives every day."