Former Surgeon General And War Hero Launches Long-Shot Bid For U.S. Senate

Richard Carmona hopes bitter Republican primary will give him an opening with voters in the general election

Richard Carmona

Richard Carmona

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Like a race horse hugging the rail and hanging back, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona hopes to win Arizona’s U.S. Senate seat in spite of the long odds.

Arizonans have not elected a Democratic U.S. Senator since Sen. Dennis DeConcini retired in 1995. However, Carmona’s resume and the disarray in the Republican ranks have given the Independent turned Democrat a rare opening.

Carmona has one of those resumes political consultants drool over, including his service as the nation’s chief public health officer under President George Bush. As surgeon general, he clashed repeatedly with the Bush Administration – usually when disagreeing with directives to water down science-based policies that came with political complications.

The race will likely attract a rush of outside money between now and the general election, since the Republican’s odds of winning control of the U.S. Senate will take a body blow if Carmona can capitalize on Republican Senator Jon Kyl’s retirement and swing the seat to the Democrats.

Carmona has played a careful hand through the primaries, often criticizing both parties and following the old political adage to stay out of the way when your opponents are destroying one another.

For instance, Flake and Cardon have insisted they will make the repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act a top priority and sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the key elements of the plan to fine people who don’t get health insurance after providing premium subsidies expected to extend coverage to 34 million Americans. By contrast, Carmona cautiously supported the ruling – while pointing out that the Democratic-backed package of health care reforms won’t address the most important problem with the U.S. medical system – its spiraling cost.

Likewise, Flake and Cardon have supported SB 1070 and called for ever-more stringent controls on the boarder and immigration, including opposition to any hint of “amnesty” to legalize the status of people already in the country. Flake has abandoned his support for a comprehensive set of reforms and Cardon has hammered him for flip-flopping.

Carmona, on the other hand, has warmly supported reforms like the Obama administration’s decision this week to offer work permits and a path to citizenship for youngsters brought to the country without papers that have served in the military or received an education. However, Carmona has also insisted that securing the border to crack down on drug and human smuggling and penalizing companies that knowingly hire illegals remains a top priority. In essence, he has taken over the position that Flake started with four years ago, but abandoned under pressure from his party’s right wing.

Carmona has quietly raised money and drawn a bead on targets of opportunity as the leading Republican contenders – Rep. Jeff Flake and investor Wil Cardon – have bloodied one another.

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Richard Carmona

Carmona has so far raised about $2.5 million and spent about $1 million, according to a compilation of federal campaign spending reports posted on the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics. About 11 percent of his money has come in small donations and 12 percent from Political Action Committees.

Early polls showed Flake with a huge lead in the Republican primary and a substantial lead over Carmona in a general-election matchup. But the Republican race has tightened considerably, although Flake remains the clear front-runner. However, recent polls show him only about 5 percent ahead of Carmona in a general-election matchup.

He has steered to the middle on most issues, as the Republican primary has driven his likely opponents further to the right.

Carmona hopes that his glittering resumé that includes his stint as U.S. Surgeon General, two Bronze Stars as a combat medic in Vietnam, two Purple Hearts, his decorated service as a Pima County SWAT member and his launch of the trauma care system in Tucson will propel him to victory over Flake, a six-term congressman who formerly headed the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix.

Born in New York of Puerto Rican descent and raised in Harlem, Carmona ranks as one of the leading Hispanic candidates in the country – in a state with a rapidly growing Hispanic population driven increasingly into the Democratic camp by harsh rhetoric and policies embraced by Arizona Republicans, especially SB 1070 which alarmed many Hispanic residents with the specter of finding themselves repeatedly stopped, frisked and retained by local police officers enforcing federal immigration laws.

Hispanics comprise 30 percent of the state’s population but only 18 percent of the registered voters. Four years ago, Barack Obama won 56 percent of the Latino vote in Arizona compared to 41 percent for home-state rival Sen. John McCain.

Carmona dropped out of high school at 16 and enlisted in the United States Army Special Forces. He finished high school in the Army and became a combat medic, winning several decorations in combat in Vietnam.

After leaving the service, he obtained a nursing degree from Bronx Community College then a medical degree from the University of California at San Francisco, where he was the top graduate. He later also earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Arizona.

Carmona worked for a time with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, where he served as a deputy sheriff and on the SWAT team. In 1999, he interrupted an assault involving a mentally ill man who had earlier that day killed his father. The man shot at Carmona and wounded him, but Carmona returned fire and killed the suspect.

He also later worked as a paramedic, registered nurse and doctor before completing a surgical residency in trauma, burns and critical care. As chief executive officer of the Pima County health care system, he helped establish a trauma system, however, when the county medical system racked up millions in losses, he was forced to resign. He then became a professor of medicine at the University of Arizona.

In 2002, President George Bush nominated him to serve as U.S. Surgeon General and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on a 98-0 vote.

However, as surgeon general he soon came into conflict with the Bush administration, mostly as a result of his refusal to withhold or edit scientific reports. In 2006, he issued a landmark report on the deadly effects of second-hand smoke, which he later testified administration officials repeatedly tried to get him to “water down.”

He also later testified before Congress that Bush administration officials also tried to prevent him from speaking about scientific evidence bearing on health issues that included embryonic stem cell research, global climate change, emergency contraception and abstinence-only sex education. Carmona also testified that he was ordered not to attend the Special Olympics because of its sponsorship by the Kennedy family and directed to mention President Bush at least three times on every page of any speech.

He returned to Tucson and the University of Arizona medical school faculty and rejected an effort by Republicans to recruit him to run for Congress, before changing his party registration and making his long-shot run for the U.S. Senate.

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