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Carmona jumps into Senate race

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Carmona jumps into Senate race

Second Democrat enters crowded Senate race to succeed Kyl

  • Richard Carmona is shown here as surgeon general, a post he held under Republican President George W. Bush, but he will be running for Senate as a Democrat.
    President’s Council on Physical Fitness and SportsRichard Carmona is shown here as surgeon general, a post he held under Republican President George W. Bush, but he will be running for Senate as a Democrat.
  • Carmona

Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona declared his candidacy for the Senate on Thursday. Carmona, who moved back to Tucson after serving in George W. Bush's administration, touted his experience as a Vietnam War medic, trauma surgeon and sheriff's deputy.

"Like most Arizonans, it's clear to me that Washington is broken, and it is time for honest people with real world experience to step forward to solve the problems we are facing and get our economy going again," he said in a press release.

Carmona, 61, will face former Arizona Democratic Party chairman Don Bivens in the Democratic primary race, as both men try to succeed the retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl.

Carmona, who has never held elected office, becomes at least the 10th candidate in a crowded field. He made his announcement Thursday in an emailed statement and could not be reached for further comment.

He is 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.

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.

But U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva said Thursday that Carmona would not have jumped in to the race if the doctor knew that his "friend" Giffords would be making a bid for Senate.

Carmona knows Giffords from his time as a medical professor at the University of Arizona, as a Pima County health official and as a deputy sheriff.

"He's going to win the primary," said Grijalva. "And in the general election (Carmona) is going to be a formidable opponent for Flake."

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.

Bivens said he welcomed "a vigorous debate" with Carmona, while remarking on the pressure Carmona received to run.

"While some in DC have selected their candidate for Arizona, I am proud to have the support of hundreds of Arizonans and prominent Arizona leaders like former Congressman Harry Mitchell, former US Senate nominee Jim Pederson and former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick," he said in a press release.

Bivens was picked as the Democrats' state party chair in 2007, and held that office for four years - except a short period when Tucsonan Paul Eckerstrom held the office. Bivens has served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona.

Bivens has a bit of a fundraising headstart; he reported $284,000 in campaign funds available in October.

The leading Republican in the race is U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, who is backed by Club for Growth and other conservative groups. Flake has banked $2.3 million for the race, while GOP hopeful Wil Cardon has raised $1.1 million.

Political analysts said that with none of the state's Democratic House members willing to risk their seats to challenge Flake, national Democrats are turning to other options.

"Democrats right now are looking for anybody with some name recognition," said Roldolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University.

National Republicans are calling Carmona the candidate for the "Washington Democrat establishment," referring to the reports that White House officials had urged him to run.

"Whichever candidate emerges from this contentious Democrat primary, he'll have a difficult time," said Brian Walsh, director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a statement. The Washington is group dedicated to helping elect Republicans to the Senate.

Griljalva said that even though Carmona served under a Republican administration and is now running as a Democrat, his campaign would bring a moderate voice to a Republican-controlled state.

"Compared to the extremists on the right, I rather have him there," Grijalva said.

Rodd McLeod, political consultant and a former Giffords' campaign manager, said he would be helping Carmona set up his team and that a more "formal" announcement for his candidacy will be made in the coming weeks.

Carmona's announcement

Richard Carmona, a combat-decorated Army veteran, a surgeon, and the former Surgeon General of the United States, issued the following statement announcing that he will run for the U.S. Senate in Arizona:

"Like most Arizonans, it's clear to me that Washington is broken, and it is time for honest people with real world experience to step forward to solve the problems we are facing and get our economy going again.

"As a Special Forces medic in Vietnam, a trauma surgeon, and deputy sheriff in Arizona – we never had time for petty squabbles or gamesmanship – we had to work together to get results, because lives were on the line. As Surgeon General my job was to be the doctor to every American – not to one political party. After returning to Arizona and joining the business community, I have seen firsthand what it takes to get our economy moving. I have devoted my life to serving my country and my community.

"After talking with my family, my friends, and fellow Arizonans, I have decided to run for the United States Senate. I will make a more formal announcement in the coming weeks."


Richard Carmona was born and raised in Harlem. His parents, both immigrants, struggled with poverty and substance abuse, while Richard and his family at times endured hunger and a bout of homelessness. Like many of his friends, Carmona dropped out of high school.


In 1967, with little education and no job, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. While enlisted, he earned his Army General Equivalency Diploma and joined the Army's Special Forces. A combat-decorated veteran, Richard was awarded two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, a combat medical badge and several other awards and decorations.

After leaving the Army, Carmona became the first in his family to go to college and then earned his medical degree from the University of California. He also married his childhood sweetheart, Diana Sanchez.


Carmona was trained as a trauma surgeon and was recruited to establish the first trauma care system in Southern Arizona. He went on to become Chairman of the State of Arizona Southern Regional Emergency Medical System, a professor at the University of Arizona, head of the county hospital and health care system and a deputy sheriff and surgeon with the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

Carmona has served over 25 years with the Pima County Sheriff's Department, including as a deputy sheriff, detective and SWAT team leader. During his law enforcement career, Carmona has received numerous awards, decorations and commendations to include, the National Top Cop Award and the National SWAT Officer of the Year, and even inspired the planning of a made-for-TV movie after rappelling from a helicopter to rescue a paramedic stranded on a mountainside when their medevac helicopter crashed in a snow storm.
In 2002, Carmona was nominated by the president and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, achieving the rank of Vice Admiral.

As Surgeon General, Carmona focused on prevention, health disparities and emergency preparedness to protect the nation against epidemics and bio-terrorism. He issued a groundbreaking report on the dangers of second-hand smoke among many other Surgeon General communications. 

While very successful as Surgeon General, unfortunately, he also soon experienced many of the problems that plague Washington today, where scoring political points has become more important than solving problems and helping people.


In 2007, Carmona courageously testified before Congress that political appointees had put partisan politics ahead of science, especially when it came to the public's health.

Carmona took the administration to task for muzzling him on critical issues like stem cells, emergency contraception, mental health, correctional health and climate change, as well as trying to water down a landmark report on the dangers of second-hand smoke. He testified, "The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party."


After leaving public service, Carmona returned to Arizona to join the business community and is currently the Vice Chairman of Canyon Ranch, CEO of the Canyon Ranch Health Division and President of the non-profit Canyon Ranch Institute. Still dedicated to public health and education, he also serves as Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the University of Arizona and as a Professor of Surgery. He also serves on several public and private corporate boards where he is actively engaged in business development, scientific innovation and entrepreneurial endeavors.

Richard and Diana live in Tucson and have four children.

Cronkite News Service’s Uriel J. Garcia contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.

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