Last month, we spent some on time on the trail with Richard Carmona, the Democratic candidate in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
Below are excerpts from our interview with Carmona at the opening of his campaign office in Tucson.
1. Why did you decide to get into the race?
“I never thought about this. In fact, I’ve had opportunities before to run for office – the Republicans recruited me when I was surgeon general, to run for Congress, to run against Gov. Napolitano. But I didn’t feel it was my calling. ... I felt, ‘Well, I’m flattered, but I really would rather stay and be the doctor of the nation and stay as surgeon general.’ And I never thought I would have the opportunity again.”
“And when I came home after my statutory term as surgeon general, I just resumed my life here in southern Arizona. Teaching at the university; my law enforcement career. Sitting on some boards. All the things I did before. And that’s it; and I thought, ‘That’s it.’”
“But, like many, I found myself on the sidelines, complaining about how partisan politics was, and how crazy some of the Arizona politics have become. And that led to a lot of conversations with my firemen friends, policemen, my circle of people that I work with in business and so on. People started saying, ‘Well, why don’t you run?’ And my first thing that I said was, ‘I am running. I’m running as far away from Washington as I can.’”
“But the conversation continued. And I really started thinking about it. ... So after a lot of soul-searching and speaking with local officials, state officials, people I’ve known all my life here – because I’ve been here 27 years now – I thought, and then some of the national leadership called me and encouraged me to consider it strongly. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
2. One of those people in national leadership who called you was President Obama.
“Yes. And I had pretty much decided already. And the president was really very genuine. It wasn’t a political call. What he said is, ‘Look, Rich. D.C.’s broken. You’ve been here. We have far too much partisanship. We need people like you to step up and run. You had a good record as surgeon general working with both sides of the aisle and solving problems. I hope you give it serious consideration. I know it’s tough; I know you have to give up a lot. But I think it’s worthwhile.’”
3. Had you spoken with Obama before?
“The president and I met when he was a new senator, and I was a little senior to him as being in Washington as surgeon general, and we both ended up on the Larry King Show together, and Larry King introduced us. So, that’s how we knew each other, from the Larry King Show. And that’s when he was just a newly-anointed senator ... And Larry introduced us across the table as he was introducing both of us.”
4. What was your impression of him?
“The same as his impression of me; we’re both still looking for the bathrooms and how to get things done (in Washington). It’s a complicated place. You could see he had a great heart and he was trying to do the right thing. But you know, he goes from the state and from all of a sudden from a local position as a representative or a state senator and now he becomes a U.S. senator, you know, and now he’s in Washington – so I guess we were both desperately seeking navigation capabilities to the Beltway; how do you get all of these things done? I think we were both, I guess, naive enough to think we could change the world. And I think that’s what you need when you get to Washington. You have to really feel you can make a difference.”
5. Obama’s approval rating is underwater here in Arizona. How do you feel about running on the same ticket with him?
“Here’s my thought. My focus really is about my campaign. The president has to run his campaign as he sees fit, and whatever he thinks is correct. I have to run my campaign that way. I’m not dependent on him for anything. I made a commitment to run and represent the people here. The reason I’m running is the people in this community have stated they want me to be their senator and they’re going to support me. ... So, really, I hope the president does well. He’s got his game-plan, I’ve got mine. I’m going to work real hard. My goal is to become senator and represent the people.”
6. Tell me about your life growing up.
“I came from a pretty poor family. I grew up in Harlem, in New York City. And my parents were good people, but they struggled with some of the substance and alcohol problems. And we were homeless for a while when I was a kid. ... When I was 5, 6 -- so you know, memories aren’t that great – I remember coming home and I remember seeing all of our belongings on the street and a Salvation Army truck picking them up. We got taken to a shelter. And then we moved around a lot, finding places to stay. And to be honest with you, I can’t tell you the time, because I was five years old, but I remember we ended up living with my grandmother ... in the projects, which are rent-subsidized, you know the projects in New York, and she was in the Bronx projects.”
“So, we lived with her, and at one point there were 12 of us living in this little apartment. And I lived there for about a year-and-a-half, maybe two years. Something happened with my father; I don’t know what it was. You know, I know he wasn’t there for a while. So, maybe he got in trouble. I just don’t know. And then we got an apartment back in Harlem, on 151st Street.”
“And I went back to school at PS 186 at 145th and Amsterdam Avenue. Life was relatively stable then, although I became a truant; I didn’t go to school, I ran the streets. ... But my brothers and I were pretty industrious. And we would go over to the supermarket and we’d pack groceries and get a dime from people, or we’d collect soda bottles and turn them in and get like 50, 60 cents, from the bottles. And then we’d buy some bread and cheese and a container of milk, or a can of Campbell’s soup.”
7. How did those experiences affect your views later in life?
“I think what it does is it gives me a much broader perspective than the average politician. You know, having walked in those shoes of being hungry and being homeless. The indignities of not getting health care, or waiting in the public hospital, hoping somebody will care for you. Going to sleep with a toothache because you can’t go to the dentist. So I think it was, in retrospect, almost a gift of experience to me that sensitized me to the complexity of the world that we inherit today.”
8. Democrats think that Latino turnout in Arizona will be higher than average this year. Do you think that’s true?
“Well, I’ve heard all of those postulations. And this is my first rodeo, okay? So I’m not an expert. But what I do know is I have to work very hard, surround myself with smart people. ... I think that there’s good reason to believe that I have earned the trust and respect of the Hispanic community – not just because I’m Hispanic -- because I was always there when they needed me as a professor, as a doctor, and as a trauma director here in town. And I’ve earned the respect all of our Native American brothers and sisters because of my actions.”
“So I think there’s every reason to believe that these populations which are normally disenfranchised – and they don’t want to participate because they don’t feel anybody really understands them – in me, they have somebody who not only understands, but who’s somebody who’s lived their life and has experienced the American dream. And I think that they will entrust me with being their senator because they know that I will always do what is best for them.”
9. Some Republicans, including Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney, are taking a more hard-line approach to illegal immigration during this campaign. How do you think that will affect the race?
“Well, I think what we see are the manifestations of chronic politicians, and that’s what the public is unhappy about. The fact that Flake flakes out routinely on issues like this – it’s clear to the public that their best interests are not in his eyes. His best interests are, ‘What do I need to say and do to get re-elected?’ Because if you’re committed to comprehensive immigration reform, as he first alleged he was when President Bush and Senator Kennedy rolled out the pathway to citizenship and the DREAM Act -- he was on board, as was Sen. McCain. Then things change, and he goes, ‘Well, I’m going to go for Senate. I’m not going to be a congressman anymore. I’d better say this.’ So, he switches. I mean, this is really about your values and integrity. And for me, there’s never been any wavering.”
10. What are your thoughts on the scaled-back DREAM Act that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other Republicans are working on?
“Why do you think they’re reworking their initial, vitriolic, far-right, ‘deport everybody’ (message)? Why? Do you think that all of a sudden there’s an epiphany and their hearts have opened up to people who are struggling? I don’t think so. I think it’s a political calculation – that they recognized they cannot win their races and stay in office unless they embrace the Hispanic community. So I really feel it’s very disingenuous.”