Richard Carmona Promises AZ Dems a U.S. Senate Seat

The big-applause lines from former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona's address at Democrats' recent winter meeting in Tucson conveyed two important messages:

He can beat Republican Congressman Jeff Flake in a general election for exiting U.S. Senator Jon Kyl's seat and, with him in that race, Arizona could turn blue.

At the lectern in the auditorium of Desert View High School, which the Ds had occupied for the day, he talked about how, before he jumped into the fray, Arizona had been written off by the pundits as hopelessly red.

"Within days of declaring my candidacy for the United States Senate," Carmona, 62, told the Dems, "the polls changed, I was neck and neck with Flake, and the national media said, 'Arizona is now in play [and] President Obama has a chance to take Arizona, as well.'"

Assembled Ds hooted, hollered, and whistled. Then Carmona sealed the deal.

"If you back me, there's no question, we will win that U.S. Senate seat," he insisted. "No question."

That may sound like braggadocio, but it's not without substance.

A survey released by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling in late November showed the southern Arizonan within four percentage points, 40-36, of tying the Republican golden boy with the dayglow smile.

By contrast, ex-state Democratic Party chair Don Bivens trailed Flake by 10 points, 42-32.

Carmona's candidacy itself might suggest a willingness by national Dems to commit resources to flipping the state. None other than President Obama called Carmona to encourage him to run.

The reasons Obama wanted Carmona in the race become obvious when you look at the guy's life story.

Born in New York City and raised in humble environs by Puerto Rican parents, he served as a Green Beret in Vietnam, where he was awarded two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.

Upon returning, he sought an education, eventually graduating from the University of California Medical School with honors.

He also boasts an extensive law enforcement background as a deputy sheriff in Pima County, where he served as a SWAT team leader and as department surgeon.

In 2002, President George W. Bush nominated Carmona to be the 17th U.S. Surgeon General, a post he held 'til 2006. During that time, he butted heads with the Bush administration over issues such as the effects of secondhand smoke and stem-cell research.

A lifelong "radical centrist" who only recently turned donkey, Carmona told his audience how Bush White House political strategist Karl Rove tried to get him to run against Governor Janet Napolitano and, later, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

"I told them, 'No way,'" he said.

Where Bivens, who also addressed the Dems, could speak of being a "lifelong Democrat," Carmona cannot. But Carmona made a firm case for why the Democratic Party is his best fit.

He acknowledged that he was "new to the party" but that he was now a Democrat because "your values are my values." Then, he proceeded to push all the right buttons.

Carmona remembered that his parents could not speak a lick of English at one point in their lives, and he announced his support for both the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform.

Pro-healthcare reform and pro-choice, he also argued that he has "real credibility on military issues," having served in combat. You know, unlike Congressman Flake.

The true-blue Ds ate it up. Like a Hispanic version of Spencer Tracy's war vet in Bad Day at Black Rock, Carmona was stepping off the train, ready to kick some GOP backside.

Before Carmona spoke, Bivens did his best to morph into a populist, animatedly talking of how he once pumped gas as a youth.

Thing is, Bivens' dad was a doctor, so he hardly grew up in the 'hood.

Naturally, the Yale University grad said nary a word about his partnership at Snell & Wilmer, the high-powered law firm that's been defending Arizona's breathing-while-brown law, Senate Bill 1070, in federal court.

Bivens comes with major baggage. In 2009, Democrats, so ticked at the party's losses in the state Legislature as Obama swept to victory nationwide a year earlier, engineered a short-lived coup, removing Bivens as chair.

It didn't last. Bivens was the pick of the money men who kept the party afloat. He soon was reinstated and led Dems to another disastrous showing in 2010.

Bivens chose not to run for party chair in 2011, and many Ds were happy to see him vamoose. His declaration of his Senate bid in September was a groaner.

He worked the crowd before he and Carmona gave back-to-back speeches, but the excitement at the event was generated by his rival.

Outside the auditorium before the meeting, the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona announced their endorsement of Carmona.

Afterward, people lined up, eager to shake the Tucsonan's hand.

I cadged a few minutes with him and immediately asked whether he thought his role in the Bush administration would give him grief in the primary.

"I think it's a testament to my fairness, my impartiality, my ability to solve problems that I've had two presidents [Bush and Obama] that come from different parties, both wanting me to work for them," he replied.

"During the time I was surgeon general, I was asked to convert [from an Independent] to be a Republican. I said, 'No, I don't need to. I'm the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of the Republican Party.'"

Though a newbie D, he cops the party line on most major issues.

I asked him about his stance on SB 1070, an issue Dems have waffled on in the past. He said he was against it, but, wisely, from a law enforcement perspective.

"[SB] 1070 really created a burden for us," he said of himself and former colleagues in the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

"It put a barrier between us and our communities who trusted us, and now they saw us as immigration officers. So it didn't add value to policing. In fact, it created problems for community policing."

Good answer, and coming from an ex-deputy sheriff, it carries more weight than from someone without a law enforcement background.

On healthcare, he can speak with authority on ensuring that "every American citizen has access to a basic set of healthcare benefits."

And on the war in Afghanistan, as a decorated Vietnam Vet, he can state that he's not for "a presence in perpetuity," while emphasizing that the United States must withdraw "in a reasonable manner that does not destabilize" the region.

Lefties who desire us out of Afghanistan immediately may not like this answer. But if they want a pugilist who can ruin Flake's toothy grin, they may decide to lump it.

Next to Carmona, as he prepared to speak, sat former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, a Carmona sticker on his lapel.

The symbolism was hard to miss. DeConcini was what's referred to as a "pinto Democrat," the Arizona version of a "blue dog."

Though pintos are reviled in some progressive circles, they tend to be the kind of Democrats who can win here.

DeConcini spoke to the crowd early on, urging his party to find a U.S. Senate candidate who can reach beyond party lines.

Later, I caught up with DeConcini, and he made the case for Carmona over Bivens. He praised Bivens as a man and a lawyer, but he argued that being a former chair of a state party is "not the stepping stone" to becoming a U.S. senator.

He contended that Carmona's law enforcement background makes him a better sell to voters.

"That appeals certainly to Republicans and especially to Independents, and that's what he's got," DeConcini argued.

Plus the fact Carmona's a Hispanic, who could pull more Latinos to the polls? Well, that doesn't hurt either, not even in Arizona.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons