PHOENIX – A committee has recommended Gov. Katie Hobbs’ pick to head the Department of Health Services be rejected by the Arizona Senate.
The 3-2 party-line vote came after Republicans on the Senate Committee on Director Nominations, chaired by Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said Dr. Theresa Cullen’s ideas on health policies are too extreme and here judgment on critical issues questionable.
Cullen was grilled for hours Thursday, Feb. 9, by the committee on how she handled the COVID outbreak while heading the Pima County Health Department.
The questions focused on her recommendations on everything from a mandatory curfew and wearing masks to the closing of some schools and classrooms and her method of urging people to get vaccinated.
Then there was a website operated by the county which publicly posted the names of businesses that were found to be out of compliance with masking and social distancing requirements, a move that Hoffman said amounted to a public shaming.
Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, said her concerns go beyond the actual decisions that Cullen made during the outbreak.
And Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, said her vote against confirmation had to do with what she said Cullen's record heading the Pima County Health Department during the COVID outbreak portends if she were to become the state health director.
Shamp read a quote from Cullen in June 2021 that it is "the ultimate arrogance and privilege to think that you don't need to get immunized.''
"Do you think there's any other reasons why a person could choose to not get vaccinated beyond arrogance and privilege?'' Shamp asked.
Cullen said the remark was made at a time when there was a surge of cases in Pima County.
"In retrospect, that's an inappropriate comment,'' she said.
That left Shamp unsatisfied. She questioned whether, even in the face of a surge, Cullen believes that people can make decisions for themselves.
"I do believe that people make their own decisions,'' Cullen said.
"Just not when you're in charge of public health for Pima County?'' Hoffman said.
"That's not what I believe,'' Cullen said.
"I do believe that in certain times of surges I made recommendations and made comments that I would not make today,'' she said.
Hoffman, however, said the record of all her actions and statements shows a larger problem.
"It seemed like you had an air of supremacy about you where you treated the businesses, or at least discussed, talked about the businesses and the individuals as if they were beneath you,'' he said.
Cullen sought to distance herself, at least a bit, from some of the actions.
She told lawmakers that she wasn't the one making the final decisions on the restrictions imposed by the county supervisors. Instead, she said she merely made recommendations, with board members deciding what to enact.
Hoffman wasn't buying her description as her role being that passive.
"It seems like you're playing word games,'' he told her.
Cullen defended her decisions in working with schools to decide when to send children home. Hoffman said he wasn't going to get into the "legalese'' of whether she ordered schools closed or district officials acted under her recommendations.
"But under your guidance, they suffered innumerable harm in terms of lack of proficiency in school, academic scores falling, socialization being reduced, depression, suicide,'' he said.
Cullen defended her actions.
"I think I made decisions with the districts and with our school team to err on the side to protect children,'' she said. But Cullen said they weren't the only focus, saying there also was a desire to protect the adults in their families to whom the youngsters could pass on the disease.
Hoffman pursued the issue, asking if she believes that the benefits of her actions outweighed the costs.
"You're not going to like this response,'' Cullen said. "It depends on the school and what level of the infection was at that time.''
But pressed on whether, on a macro level, the benefits outweighed the costs, Cullen said, "I don't know.''
Kerr said Arizona is "bound to face another time where we do have another health crisis, medical crisis, some type of a pandemic,'' she said. "My greatest concern is that decisions that were made at the county level then would be duplicated and expanded at the state level.''
Sen. Eva Burch, D-Mesa, defended Cullen's record and supported her nomination.
"When we talk about vaccines, mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, school and business closures, I believe that fewer people died because of these measures,'' she said.
And Burch chided Republicans for using 20-20 hindsight to second guess decisions that were being made during COVID.
"There's too many variables,'' she said.
"I'm sure that Dr. Cullen would have done some things differently,'' Burch said. "But nobody had it right during the pandemic. There were no perfect solutions.''
Strictly speaking, Thursday's vote does not derail her nomination. That decision rests with the full Senate.
But it could be difficult for Cullen to survive a vote with Republicans holding a 16-14 edge in the chamber and all three Republicans on the panel recommending she not be confirmed. And Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who might be considered one of the more moderate members of the GOP caucus, posted a message on Twitter late Thursday suggesting he won't go along.
"I'm incredibly troubled by Gov. Hobbs' decision to push forward her nominee to the Department of Health Services,'' he wrote.
"I respect Dr. Cullen's experience,'' Shope said. "But her poor judgment in Pima County reflects poorly on her - and even more poorly on Hobbs.''
If and when the Senate votes not to confirm, Hobbs will have to select a new nominee who would have to go through the same process.
The governor, at least for now, is not giving up hope of getting Cullen confirmed, calling her dedication and public health experience "exactly what Arizona needs right now.''
"I stand by her nomination,'' she said in a prepared statement late Thursday while blasting what happened as "an exercise in political theater'' and saying that the committee "has decided to play partisan politics in this case instead of doing what's best for Arizona.''
We’d like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.