PHOENIX — More than 8,000 Arizonans have died so far from COVID-19, and there are still several days left in 2020.
Nearly half a million people, family, friends, and neighbors have been infected with the virus. The pandemic has tested the metal of frontline health care workers, first responders, and teachers. It’s also been a leadership test for those elected to serve.
“Our government needs to move at the speed of business.” When Governor Doug Ducey delivered his first state of the state address in 2015, Arizona was $1 billion in debt. By removing regulations and cutting taxes, Ducey, the businessman’s governor, quickly became the envy of governors across the country by turning that deficit into a billion-dollar surplus by the end of 2019.
Good fortune can change quickly in life, and in politics, and so it did in March 2020.
“We’re going to continue to get all hands on deck,” the governor said as the first wave of COVID-19 began sweeping across the state.
At a March 30 news conference, Ducey announced a series of executive orders -- schools and businesses closed, as suddenly thousands of people were out of work, with many at risk of losing their home.
“The basis of making decisions has shifted tremendously,” political consultant Chuck Coughlin says. “It’s testing people who have never been in the position of having to lead in this environment.”
Coughlin worked in the administrations of two governors -- Fife Symington and Jan Brewer.
Coughlin, who is the president of the public relations firm HighGround, was with Symington during his indictment and conviction on fraud charges. He worked with Brewer during her second term, when she endorsed a tax increase during the height of the recession to fund health insurance for children. The experience may not compare to a pandemic, but it allowed Coughlin an inside look at governors who were being tested.
“Any elected official who is a supervisor or represents a district or state senate or even a congressperson doesn’t understand," said Coughlin. "Until they are in that role where you actually represent everybody. You actually are leading the entire state.”
For a self-described “old school” economics guy, Ducey went from following the book to writing one. “
When it comes to dealing with the health of our community in a pandemic, this is when a leader really has to lead,” Dean and Director General of ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management Dr. Sanjeev Khagram says. “Leadership means bringing everyone together.”
Dr. Khagram says elected officials must be able to separate the duties of being a political leader from the duties of being a public servant.
“Governor Ducey, like so many others, I wouldn’t put him alone here, across the country, didn’t do very well being able to separate the two. Being able to be a public leader that has the first and foremost obligation to serve the entire state and being a political leader.”
While Arizona was busy trying to control the spread of COVID-19, it was campaign season. President Donald Trump was a frequent visitor. The governor’s call to wear masks and keep gatherings to a minimum was corrupted by his insistence to allow Trump rallies with thousands of maskless people, himself included.
“Public leaders need to be modeling the best of all of us, right,” Dr. Khagram said. “Bring us all up. Because of the quality of their character, their integrity, their consistency, their values, their ethics in a crisis. So that was disappointing.”
Dr. Khagram says good leaders are introspective, show humility, recognize their imperfections, and are open to change and taking risks.
“Some learn and grow and figure it out and take it to the next level. Some don’t,” he said.
Dr. Khagram knows the governor and believes him to be compassionate and empathetic. Dr. Khagram thinks Gov. Ducey can re-invent himself and be that kind of leader.