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Carmona touts experience in retail politics debut

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Carmona touts experience in retail politics debut

  • Richard Carmona took questions from a roomful of Democratic activists Wednesday night.
    Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.comRichard Carmona took questions from a roomful of Democratic activists Wednesday night.
  • Will Seberger/

Richard Carmona shook hands and answered questions put by Democratic activists Wednesday night, as he made a low-key start to the sort of retail politics it'll take to win the party's nomination to run for the U.S. Senate.

Carmona spoke briefly before the District 28 Democratic Club at the party's midtown headquarters. About 50 Democratic volunteers and a smattering of local politicians alternately listened, questioned and offered advice to the former U.S. surgeon general.

Carmona touted his experience bridging partisan divides as the nation's chief medical officer, and said that although he has been a political independent, "the Democratic Party resonated most closely with me" as he weighed a run for Senate.

He listed immigration and abortion rights as issues where he's aligned with the Democrats.

"I never intended to pursue a political position," he said, saying that he "got a number of calls" from people urging him to run.

"There's been an absence of senatorial leadership south of our Mason-Dixon line," he said, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Maricopa County's lock on Arizona politics.

"I come from a very poor Hispanic family, I was homeless as a kid," he said. "The struggles of the regular person I understand first-hand."

"I consider myself a pretty moderate, fair, centrist person," he said. "I listen a lot, but I don't have any problem with making decisions once I've gotten all the facts."

Carmona's talk of bridging partisan gaps, and lengthy answers to questions about the Rosemont Mine, the DREAM Act, climate change and health care reform weren't exactly red meat to a den of party activists.

"Given Carmona’s background, I expected a bit more skepticism and tougher questions from the audience. I don’t know whether to chalk this up to pragmatism or deference to a hometown boy," said political blogger and Sentinel soccer reporter Ted Prezelski, who chaired the meeting wearing his other hat of Democratic insider.

Carmona, 61, will face Don Bivens, a former state party chair, in the race to see which Dem will seek the seat being vacated by the retiring Jon Kyl.

He declared his candidacy in November, but has been slow to hit the campaign trail. He has yet to hire a permanent campaign director, and his website is still bare-bones. He was a latecomer to a field that includes three other Democrats, a Green Party candidate and five Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, who has a substantial fundraising lead on the other candidates.

"I've never been a politician. I'm not a lawyer," he joked. "I recognize a lot of faces (here); they know me because I've been here as a police officer, I've been here as a solider, I've been here as surgeon general, I'm a professor at the university, I've worked the border — I mean, these are not foreign issues to me."

"They've read the papers about it, they've got their briefings," he said of his political opponents. "They've got their soundbites. I live this, this is my life."

Carmona said he's ramping up his campaign, and will flesh out his website with position statements soon.

Rodd McLeod, who's run Gabrielle Giffords' congressional campaigns, has been working for Carmona in a temporary capacity, and the candidate just brought aboard Barry Dill, the political consultant who helped oversee Janet Napolitano's political rise. 

Carmona's been recruited by both Democrats and Republicans in the past, and has described himself as a fierce independent. In 2006, the GOP tried to recruit the well-known Latino to run for the CD 8 House seat, but he declined.

While U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been expected to mount a Senate campaign in 2012, those plans were interrupted by the January shooting that left her severely wounded. Uncertainty about the possibility of a Giffords run left many hesitant to jump in to the race.

No stranger to controversy, Carmona's been in the spotlight for decades.

In 1992, Carmona dangled at the end of a 75-foot rappelling rope, as deputies conducted a helicopter rescue of a survivor of a Medivac helicopter crash in the Pinaleño Mountains near Safford. Piloting the rescue chopper was Loren Leonberger, who died in a crash in January 2011.

As a Pima County deputy sheriff in 1999, Carmona shot and killed a mentally-ill man after the man fired a shot at him. The man, an ex-convict, was assaulting someone else, and had shot and killed his father earlier that day.

Carmona's tenure as surgeon general was marked by repeated conflicts with the Bush administration. After leaving office, he testified to Congress that he had been prevented from speaking out on global climate change, stem cell research, emergency contraception and abstinence-only sex education.

He also said the Bush administration tried to "water down" his report on second-hand smoke.

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