- Associated Press - Friday, October 14, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - A newly formed political group linked to hedge fund tycoon George Soros has started running TV ads opposing the top prosecutor in metro Phoenix, marking the second foray into an Arizona law enforcement race this year by the longtime bankroller of liberal causes.

The creation of the independent political committee Arizona Safety & Justice three weeks ago heats up what was once a sleepy race for Maricopa County attorney as Republican incumbent Bill Montgomery seeks another term.

Soros has been spending millions of dollars this year to support Democrats in prosecutor races around the country, and all but one of his favored candidates have won. He is also spending heavily to back the Democratic challenger who is taking on Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona.

The Soros involvement in the Phoenix prosecutor race provides a big boost to the little-known candidacy of Democrat Diego Rodriguez, a former prosecutor who has promoted himself as an advocate for stopping mass incarceration and questioned the integrity of Montgomery and Arpaio.

The creation of the group opposing Montgomery came as a surprise given the low-wattage quality of the race. The latest campaign finance reports show Rodriguez has raised $13,000 over the course of the campaign, compared to $300,000 brought in by Montgomery.

“I am a political junkie, and I was unaware of any significant opposition to Montgomery,” pollster Mike O’Neil said after being told about the creation of the group.

Over the past year, Soros has given at least $3.9 million to support Democratic candidates in district attorney races in Chicago, St. Louis, Orlando, Florida, Houston, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lowndes County in Mississippi and Caddo Parish in Louisiana, according to campaign finance records. The spending helped topple a well-known incumbent in Orlando and drove a Republican candidate from the race in Albuquerque.

Soros is widely known as a prolific donor to national Democratic candidates and causes. His super political action committee has given more than $14 million in 2015-16, including big sums to organizations working to elect Hillary Clinton.

Michael Vachon, a top adviser at Soros‘ hedge fund who serves as his personal spokesman, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Whitney Tymas, chairwoman of the groups opposing Montgomery and Arpaio, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the policies the billionaire is pursuing in the Maricopa County attorney’s race. Tymas serves as a leader for the Soros-funded Safety & Justice national political committee and groups with similar names in Illinois, Florida, Texas and New Mexico.

Montgomery took office six years ago, succeeding a prosecutor who teamed up with Arpaio to criminally investigate officials who were at odds with them in political and legal disputes. The discredited investigations later resulted in the disbarment of the prosecutor who led the investigations.

Montgomery is credited with moving beyond the divisive era but also has drawn criticism for carrying out prosecutions of Arpaio investigations of immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. He was a forceful advocate of a voter-approved law that required immigrants to be denied bail for certain offenses, before it was thrown out by the courts.

Montgomery’s office also handled the 2015 freeway shootings case that ended with the dismissal of charges against the only person arrested in the attacks.

Rodriguez said he hasn’t had any contact with Soros or Arizona Safety & Justice but has nonetheless seen an increase in contributions and support since the group started running its ad. “It’s a validation of what we are saying,” Rodriguez said.

Montgomery said he isn’t worried because voters will reject any attempt at trying to buy an election. “He is going to find this to be a money pit,” Montgomery said.

He believes Soros, who has contributed to marijuana legalizations efforts, might have gotten interested in the race due to Montgomery’s fierce opposition to a legalization proposal on Arizona’s Nov. 8 ballot.

“I am actually kind of angry that he thinks he can come into Maricopa County where he doesn’t live and try to influence public safety in the country’s fourth-largest county,” Montgomery said.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.

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