Arizona Gov. Hobbs withdraws nomination for ADHS director after rigorous public questioning
After a Feb. 9th Arizona Senate Nominations Committee hearing, where members considered Dr. Theresa Cullen’s appointment as the director of the Department of Health Services, Gov. Katie Hobbs withdrew her nomination and expressed disappointment in the decision.
Hobbs nominated Cullen late last year after she won the governor’s race. She has 27 years of public service experience, including running the only maternity Ebola clinic in Sierra Leone as a volunteer; serving in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps with a retiring rank of Rear Admiral; serving as chief medical officer (CMO) and the director of health informatics for the Veterans Health Administration; serving as chief information officer for Indian Health Services; and serving as the director of Pima County’s health department.
“Her actions and her decision saved countless lives during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hobbs said. “In December 2022, Arizona became the State with the single highest number of Covid deaths per capita across the country. Dr. Cullen’s leadership during those tumultuous years directly resulted in more Arizonans being alive and with us today.
Even with this mountain of expertise, and an immense track record of public health success, some lawmakers have decided that they should instead participate in vicious personal attacks and criticism over a tweet thanking frontline healthcare workers several years ago,” Hobbs said. “This is not only foolish, it detracts from the important work we have in front of us.”
After introductory remarks at the Feb. 9th meeting, light questioning began, which turned into hard questioning by both committee members and the public, particularly as it relates to Cullen’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initial questions concerned the information or documentation that was provided to the governor’s office prior to Cullen’s nomination, and how her experience in healthcare will affect her role as the director of public health in the state. However, the questions rapidly became more aggressive.
“On March 25th of 2021, you criticized Gov. Ducey’s executive order to lift some restrictions and you said in a press meeting…’We need people to limit their gatherings and how many people are in a closed area without ventilation. We need everyone, not just businesses to take this seriously,’” Sen. Sine Kerr (R – Yuma) said. “Can you explain your criticism of the Ducey order to lift some restrictions over a year into the pandemic?”
Cullen stated that she does not put restrictions in place as a public health director but makes recommendations based on what is being seen in each community. Cullen stated that she does not attend meetings for the Board of Supervisors, and is not responsible for the board’s decisions with enforcing health policies. Sen. Jake Hoffman (R – Maricopa) continued pressing her.
“It defies logic and normalcy for a board of supervisors to not be enacting policy based directly on the recommendations of the public health professional that they’ve hired, but you’re trying to tell us otherwise,” Hoffman said.
Cullen said she submits weekly reports to the Board of Supervisors, which include the state’s current COVID-19 vaccination, but that she does not enforce public health restrictions.
“As the top public health official for Pima County, you are seemingly trying to wiggle out [of] having been directly responsible for the public health policies enacted by Pima County, and I don’t know why you think anyone would believe that,” Hoffman said.
With hopes of proving his point, Hoffman pulled up video footage of a Board of Supervisors meeting from Dec. 12th, 2020, and mentioned how Cullen was testifying at that meeting. Cullen apologized to the committee and said after a certain point, she ceased attending board meetings as she was excused by a previous administrator, and said she would obtain her exact board meeting attendance dates for the committee.
During continued questioning about Cullen’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hoffman accused her of “playing word games” for speaking about COVID-19 response in 2020 and 2021, rather than the current COVID-19 response.
Arizona residents provided public testimony during the meeting. Dr. Bob England has known Cullen for 40 years and she replaced him as the director of the Pima County Health Department.
“I can guarantee you that that attitude about service and caring about the health of the community is genuine,” England said, who reiterated Cullen’s assertion that during his time in that position, he did not have a say in policy issues. “That kind of explains some of the questions about where this came from because I would find out about [the policies] after the fact.”
Kevin Patten, who was born and raised in California, mentioned during his testimony how he and his family relocated to Arizona because it had less COVID-19 restrictions than California. He said he was glad that his eight-year-old son no longer needed to have a vaccine or a face mask to participate in in-person learning.
“Imagine my horror when I find out the new governor wants to appoint someone who seems to embody ‘Fauci-ism,’ and wants to mandate all these things again, and then coming over today and hearing Cullen. I’m not only horrified, I’m also appalled,” Patten said.
“I’d like to add that if by some chance she seemed to have forgotten that there was a law passed prohibiting vaccine mandates, if by some chance she’s able to recommend a vaccine mandate or mask mandate and Gov. Hobbs makes that happen, I think people should know that there is an army of families, of parents, of teachers, of business owners who were on the same page as this,” Patten said. “We will not comply with it, and if that means … walk down to come over here and have a resurgence of the occupying movement and camp right outside in the plaza, that’s my move on what to do.”
Following public testimony, the committee engaged in a final discussion, where Sen. Lela Alston (D – Gilbert) apologized to Cullen for the behavior of individuals at the meeting. Sen. Eva Burch (D – La Paz) also apologized for not speaking up for Cullen during the meeting. Both of the Democrats voted yes, but the three Republican senators voted no due to concerns about Cullen’s testimony.
“While I am deeply concerned that Dr. Cullen has chosen not to proceed as the nominee for ADHS director, I understand and respect her decision,” Hobbs said. “The way some Republicans behaved on the State Senate’s committee on director nominations was nothing short of harassment and those who participated in it should be ashamed of their behavior—we all should.”
Cullen will resume her position as the director of the Pima County Health Department, although the future of the state’s health department remains uncertain.
“If the Senate’s Director Nominations Committee is unwilling to acknowledge the skill and expertise of Dr. Cullen, there may be no public health professional in the state they would endorse,” Hobbs said. “As long as Republicans choose politics over the people of Arizona, some of the most talented and qualified candidates will choose not to enter state service, and it is the people of Arizona who will suffer most because of these political games.”