Az Senate Republicans won't endorse Pima health chief to lead Dept of Health Services
GOP cmte members cite Cullen's support of pandemic mitigation efforts as they review nomination by Gov. Hobbs
After a long and often contentious hearing, the Arizona Senate’s newly created Committee on Director Nominations gave a recommendation to one of Gov. Katie Hobbs’ appointees but rejected another over disagreements with public health policies.
Dr. Theresa Cullen, the former Pima County director of public health, was nominated by Hobbs to be the new director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. But her appointment appears derailed after Republicans on the panel voted not to confirm her because of actions she and the Pima County Board of Supervisors took during the pandemic to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The new panel, which exists solely to consider the people Hobbs appoints to lead dozens of state agencies, is led by Sen. Jake Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican who heads up the Arizona Freedom Caucus.
That group, which was formed last year, is modeled on the far-right U.S. House Freedom Caucus that aims to push ultra-conservative policies outside of the regular GOP policy agenda. Earlier this year, the Arizona Freedom caucus said it planned to sue Hobbs over her use of executive orders, although no lawsuit has materialized yet.
Hoffman pressed Cullen during the committee hearing, saying she was responsible for an increase in “depression” and “suicide” among children due to school closures that occurred early in the pandemic. Hoffman also alleged that “thousands” of jobs were lost due to a program in Pima County that sought for businesses to be compliant with COVID-19 regulations.
Studies on the impact of closing versus not closing schools have shown inconsistent results, and researchers are still debating what the future impact may or may not have been on children. Studies have shown that there is some learning loss for children in lower socioeconomic situations, but most students saw smaller setbacks that could likely be gained back.
“I don’t have a great response to you, I just know that there were many moving pieces and we were making decisions on what we believed what would be best to save lives,” Cullen said to Hoffman when asked about implementing school closures that Hoffman claimed “compounded” issues of depression and suicide.
Hoffman also took issue with the PimaReady.com website that he likened to a “Scarlet Letter” for businesses. It listed restaurants that were following COVID-19 guidance and did inspections on restaurants.
Cullen claimed that she was “directed” to allow the website to happen by then-Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry. But that didn’t satisfy Hoffman, who claimed she “didn’t have a voice” as the county Health Department’s top official.
“I did have a voice, my department had a voice. It was obviously ineffective in terms of bringing down the website,” Cullen said in response to Hoffman. Cullen said only one complaint led to a closure and 11 others were referred to the liquor board. The overwhelming majority of businesses who ran afoul of the regulations, 168 in total, responded to education, she said.
Cullen also faced criticism for curfews that were put in place in Pima County during the pandemic which were later ruled to violate state law. Hoffman and Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, both called Cullen “arrogant,” with Hoffman adding that he felt Cullen treated businesses like they were “beneath” her.
Both Hoffman and Shamp have been adamantly against COVID lockdowns, vaccines and other pandemic public health measures.
The committee and members of the public also spoke against Cullen on the issue of health equity, which some claimed was a nefarious or “racist” plan. Health equity is the practice of looking at health disparities in socioeconomic, race, disability or other factors to determine how those disparities can impact health outcomes.
Cullen gave an example to the committee of how she used health equity to determine that individuals over the age of 85 were more likely to die from COVID-19 in Pima County, so they targeted areas with aging populations with their mobile clinics.
“The only way you can improve health status overall is to identify what is contributing to unequal access or unequal care or unequal outcomes,” Cullen said.
One person who testified against Cullen called health equity a “stealth racial agenda” and compared it to “affirmative action.” Other speakers brought up conspiracy theories, such as comparing the pharmaceutical industry to a “worldwide cabal” and wondering if Cullen served a “global agenda,” seemingly referencing the antisemitic “globalist” conspiracy theory.
Cullen also had her defenders.
“She wants to do the right thing, she will put any amount of effort into it to do the right thing,” said Dr. Bob Englund, who went to medical school with Cullen and served as Pima County’s health director prior to Cullen.
He noted that Pima County is unique, as its public health department is the “the only place I know where the local health director is not the top” policy maker. Englund defended Cullen and that certain decisions, such as curfews and the PimaReady.com website, were not ones she would have had total control over making.
But it did not sway the committee.
“My greatest concern is decisions that were made at the County level will then be duplicated and expanded at the state level,” Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, said.
Democratic members of the committee applauded Cullen, a retired rear admiral for the U.S. Public Health Service, for her body of work and lamented not doing more during the committee.
“You’ve been very patient, very polite in a very difficult situation,” Sen. Eva Burch, D-Mesa, said. “I’m sorry that I didn’t speak up for you more in this committee.”
Burch added that she wanted a public health director like Cullen who is dedicated to the ideals of public health.
“I think fewer people died because of these measures,” Burch said, lamenting the line of questioning by her Republican colleagues. “You’re either team personal liberty or your team lockdown…nobody had it right during the pandemic.”
Republicans used the time to also attack Hobbs, claiming that they didn’t “prepare” Cullen for the committee and bring a good enough candidate for the position.
“I don’t think that this is any reflection on you and your career as a person,” Kerr said while voting no. “I truly believe that perhaps it was on the Governor and the staff that did not properly prepare you for this hearing.”
Hoffman called Cullen an “extreme candidate,” and Shamp said her nomination didn’t show “transformational leadership” on behalf of the Hobbs administration.
Hobbs took to Twitter to voice her displeasure in the committee’s decision calling it “partisan politics.”
“What we witnessed today was an exercise in political theater, and it is a shame that Arizonans have to suffer for it,” Hobbs’ statement said, adding that she stands by her nomination. “Her dedication and vision in making our state the healthiest it can be is exactly what Arizona needs right now.”
A spokesperson for Hobbs’ office said the governor has not yet decided how she will proceed.
The committee did recommend Angela Brooke Rodgers, who has already been working as the director of the Department of Economic Security for the past week, for her position. Rodgers is the former CEO of the Arizona Food Bank Association and also worked as a policy advisor under Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.