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Tim Steller's opinion: Carmona must use stature to speak hard truths to Ducey
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Tim Steller's opinion: Carmona must use stature to speak hard truths to Ducey

Dr. Richard Carmona has agreed to do a job he doesn’t have to do.

Whether that makes him an example of selfless service or a man who sidles up to power for money — that remains to be seen.

Carmona, a Tucson celebrity and former U.S. surgeon general, led the University of Arizona’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a new job established by the UA president, as “incident commander.” He largely received good reviews from public-health officials for the job he did at the UA.

That’s what made it puzzling to some that he agreed in August to join Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration as “senior advisor on public health emergency preparedness.”

This is the same governor, after all, who responded to an effort by Arizona State University to strong-arm students into getting vaccinated by writing an executive order banning any vaccine or mask mandates by public entities.

That’s right: Ducey used his pandemic emergency powers to stop universities, school districts, cities and counties from mandating public-health measures.

But Carmona, a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has signaled his approval of Ducey, a Republican, before.

In May he published an op-ed in The Arizona Republic praising the governor’s performance during the pandemic. And on Wednesday the Arizona Department of Health Services put out a blog post by Carmona that included similar praise.

“Over the past year and a half, the governor has consistently shown that he is looking for the right answers to the complex problems created by this powerful enemy. My assignment is to help him and Arizona find them,” he wrote.

What Ducey gets out of hiring Carmona is clear: A high-profile former surgeon general as a health adviser, who also gives him political cover for his pandemic response.

But what does Carmona get, or want, out of the appointment?

He told me Wednesday it’s all about achieving results.

“The governor and I had a conversation, and I said, ‘Look, governor, I don’t want to talk about mandates. I don’t want to talk about it because that is not fruitful as far as addressing the needs of our patients.

“’What I would ask you to do if you want me to work with you is we stand together. You will help me to inspire, to ask, to cajole, to do anything that’s necessary to get more people vaccinated and to ensure that all people practice the appropriate public health mitigation strategies for COVID.’

“And he agreed. That’s why I decided to take the job.”

Of course, there’s more to it than just the policy objectives. Carmona will make $400 per hour for the work he does as the governor’s adviser, though it is expected to be a part-time job.

That’s on top of the money he has been making as incident commander in the University of Arizona’s pandemic response and as an adviser to UA President Robert Robbins. Between May 5, 2020, and June 30, 2021, Carmona made $231,791 in the incident commander role, UA records show.

In his current half-year role as special adviser to the president, which began July 1 and goes to Dec. 31, Carmona is scheduled to make $89,100. He also makes about $15,000 per year in a limited role as UA professor of public health, and is “chief of health innovation” at Canyon Ranch.

When I asked Carmona about his pay in working for the governor, he told me that he asked what they would normally pay outside consultants of his stature, then settled on a number between the high and low points of the pay range, settling at $400 and hour.

“I want to be compensated fairly based on what what I contribute. But on the other hand, it wasn’t about me making more money because, quite frankly, I’m well off, OK? And I get a salary from the university as well,” he said.

“This was about the privilege and opportunity to serve.”

Carmona views his role as rising above politics to convince everyone to get vaccinated and take other pandemic health measures.

“I understand the complexity of working in a political environment. And one of the things that I noticed was that we are spending an inordinate amount of time fighting about mandates, fighting about political things, when really our job should be how do we get vaccines into arms and how do we get people to accept public health mitigation strategies.”

He and the Arizona Department of Health Services are working on campaigns to convince vaccine-hesitant people to get the shot.

But what if mandates are actually the best way to get that done? Tucson Mayor Regina Romero reported that about 740 city workers got vaccinated after the city adopted a coercive policy intended to force employees to get vaccinated — an approximately 20 percentage point increase.

“I’m not going to get involved in mandates, good or bad,” Carmona said. “If we continue to just fight over a political issue, people get sick and die.”

Of course, you can’t say Carmona has been apolitical.

In that May 27 op-ed, he borrowed the same phrases used by Ducey’s team to describe the political debate over pandemic response: “These days if the Lockdown Left is unhappy, and COVID-Denying Conservatives are unhappy, then you’re probably in the right spot, and he (Ducey) is.”

I found that sentence disheartening not just because it caricatured the perspectives on public-health measures, but because it smacked of relativism. If all you’re trying to do is tack between extremes, then you’ve given up on being correct in your response, whatever the politics.

And what I want from Carmona is that he be right — that he convince Ducey of hard truths as necessary.

Carmona has said that’s just what he’s planning to do.

“I will always be honest with my public health advice, and I’m confident Governor Ducey will use his experience and judgment to make the best decisions he can,” Carmona wrote in the blog post. “I didn’t pull my punches or sugarcoat my advice as Surgeon General, and I have no intention of doing so now.”

He will have chances to speak truth to power. If he doesn’t, we can conclude he is simply part of the power structure, trading on his stature.

If he does, and he helps us avoid another virus wave in Arizona, it will tie a bow around an illustrious career.

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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