Arizona U.S. Senate Candidate

More from this show

Hear a conversation with former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who is running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seeking to replace Senator Jon Kyl, who is not seeking re-election. Carmona is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who served as Surgeon General in the George W. Bush administration.

José Cárdenas: Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona is running for the U.S. senate in Arizona. He's looking to fill the seat left open by retiring Republican senator Jon Kyl. His primary opponent, Don Bivens, dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination last month. This would have most likely meant Carmona would run unopposed in the Democratic primary. Here now to talk about his bid for the U.S. senate is Dr. Richard Carmona. Welcome to "Horizonte." I guess I should say welcome back. We actually the last time we talked to you you were the Surgeon General, and I want to talk to you about those experiences. But before that, just a quick thumbnail sketch of your background.

Dr. Richard Carmona: It's nice to be back with you. I was born in New York City, and my parents had immigrated from Puerto Rico. And I grew up in Washington Heights, Harlem, poor family, homeless for a while as a child. Parents were wonderful people, but they had problems with substance abuse, and struggled throughout life. And I didn't do well in school, ran the streets, became a truant, and had menial jobs and eventually dropped out of high school and went in the army, enlisted at 17 years old.

José Cárdenas: And you ended up in some kind of special forces unit?

>> Yes. I was first in infantry and airborne, I had to get my GED because I -- they wouldn't take me in special forces without a high school diploma. So I got my army GED and completed special force training and became a medic and weapons specialist, went to Vietnam and other places around the world and was just a really emancipating event. Learned about duty and honor, country, how to focus on a mission, changed my life.

José Cárdenas: And medical school.

Dr. Richard Carmona: Actually college. I couldn't get into college because I had been a high school dropout and had a GED. But no transcripts. So I had been rejected. But an open enrollment program at the Bronx Community College in New York afforded me the opportunity. I took remedial courses for almost a year and some regular course and eventually did very well, became an A student and the past was behind me and I was able to go on. And college, medical school, more training after that.

José Cárdenas: Your specialty is emergency room --

Dr. Richard Carmona: My specialty was general vascular surgery and I subspecialized in trauma burns and critical care. I was the top graduate in my class at the University of California, and was recruited to Arizona 27 years ago to start the trauma system in southern Arizona.

José Cárdenas: And you have worked in Arizona not simply as -- a doctor, but also a member of a SWAT team in Pima County.

Dr. Richard Carmona: Yes. I've been a deputy sheriff for over 26 years. And worked for my opinion the best sheriff in the country, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik and I've been on the team as a medic, and I also was a team leader for many years and did a lot of the training of the new officers, worked in homicide as a detective, and was a detective at large for a little while. So I had two careers going on. Really enjoyed it. To this day, some of my best friends are in law enforcement, EMS, paramedics I worked with, because I was a medic as well. It's been a rich and rewarding journey.

José Cárdenas: Until recently your party affiliation was Independent.

Dr. Richard Carmona: Yes, sir. Correct.

José Cárdenas: How did an Independent end up becoming Surgeon General of the United States in the Bush administration?

Dr. Richard Carmona: I get that question asked a lot. Many people have advised me when I as on the trail to be Surgeon General, how are you going to do this? I really went through the process thinking that I probably wouldn't make the cut because of the politics. But after all the interviews I was the last man standing, was nominated by the president and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. senate. I told the truth as I always do, where my issues were, and for whatever reason I think Congress, the President and others believed I was the best person for the job.

José Cárdenas: That approach telling the truth, speaking your mind, led to some conflicts while you were Surgeon General.

Dr. Richard Carmona: I think it did. I still have the job as my predecessors D I was the 17th Surgeon General. You recognize I respective of the party that nominates you or Congress that finally confirms you, your job is bigger than being the doctor of a Republican or Democratic party. Your job is to be the doctor of the nation and always speak the truth about science, and guide people in making their decisions. Surgeon general's job is to protect, promote, and advance the health and security of the nation. Much like Attorney General Carlton who was just here, who sought law that way. It's above politics. Do you what's right for the people.

José Cárdenas: You're referring to his own sacking by the Bush Administration because he apparently refused to go along with something he thought was inappropriate.

Dr. Richard Carmona: Well, he is a man of great integrity and one who stood up for protecting the dignity and integrity of the office that he had the privilege to serve. And I felt the same way as a public servant.

José Cárdenas: Give us an example of one the issues where you clashed with the administration.

Dr. Richard Carmona: There were a number of issues like abstinence only, cells, abortion, plan B, some of the emergency preparedness issues that at times were politicized. And both parties do this. But Surgeon General's job to stay focused on what the best science is to solve a problem, not to buy into any political discourse, because I'm really the final arbiter of science and health that benefits the nation. And I always took my job very seriously. And I always searched diligently for the right answers and I didn't always have them. But one of the great things about being Surgeon General, you have access to the best minds in the world to answer complex questions about science. And that's what I did. And I always presented the best information for the benefit of the people.

José Cárdenas: What have you been took, we'll get to the campaign, what have you been doing since you ceased being Surgeon General.

Dr. Richard Carmona: After I came home, after four years I was happy to come back to Tucson. Resume my life, I have a professorship at the University of Arizona, I have professorships in surgery and in public health and pharmacology. I teach a lot of policy and management, I mentor graduate students, I sit on a number of corporate boards, publicly traded boards. I work in the space of technology where I look to assist venture capital and private equity firms in moving technology to the marketplace to create jobs, businesses, to turn the next new idea. And I'm the vice chairman of Canyon Ranch, which is a 30-year-old company who is the number one brand in health and wellness in the country. And so all of those things are very rich and fulfilling, and I'm enjoying them immensely and still work with the sheriff's department as well.

José Cárdenas: Why do you want to run for Senate?

Dr. Richard Carmona: I wanted to run for Senate after lots of due diligence and I was one of those people on the sideline complaining about the gridlock, complaining about the craziness of the legislation that was coming forth. When the nation is struggling, when we have high foreclosure rates, joblessness, immigration issues, and we have a legislature that wants to debate contraception. I thought this is crazy. It doesn't make any sense. So my colleagues at the cops, the firemen, the soldiers I work with, said Rich, you know about this. Why don't do you back? I thought about it, I asked questions, I spoke to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Washington and said what do you think? And I got a unanimous confirmation it's the right thing to do if your community feels they will support you, to go to this important position of a United States Senator, do it. Because the nation needs help. It's broken. It's gridlocked. It's partisan. And my job has always been as a problem solver, independent of politics.

José Cárdenas: Word has it President Obama himself recruited you.

Dr. Richard Carmona: I don't think that's true. I think that I had a conversation with the president, I had pretty much already made up my mind. The president did call and encourage me to consider it strongly. But I'll point out to you I spoke with other presidents, past, I spoke to majority leaders on both sides of the aisle, I spoke to former Republican leadership and asked the same questions. My due diligence was not to a political lens. It was through a lens of informed information, was this the right decision for me, and for the nation. And I unanimously got an opinion from both sides of the aisle, you should do this if your community, if your state wants to support you and you feels you're the right person for the job. You should do it. Because first of all, how many times do people get approached to be considered for U.S. Senate? I thought, OK, I'll put my life on pause, and I look at it as going back into active duty again. Service to your country.

José Cárdenas: Speaking of the other side of that aisle, the Republican side, there have been reports Republicans had tried to recruit you to run for office as a Republican.

Dr. Richard Carmona: Yes. When I was Surgeon General, I was asked on a number of occasions to step down not because I wasn't doing a good job, but political leadership had said, we'd like to you consider running for Congress in a Senate seat that ultimately Gabby Giffords took in Arizona. We've done the numbers, you're popular, people know you. You would be a good leader. I wasn't interested. I was interested in doing the job of the doctor of the nation, not of being a congressman. I was asked to run for governor and to go against Janet Napolitano. Janet who I know and I thought was doing a good job. But I really wasn't interested in being a politician. I was content, I was privileged to serve as Surgeon General and I declined the offer.

José Cárdenas: Any concern as to how rank and file Democrats might feel about your entry into the race given until recently you were an Independent, you've served in Republican administration, you've been recruited by Republicans to run as a Republican?

Dr. Richard Carmona: I think that the question has come up a couple times. In fact, the majority of the Democrats that know me from my days as Surgeon General, some of my friends, Teddy Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, people on the Republican side after they got to know me they saw I was a nonpartisan player. I was the doctor of the nation. Either side could come to me and ask me about the best science how we could solve problems and I always did. I treated each side of the aisle with dignity and respect that they deserved, and became their doctor on both sides. So most of the people who knew me knew that I was not a partisan person. And so when I threw my hat in the ring as Surgeon General, most of what I heard was, gosh, this is a good candidate. He's worked both sides of the aisle. He solves problems. He has a track record of doing this in Washington. So I was encouraged by the bipartisan support that I received.

José Cárdenas: Bipartisanship seems to be scarce these days. Do you really think you have an impact in the senate?

Dr. Richard Carmona: I'm certainly going to try. I'm doing to do the same thing I did as Surgeon General. To move health policy, to move issues of health safety and security, hi to both work -- I had to work both sides of the aisle. I always look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, recognizing that democracy is predicated on compromise. And today compromise is a four-letter word. Today compromise is seen as weakness. Yet it is the very substance of our democracy. And it's essential for us to get back to that center where we can disagree on issues but not be disagreeable. Where with you can come together and always understand the value proposition, is about bringing added value to the citizens in everything we do, and we have to compromise to do that.

José Cárdenas: With Don Bivens withdrawing, presumably you will be the only Democratic nominee, and presumably, Jeff Flake, while he's facing challenge, will be the Republican, he's got a big head start in terms of his launching his campaign money. How do you handicap your chances?

Dr. Richard Carmona: I think my chances are excellent. I mean, the difference between Jeff Flake and I is a wide chasm. We seat world very differently. The public will have a clear choice as to what type of leader they want to put into position for the next United States Senator. Whether the issues are women's health, whether it's immigration, whether it's any of the complex science issues, affordable, price and protection care act, foreign policy, our disabled veterans. I am a disabled veteran. When you look at all of the issues --

José Cárdenas: There's a difference.

Dr. Richard Carmona: Clear difference.

José Cárdenas: On that note, I apologize, we're out of time. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Richard Carmona: You're welcome.

Richard Carmona:Former U.S. Surgeon General;

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

Celebrate Juneteenth with Arizona PBS

Super Why characters

Join a Super Why Reading Camp to play, learn and grow

Koryn Woodward Wasson, artist
aired June 6

‘Flirting with the Desert’ art exhibit opens at Scottsdale Public Art

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: