Dr. Richard Carmona Faces a Tough Race as the Democratic Candidate for Senate in Arizona

Dr. Richard Carmona, an Arizona Democrat and rising political star, faces a tough fight, Terry Greene Sterling writes.

Will Seberger / Zuma Press

One fall day in 1999, on a busy street in Tucson, Arizona, Dr. Richard Carmona shot and mortally wounded Jean Lafitte, a mentally disturbed man who had just stabbed his own father to death.

Carmona, a Tucson trauma M.D., had been on his way to a football game when he stopped to deliver first aid at what appeared to be a traffic accident. When he got closer to the scene, bystanders told him Lafitte was armed. Carmona returned to his car, retrieved his Pima County Sheriff Deputy badge and gun, identified himself repeatedly and warned Lafitte to drop his weapon, news accounts say. Instead, the gunman blasted away at Carmona—one bullet grazed Carmona’s head. Carmona returned fire, mortally wounding Lafitte. Next, he triaged the wounded man. And later, he was credited with saving the lives of bystanders and Lafitte’s girlfriend, whom Lafitte was going to kill next.

The former U.S. surgeon general, who was asked to run as Arizona’s Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate candidate by President Barack Obama, downplays the head wound, right along with the wounds he sustained as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam. (He still wears his medic medal; it dangles from a gold neck chain.) “I am classified as a disabled veteran,” he told The Daily Beast recently, as he munched a turkey burger and fruit salad in a Scottsdale restaurant.

“The reason I’m disabled is because I have wounds and injuries that I got while on active duty … from parachute jumping to combat to gunshot wounds, all that stuff,” he said. “I’ve gotten shot in the head, OK, right here … These injuries are almost all impact and trauma, blast injuries … when you put your body through all of this stuff over 35 or 40 years in the military or police you pay the price, that’s all.”

In 1992, he rappeled from a helicopter to deliver medical help to victims of a helicopter crash in the snowy Arizona mountains.

Carting an injured person, he was hauled up to the hovering helicopter. His life seems adrenaline-charged, and he self-identifies both as a law-enforcement officer and a doctor.

A Latino of Puerto Rican descent, he grew up poor in Harlem, dropped out of school, joined the Army, got his GED, became a Special Forces medic in Vietnam, then attended medical school in California. After a stint at the National Institutes of Health, he was recruited to open a trauma center in Arizona, and moved to Tucson with his wife and four kids. He’s been a Pima County deputy for years, working part time, of course, and is a trauma physician who teaches at the University of Arizona medical school. He works for a high-end destination spa company that has a foundation that delivers health help to underserved communities. His narrative draws veterans, women, Latinos, and, Democrats hope, moderates in sufficient numbers to turn Arizona blue.

What’s more, with such a rich narrative, he’s positioned to assume the role of Arizona’s new political maverick, now that John McCain has unmavericked himself in the wake of toeing the party line during the 2008 presidential campaign and a tight race in the 2010 Senate primary in Arizona.

Like McCain, Carmona is a decorated Vietnam war hero who sustained wounds in battle and has a solid following of veterans. Like McCain, Carmona bills himself as a moderate and outsider who isn’t afraid to break party lines if the cause is good. Indeed, Carmona hopes to serve in the Senate with McCain, in the seat soon to be vacated by Republican Jon Kyl.

But Carmona faces an uphill battle. In a predominantly Republican state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator for 22 years, he needs to win over moderates and independents that Democrats believe are disenfranchised by Republican extremism. What’s more, Carmona must figure out how to raise as much money as his presumed opponent, Rep. Jeff Flake, whose campaign kitty—$3.97 million—is three times larger than Carmona’s. And, finally, Carmona needs to energize a Latino electorate that feels betrayed over the Obama administration’s failure to enact immigration reform.

That seems to be working.

Danny Ortega, chairman of National Council of La Raza and a Phoenix attorney, told The Daily Beast that Carmona is highly accomplished, that he is the salt of the earth, and that he has a good chance of winning the Senate seat because he will benefit from the “angry Latino vote.”

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Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state senator who has become a political activist in Phoenix, insists that “this guy can win.”

“I am not a Hispanic candidate,” Carmona told The Daily Beast. “I am an American candidate who happens to be of Hispanic heritage, who understands the culture, who has worked the border and has a unique understanding of those issues. But rest assured my job is to represent all Americans as a U.S. senator.”

Still, he understands how Arizona Latinos feel “hurt” and “betrayed” by the Obama presidency, and says he hopes his candidacy will “re-inspire” Latino voters. He believes Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, is a “poorly-thought out remedy for a problem that does not exist,” saying law enforcement officers in Arizona "already have the ability to stop and detain somebody based on probable cause" and have long been able to inform immigration officials if the person is in the country illegally. So he finds SB 1070 a "misguided attempt" that really doesn't help cops "at all." He supports widespread immigration reform, including passage of the DREAM Act, which would give some undocumented youngsters with no criminal histories a pathway to legalization if they attend college or serve in the military.

“I am my own version of the DREAM Act,” he told a small group of Latinos at a gathering in Phoenix earlier this month. When one man asked Carmona to speak Spanish, he answered fluently, although his grammar was a little rusty. The Latinos laughed and applauded. Carmona choked up when he referenced his abuelitas Mercedes and Maria, who helped raise him in Spanish Harlem. The audience choked up too. Abuelitas, or grandmothers, hold a special place in family-oriented Hispanic homes.

At 62, he’s a slender energetic guy of medium height and build with brown skin and a receding hairline. He travels with a very young campaign staff, including former Politico reporter Andy Barr, who handles media and gets him national press. The staff books hotels with gyms on the campaign trail. That way, Carmona can still work out five times a week.

His friend Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was one of the first to suggest he run about a year ago. Dupnik told The Daily Beast that the “White House got very involved” in trying to recruit Carmona to run for Senate, and sent “prominent Democrats” like Harry Reid to talk to him.

Carmona chaffs at the notion that the Obama administration “tapped” him to run in Arizona. “That’s absolutely wrong,” he said. “I tapped myself.” He struggled over the decision and based it on “lots of input and due diligence.” The president did call, he said, and suggested he consider running but did not pressure him.

He didn’t want to run for sure until he knew the wishes of his good friend Gabrielle Giffords, who was aiming to run for the Senate until she was shot in front of a Safeway store in January 2011. “I was devastated,” he said, by the shooting.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “I didn’t want to make the decision until I knew she wasn’t running, out of respect for her."

He noted that Republicans had asked him to run for various offices in previous elections, but he did not accept.

A preventive-care advocate, Carmona left the Bush administration, he later told a congressional committee, after four years because he felt muzzled from speaking out about things like stem-cell research and women’s health. He’s still passionate about women’s issues, and recently criticized Jan Brewer for signing laws that would defund Planned Parenthood and make contraception harder to obtain, because such moves keep women from seeking preventive care. And Flake, who recently voted for the Violence Against Women Act, might have a hard time winning some women to his fold.

Still, Republicans figure they’ve got a solid hold on Arizona—voter registration numbers, exit polling, and past elections all point to Arizona as a solid Republican stronghold, and they figure voters will vote Republican in protest of Obama’s economic strategies and health-care policies. But Republican poll numbers show Carmona is gaining on Flake, trailing by only 4 points.

Carmona recently told campaign workers that running for Senate is one of the hardest things he’s ever done. But he’s driven to run so that the “real Arizona” will be known. "As Abuelita used to say: 'Si se puede!' "