Arizona’s reluctant governor

Gov. Doug Ducey updates reporters on COVID-19 during a news conference in Phoenix June 17, 2020. Photo by Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic | Pool photo

Gov. Doug Ducey has been facing a storm of questions about whether or not he’s been slow to react to Arizona’s rising coronavirus numbers. Without fail, Ducey’s allies run to his defense, claiming the governor isn’t cautious but rather “measured” and “deliberate.” 

But if we look back on Ducey’s time in the governor’s office, it’s difficult to describe his leadership style as anything other than timid.

Like President Donald Trump, Ducey surrounds himself with the “best people.” So much so that he’s been forced to demand resignations from at least half a dozen of the agency heads he’s appointed.

Unlike Trump, Ducey doesn’t relish firing people. He hesitates through numerous scandals until public pressure is so immense that he can no longer avoid the situation.

Take Sue Black, the former head of the state parks department, as an example. Black made headlines on numerous occasions for complaints about harassment of employees, showing up drunk at official functions, violating procurement rules and firing an employee with cancer who had received Family Medical Leave Act protection.    

Ducey stood by Black, even giving her a sizeable pay raise, for more than three years. It took a criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office into claims of destroyed archaeological sites for Ducey to finally—and reluctantly—act.

Ducey’s hesitancy extends beyond staffing issues. Arizona’s teacher shortage was a crisis in the making throughout Ducey’s first term. Ever since the Great Recession—when the Legislature slashed a billion dollars from public education, some of it illegally, to bridge budget deficits—teachers have been fleeing classrooms.

Despite mounting pressure to restore cuts (and increased revenues that would have made those restorations possible), Ducey punted. He insisted in 2018 that the state could only afford a 1% raise for teachers.

They called his bluff.

After teachers voted to walk out of their classrooms and march on the Capitol, Ducey discovered (as if by magic) that the state could afford an additional 9% in raises.

Arizona still lags the nation in teacher pay and per pupil funding, and our teacher shortage crisis persists. But now we have another, more pressing crisis Ducey has been forced to face, and this crisis is perhaps the most glaring example of the governor’s reluctance to lead.

It took pressure from the mayors of the state’s three largest cities, as well as our senior U.S. Senator, to convince the governor to follow the lead of other states and shut down nonessential businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The governor’s orders only happened after Mayors Kate Gallego, Regina Romero and Coral Evans decided to take matters into their own hands and declare states of emergencies in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, respectively.

It was déjà vu a couple months later when, once again, the governor just couldn’t bring himself to issue a statewide mask mandate (especially when Trump was planning a COVID-19 super-spreader event), and mayors threatened to issue their own orders.

The governor did the least he possibly could, allowing cities and counties to create mask ordinances while refusing a statewide order.

And when our state became the nation and the world’s biggest COVID-19 hotspot?

Well, I’ll let former Governor Jan Brewer tell you how Ducey responded:

Perhaps some of Ducey’s reluctance is a result of poor communication between his staff and his agencies. At his most recent press conference, the governor insinuated that Arizonans facing eviction squandered state and federal assistance. He seemed oblivious to the fact that thousands of Arizonans are still waiting for DES to process their COVID-related unemployment claims while thousands more are waiting for stalled rental assistance aid.

Similarly, school leaders are waiting for state guidance on in-person instruction. Many believe it’s simply unsafe to start before October, considering our sky-high infection and positivity rates. But the governor didn’t even address school reopening until he was questioned by reporters.

I understand that the governor has an incredibly difficult job, and no one will ever be 100% satisfied. But let’s also keep in mind that Doug Ducey signed up for this office. Twice.

During his last campaign, Ducey’s allies worked to convince voters that his opponent, David Garcia, would make Arizona an unsafe place to live, one overrun with drugs and cartels and menacing Brown people.

But it seems it’s Ducey who has failed to protect Arizonans.

He’s failed because he’s too timid to take decisive action to slow the spread of the virus. Too unwilling to work as a team with mayors and elected officials on both sides of the aisle. Too afraid to stand up to Trump and Devos and insist on following the CDC’s guidelines for when and how to reopen businesses and schools.

Yes, governor, it’s a tough job. But if you’re not up for the challenge, then you should step aside and let those who aren’t afraid take the lead.

Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.