"A sign of a nation is its humanity."


Richard Carmona has earned a host of distinguished titles - combat veteran, doctor, deputy, life-saver, hospital director and U.S. surgeon general - but he's hoping to add one more on Nov. 6.

U.S. senator.

With a campaign built around a life story that seems fit for a Hollywood screenplay, Carmona, 62, is running as a Democrat, but promotes himself as an independent-thinker with the unique skill-set needed to cut through the gridlock in Washington, D.C.

"My lifetime full of progressive experiences and education allows me to have a broad view of our state and the world and how all of these issues fit together," Carmona said.

After going unopposed in the Democratic primary, Carmona faces Republican Jeff Flake and Libertarian Marc Victor in the general election to replace Jon Kyl, the Senate's Republican whip who is retiring after 18 years in office.

Carmona is trying to become the first Democrat, and the first Tucsonan, to represent Arizona in the Senate since Dennis DeConcini retired in 1995. And like DeConcini, Carmona is trying to get there without first serving an "apprenticeship" in the U.S. House, as did current Senators Kyl and John McCain.

But the playing field is much different for Carmona in 2012 than it was for DeConcini when he first won in 1976.

Republicans today own a 6 percent advantage over Democrats among Arizona's 3.1 million registered voters. The GOP has won 16 of the last 20 state-wide elections in Arizona for president, U.S. Senate and governor.

Independent streak

Democrats are bullish about Carmona's chances because of his appeal with Hispanics and independent voters. Hispanics are considered the sleeping giant in Arizona politics and independents now account for 33 percent of the state's voters, which is more than Democrats and only three percent less than Republicans.

Carmona, a Hispanic of Puerto Rican descent, was an independent until November 2011 when he registered Democrat to run for Senate.

"Both parties have good ideas," Carmona said. "Democracy is predicated on compromise. The failure today is we have no compromise."

Flake and the Republicans aren't buying the independence claim, and have called Carmona a "rubber stamp" for President Obama, in a blitz of ads and social media announcements. They call him Obama's "hand-picked" candidate, citing the president's phone call urging Carmona to run.

Carmona scoffs at the label, saying there was no arm-twisting in his phone conversation with the president, who was just one of many who encouraged him to run.

He calls it disingenuous for Republicans to tear him down, considering GOP party leaders in Arizona recruited him while he was surgeon general to run for governor against Democrat Janet Napolitano and for Congress against Gabrielle Giffords.

Carmona is also happy to remind people that Sens. McCain and Kyl called him a "phenomenal man" and "exceptionally qualified" when Republican George W. Bush tabbed him as surgeon general in 2002.

"The very strengths that were touted by the Republican Party for me to run for office are now disregarded," Carmona said. "I'm a bad guy now that I'm on the 'D' side. I'm the exact same person."

Humble beginnings

Joining the U.S. Senate would add one more chapter to Carmona's well-documented life story that already features enough tales to fill a novel.

He grew up poor in New York to Puerto Rican parents who struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse. He dropped out of high school. He joined the U.S. Army and went to Vietnam, coming home a decorated combat veteran. He got into college through an open enrollment program and became a doctor thanks to the GI bill.

Those opportunities shaped his views of what a society should be.

"A sign of a nation is its humanity," said Carmona. "Government invested in me. I don't call it an entitlement, I earned it."

He came to Tucson in 1985 to direct Southern Arizona's first regional trauma care system, and subsequently ran the county hospital as well as serving 25 years with the Pima County Sheriff's Department as a detective, department surgeon and SWAT team leader.

In 1992, he rappelled from a helicopter to rescue a man stuck on a mountainside after a helicopter crashed in a snowstorm. In 1999, he shot and killed an armed man who had attacked a motorist after a collision at a busy Tucson intersection. The man had earlier stabbed his father to death.

In his four years as surgeon general, starting in 2002, he put the spotlight on the country's obesity epidemic and the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Currently, he is vice chairman of Canyon Ranch spa and resort in Tucson and CEO of Canyon Ranch Health.

Carmona has also had controversies along the way.

He was fired in 1993 after eight years as the Tucson Medical Center trauma care director, leading him to file a wrongful-discharge lawsuit in which he won a $3.9 million settlement.

In 1999, he resigned as chief executive of the county health system in advance of a Board of Supervisors vote to fire him over the continued growth of the deficit and other disputes at Kino Community Hospital.

In 2007, he testified before Congress that during his tenure as surgeon general he was forbidden to speak out on hot-button issues like stem-cell research, abstinence, sexual health, abortion and emergency contraception to conform with President Bush's political views.

"My job was to be the doctor of the people, not a doctor of a political party," Carmona said this week. "I stood up for what was right for the people every time. Unfortunately, when you are honest, it sometimes creates a headline or a controversy."

Dems the choice

Carmona considers himself a fiscal conservative but says his beliefs align more closely with the Democratic Party, especially on immigration and women's health.

He said both parties have got it wrong on health-care reform and that both parties have been spending too much for too long.

Flake criticizes Carmona for not taking stands on issues, but Carmona says he's a "thoughtful person" who wants to do his due diligence before making a decision.

Unlike Flake's anti-earmark crusade, Carmona says he'll be Arizona's chief advocate to bring resources back to the state to build up roads and infrastructure to attract more business.

His priorities are the debt crisis, jobs, the economy, health care and education, but Carmona said nothing will get done until there is a re-wiring of the Senate.

"If I can't get a bunch of senators to sit down and have a non-partisan conversation, it doesn't make a difference what is in my portfolio," Carmona said.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @BradyMcCombs.