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Arizona governor hopefuls meet in Flagstaff forum

Cline Library at Northern Arizona University (Facebook Photo)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Seven candidates for Arizona governor faced wide-ranging questions Monday during a forum in Flagstaff that gave them a chance to expand on their backgrounds to try and draw votes.

The questions posed to the candidates during 15-minute interviews touched on education, the economy, health care, public lands, taxation, natural resources and the role of the federal government. Most agreed that the state's tax system needs reform, that public education is underfunded and that the way to fix it is to stop partisan bickering. They also said the federal government needs to let Arizona control more of the land within the state's borders.

The forum came a week before the Aug. 26 primary election in which six candidates are seeking the Republican nomination. The winner will face Democrat Fred DuVal in the November general election.

Without a chance to debate each other directly, Republicans Christine Jones, Frank Riggs, Ken Bennett and Scott Smith sought to differentiate themselves based on political experience or a lack thereof. Doug Ducey and Andrew Thomas didn't attend the forum, saying they had prior commitments.

Bennett, the current secretary of state, touted his experience as a state legislator and a businessman in saying he knows how to bridge gaps between elected officials to move the state forward. He said he would push for Arizona to reduce its reliance on federal funding for health care by growing the state's economy and providing a way for employers to hire more people with health care benefits. He said he also would try to make spending on political campaigns more transparent. Bennett's campaign is publicly financed.

Smith, too, said this election is about leadership. He said developing industries and drawing tourists to Arizona means each region of the state must figure out its assets and capitalize on them. As the former mayor of Mesa, he said the city was successful at working with health care companies, aerospace, educational institutions and tourism because those things are unique to Mesa. For northern Arizona, its strengths include the Grand Canyon and the ponderosa pine forest, he said.

The questions posed to Riggs didn't stray much from charter schools, a movement he helped propel forward. He said charter schools allow decisions to be placed squarely in the hands of parents. He didn't miss a chance to tell of his experience as a former U.S. representative to build consensus among elected officials, saying he's tried, tested and proven.

Jones tried to set herself apart as having no political experience. The former Internet executive said she would look at the education system from a business perspective, analyzing the state budget to determine how money is best spent. She said Arizona needs more teachers, lower student-to-teacher ratios, school supplies and a curriculum that isn't based solely on a common set of standards. During her closing remarks, she pointed to her challengers' experience in politics and asked why problems like border security and Arizona's spot near the bottom for education haven't been solved.

Jones, Smith and Ducey are widely viewed as the front-runners in the race, but Bennett also has a good shot. Thomas, the former Maricopa County attorney, and Riggs are seen as less likely to pull off a win.

DuVal, Libertarian Barry Hess and John Mealer from Americans Elect also spoke in front of hundreds at the forum. The event also was streamed online.

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