Senate committee rejects nomination to have Dr. Cullen lead state health department

Health director nominee Dr. Theresa Cullen grilled by committee
Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 8:22 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - A committee created this year to vet Gov. Katie Hobbs’ nominees for state agencies issued a thumbs-down for the woman tapped to lead the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Dr. Theresa Cullen, the former director of the Pima County Health Department, was grilled for hours by the Republica-led committee.

Committee chair Rep. Jake Hoffman called Cullen an “extreme candidate.”

The committee is made up of five members, three Republicans and two Democrats. The three Republicans voted no for her nomination while the Democrats voted yes.

It’s the first time state lawmakers have created such a panel. Democrats claim the Republicans created the panel to slow down, stall or reject Hobbs’ nominees.

The Republicans on the committee spent virtually no time talking about her qualifications as a retired Rear Admiral and lifetime public servant but spent most of the four-hour hearing airing grievances over their disapproval of Pima County’s COVID policies.

“You are on record saying you were 100% aligned with the Biden Administrations’ federal vaccine mandates,” Janae Shamp, a Republican from District 19 said. “And again it seems taking away individual liberties.”

Hoffman argued the county’s policies guided by Cullen on school closures did irreparable harm to students and closing businesses during the pandemic cost thousands of people their jobs. He offered no proof of either but cast blame on her policies.

Of special concern was the county’s decision to post the names of businesses that failed to comply with a mask mandate. Hoffman said it was an irresponsible “shaming of businesses.”

“Why, in your role, did you take an incendiary and condescending tone to the people you have been hired to, in your words, to protect?” Hoffman asked.

The committee seem to not understand Pima County’s hierarchy over COVID decisions. Cullen is fourth in line behind the Board of Supervisors, the county administrator and the chief medical officer. She cannot unilaterally make policy decisions.

That didn’t phase the committee, which blamed Dr. Cullen for any policy they didn’t like.

Dr. Cullen at times seemed unprepared for the onslaught of accusations, at times apologizing or pausing before answering.

“Senator Hoffman, I know you, I don’t recall. I don’t recall that’s why that was the recommendation,” Dr. Cullen replied to a question about why the county adopted a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

“You’ll pardon me if I don’t believe you,” Hoffman said.

Will Humble, a former Director for the Department of Health Services, sat through the entire hearing and recommended Dr. Cullen be approved but it did not move the committee.

But he took issue with the way the hearing was conducted saying Hoffman was insulting and cruel.

“What disturbed me the most about the whole thing, was the end,” Humble said. “When Chairman Hoffman had already achieved what he wanted, which was a 3-2 vote against Cullen, then he went on a seven to 10-minute monologue essentially insulting her over and over again.”

Humble said it’s okay for the senators to vote against a nominee “but there is no reason to be condescending, cruel and insult a very accomplished professional over and over again.”

In a tweet following the hearing Gov. Hobbs said what the Republicans did was “political theater” and said she “stands by her nomination.”

The nomination now goes before the full Senate where Cullen needs 16 votes for approval, meaning she will need to convince two Republicans to cross the aisle.

Under state law, Cullen can still serve on an interim basis for a year, even if the GOP rejects her nomination.