Arizona Senate Race: Things Get Personal Between Jeff Flake and Richard Carmona

Oct 16, 2012 6:01am
gty jeff flake richard carmona jef 121015 wblog Arizona Senate Race: Things Get Personal Between Jeff Flake and Richard Carmona

Arizona Senate candidates Jeff Flake (left) and Richard Carmona. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images.

Things have gotten personal in Arizona.

Across the country, TV airwaves have been so thoroughly drenched in negativity that it’s tough to imagine any more surprises. President Obama has claimed that Mitt Romney supports sweatshop labor. Romney has claimed, hyperbolically, that Obama plans to “gut” the welfare reforms passed in 1996.

Senate ads have been dark and foreboding, if often boilerplate.  But Arizona’s Senate race has swiftly become one of the most intense and personal in the country, thanks to two new TV ads released last week by Republican Rep. Jeff Flake and Democrat Richard Carmona, who served as Surgeon General during the George W. Bush administration.

Rep. Flake’s campaign struck first. Cristina Beato, a senior Health and Human Services official during the Bush years, appeared in a TV ad in which she accused Carmona of knocking loudly on her door late at night when she was his boss.

“There was an angry pounding on the door in the middle of the night. I’m a single mom. I feared for my kids and for myself,” Beato says in the ad. “It was Richard Carmona, and I was his boss. Carmona is not who he seems. He has issues with anger, with ethics, and with women. I have testified to this under oath to Congress. Richard Carmona, should never, ever be in the U.S. Senate.”

Beato, who served as Acting Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary under Bush, told congressional investigators in 2007 that Carmona was an “extremely angry” person and a “living nightmare” to work with, Politico first reported in May. Beato alleged two episodes in which Carmona had banged on her door, attempting to confront her over an issue on which they disagreed, Politico reported.

Carmona’s campaign denies the incident took place.

Beato made the accusations as Carmona testified that Bush health officials had politicized health issues, including the risks of tobacco. Politico reported that Carmona had accused her of “carrying water” for the Bush administration and that the two top health officials developed an intense rivalry. While Carmona wouldn’t name names in his congressional testimony, a half-dozen former HHS officials told The New York Times in 2007 that Beato was the one most likely to have interfered with health findings.

Carmona has responded with a TV ad featuring another of his former bosses. In it, former SWAT commander Kathleen Brennan, under whom Carmona served in Pima County, Ariz. for years, vouches for Carmona’s treatment of women and attacks Flake.

‘When I see a career politician like Jeff Flake attacking Rich Carmona, who has spent his life helping others, it’s despicable. Congressman Flake should be ashamed,” Brennan says in the ad.

Carmona’s campaign has not only denied the episode — “Never happened,” spokesman Andy Barr said — but has suggested that Beato has a history of lying. The campaign points to her stalled confirmation by a Democratic Senate amidst accusations that she fabricated parts of her resume, and to questions over Beato’s credibility raised by Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who chaired the committee to which both Beato and Carmona testified.

Jennifer Cabe, who served as Carmona’s communications director when he was Surgeon General, vouched for Carmona and accused Beato of lying at a press conference on Friday. “I know these accusations are 100 percent false,” Cabe said, while Beato stood by her story and two former Bush officials praised her credibility in interviews with The Arizona Republic.

While Carmona’s campaign claims a pattern of lying, Flake’s campaign claims a pattern of threatening behavior.

‘There is plenty to support Dr. Beato’s testimony and the pattern of confrontational behavior by Dr. Carmona toward others — especially women — over the years,” said Flake spokesman Andrew Wilder.

Flake’s campaign points to claims by former coworkers of Carmona’s hostility. In a letter to Sen. Ted Kennedy during Carmona’s Senate confirmation as surgeon general, University of Arizona surgery professor Charles Putnam wrote that Carmona had been “removed from his two previous administrative appointments … because he could not work in an effective or even a civil manner with health professionals and other constituencies of those positions,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2002. While other former coworkers refused to speak with the paper on the record, it reported that court and hospital records showed doctors had complained of Carmona’s “high handedness,” “unwillingness to communicate” and “escalation of disagreements in an effort to prove he was right.”

The claims of Carmona’s threatening behavior, and of Beato’s repeated lying, cut a bit deeper than the typical election-year back-and-forth over who’s lying about votes, tax hikes, and federal lobbying registrations. And they also threaten to undermine Carmona’s biggest asset: His biography as a real-life action hero who grew up poor and occasionally homeless as the son of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City, served as a special forces medic in Vietnam, returned to Arizona to lead a SWAT team while practicing as a surgeon, and rescued an injured man from a snowy cliff while rappelling from a helicopter.

Arizona is a traditionally red state, but Democrats have voiced optimism about Carmona since he entered the race. No poll has been conducted since February that the ABC News polling unit deems reliable enough to use, making it difficult to tell how these ads will affect the race’s competitiveness, or what exactly they’re affecting.

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