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Pima County Health Director Theresa Cullen is formally denied state's top health position

Theresa Cullen
Pima County Health Department
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Theresa Cullen

Pima County Health Director Theresa Cullen was rejected Tuesday in her bid to become the director of the Department of Health Services.

The voice vote followed what had been a blistering three-hour confirmation hearing last week where Sen. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) who chaired that panel, repeatedly berated both her and the actions she took as Pima’s health chief during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. That panel voted 3-2, along party lines, that Cullen not be confirmed.

It also came despite the fact that Senate Minority Leader Raquel Teran (D-Phoenix) said Gov. Katie Hobbs had withdrawn Cullen’s name from consideration. But Senate President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert) said that message had not been received by the Senate secretary.

Cullen’s last day as county health chief was scheduled to be Friday.

But a county spokesman said Tuesday if her situation changed she likely will be able to continue in her old position. And he said she has been doing her regular county duties even as the confirmation process has progressed.

Hobbs press aide Murphy Hebert denied that the confirmation hearing went badly because Cullen had not been properly prepared.

“We were prepared for a legitimate hearing,” she said. “And what this was was an ambush.”

During the hearing last week, Cullen was peppered with questions about policies implemented in Pima County since she became its health director in June 2020.

Will Humble is a former director of the Department of Health Services and is now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. He told KJZZ’s The Show that denying Cullen the job is a “huge missed opportunity” for the state.

“She’s got the perfect personality to fix the kinds of problems that exist over in the state health department — in operations, in procurement, in accounting, in the vaccines program and with respect to inspecting nursing homes and other regulated facilities,” Humble said. “So I don’t know who they’re going to get that would be better than her because of just her attention to detail and the depth at which she thinks about things.”

Humble added that Cullen insists on accountability. “That’s how you make an organization like the state health department effective, by building accountability into the decisions and the operations of the staff,” he said. “And that’s what she would have done.”

But Arizona Agenda co-founder Hank Stephenson said the nomination was doomed from the start.

“Cullen was one of the most notable scientific voices in Arizona during the pandemic, and Republican lawmakers just fundamentally disagreed with her on just about everything,” Stephenson told The Show. “[Hobbs] nominated somebody who took one of Arizona’s most liberal counties through the pandemic in a very cautious manner.”

Even without the new Senate committee created to vet executive nominees, Stephenson said Cullen would have faced a difficult path to confirmation. “I don’t know that Cullen would have survived any legislative committee filled with Republicans,” he said.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.