The death toll of political ambition will be Doug Ducey’s legacy

October 29, 2021 10:25 am

Gov. Doug Ducey walks out after addressing the media on COVID-19 during a news conference in Phoenix on Nov. 18, 2020. Behind him is Dr. Cara Christ. Photo by Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic | Pool photo

More than anything, Doug Ducey wants his legacy to be the massive tax cuts that he has given wealthy Arizonans. It’s an issue he campaigned on in his first gubernatorial campaign, and in whatever the next phase of his political career brings, he will surely point to it as a victory.

But his true legacy will be the thousands of Arizonans who have died needlessly on his watch, as he repeatedly and stubbornly and maliciously mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic.

Faced with a few bad headlines, Doug Ducey’s backbone melts like a Crayon on a Phoenix sidewalk in July.

– Jim Small

It has been on his watch that COVID-19 became the leading cause of death in Arizona, even as other similar states — where the governors implemented simple and common-sense measures to blunt the spread of the illness — managed to limit the death toll of the novel coronavirus.

It has been on his watch that the pandemic in Arizona has become more deadly than in New York. According to The New York Times’ invaluable data tracking, the Grand Canyon State has seen 288 people per 100,000 die from COVID-19, surpassing the 287 per 100,000 in the Empire State.

That is particularly horrendous, given that New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic as it first began to spread in the United States in April 2020. Fear gripped the city, and spread nationwide, as hospitals there were quickly overwhelmed, health professionals didn’t have access to the equipment they needed — both to keep themselves safe and to treat the ill — and morgues were overflowing. Nearly 1,000 people per day were dying.

On top of that, the global medical community was still learning exactly how COVID-19 worked, leaving few reliable ways to treat it. And little was known for sure about how it spread, hamstringing efforts to contain it. 

By the time the coronavirus began spreading widely in Arizona in June, many of those questions had been answered. Infectious disease experts had figured out that the virus spread through the air, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was telling Americans to wear masks in public places.


The month before our first spike in cases, ignorance about how to respond to COVID-19 was replaced by politics, with then President Donald Trump spending the month increasingly politicizing efforts to limit the illness and urging states that had restricted commerce — including Arizona — to ignore CDC guidelines and re-open nonessential businesses. 

And if there’s one thing about Ducey that you can take to the bank, it’s that he will reverse course at a moment’s notice in pursuit of praise. Faced with a few bad headlines, Ducey’s backbone melts like a Crayon on a Phoenix sidewalk in July. 

Initially, Ducey’s about-faces worked to preserve public health. Remember when Ducey told schools they should stay open, and then dozens of school districts announced they were halting in-person learning to protect students and staff? Days later, Ducey was suspending classes

The governor was likewise nowhere to be found when cities began declaring public health emergencies and closing down bars, in-restaurant dining, fitness centers, movie theaters and other businesses where people regularly come in close contact with each other. The mayors were praised for taking bold and decisive action. Two days later, Ducey announced that he was ordering all bars to close and shutting down restaurant dining rooms across Arizona. 

But as the political winds changed, Ducey’s COVID-19 policies became littered with choices aimed at preserving his political standing among Republicans — and Trump. He lifted the stay-at-home order right before Trump came to town in May, spurring the state’s first major wave of cases. 

Trump hated masks, and Ducey couldn’t be bothered to do more than impotently suggest that Arizonans wear them — while he refused to — and certainly wouldn’t entertain mandating mask use. Until, of course, public pressure mounted that he display just a modicum of leadership … at which point he told cities and counties to handle it themselves, so unwilling was he to make a decision that would upset the president who stridently opposed masks because encouraging their use might make people think the pandemic was real and quite dangerous.

That’s the backdrop for how we arrived at this moment, with Arizona surging from behind to pass New York as a more deadly place in the pandemic — an ignominy made all the more horrifying when you realize that 3,840 (and counting) Arizonans have died since April 1, a week after free vaccines became available to anyone who wanted them.

Ducey was quick to tout the early successes of the state’s vaccination distribution program, and the state was among the most efficient at getting vaccines into bodies in the spring. But as summer arrived, our vaccination rates plunged and haven’t recovered — as if Ducey’s promise that we would “vaccinate our way out” of the pandemic never happened.

It would be bad enough if the governor was MIA, merely watching as things got worse while the Delta variant surged through Arizona, bringing a new spike in cases and deaths, filling hospitals along the way. 

What we got instead was intentional sabotage. With the prospect of his prized tax cuts in danger of not passing, he sold out our public health in the name of capturing GOP votes. He barred mask mandates in our schools, said cities couldn’t require masks or vaccines, and decreed that businesses can ignore public health rules. 

As bad press mounted, Ducey then did exactly what we knew he would: He denied doing the thing that he’d bragged about doing only weeks earlier.

It was a fitting declaration from a coward whose political ambition killed the people he swore an oath to protect. And that will be his legacy in Arizona.

***UPDATED: This column was updated to reflect the 63 new COVID-19 deaths announced on Oct. 29, 2021.


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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.