PHOENIX — Governor Doug Ducey will deliver his state of the state address virtually on Monday with a much different tone expected than his 2020 celebration. Following a year where the pandemic and hostile politics have been nonstop, the governor is challenged to unite a divided Arizona and lead a way out of the uncontrolled spread of COVID 19 that’s killing and hospitalizing thousands.
Typically, the State of the State outlines Ducey’s legislative priorities for the upcoming session. This governor’s past speeches have touted tax cuts, constant growth, and shaping Arizona’s business-friendly environment. At the pinnacle of his power in January of 2020, Ducey took a victory lap for his wins over five years as governor, including turning a billion-dollar deficit into a billion-dollar surplus.
“Up in the governor’s office, our phones have been ringing off the hook. Red states, blue states, all wanting to replicate what Arizona has done,” Ducey told a joint session of the Arizona Legislature and an assembly of invited guests.
The optimism reflected Governor Ducey’s significant power at the time, said Kirk Adams, who left his post as Speaker of the Arizona House to guide the governor through his first four years as his Chief of Staff.
“Any elected official of high office, the first two years is probably the peak of the power, and then the first two years of his second term,” Adams told ABC15 in an interview last week.
The governor, often mentioned as a candidate for national office under an expected 2020 win by President Donald Trump, gave his 2020 address 13 days before the first confirmed Coronavirus case in Arizona. In the following months, it became clear that the pandemic had no interest in celebrating record budget surpluses, or as the governor would boast, his transition into “government that needs to move at the speed of business.”
A review of the past year shows an inconsistent response to the chaos created by the pandemic and a death-by-a-thousand cuts brought on by calls for police reform and an angry soon-to-be ex-president. It’s been a struggle for Governor Ducey, who fashioned his image as a buttoned down CEO of a successful ice cream empire. From the lack of testing early on, to the economic hit from business closures, to the dysfunction of the state’s response processing unemployment benefits, the slimmed down Ducey government had neither the people, the expertise, nor the technology to take on a relentless and ever-changing developments.
Since March, when Ducey was fully engaged and highly visible in managing the pandemic, his personal leadership has become increasingly diminished. The Governor has relied on a softer stay at home order and a decision to keep businesses and schools open, no matter that the metrics set by his Department of Health Services signal a shutdown may be needed. Further, Ducey continues to ignore warnings from the state’s modelers and hospitals leadership that a stressed medical system will result in reduced care and many unnecessary deaths.
“We mourn every death in the State of Arizona. Everything we have done since the original emergency order on March 11th, and the first executive order to protect people in long term care, has been to reduce the spread of this virus and to save and protect as many lives as possible,” Ducey said at a June news conference when asked about deaths and decisions to open the state.
Ducey maintains that his decisions have been guided by public health. However, instead of executive orders to directly manage a public health crisis, he’s focused on public relations and advertising campaigns under the title “Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected” that ask but do not require Arizonans to wear masks. Rather than face an increasingly challenging press corps questioning his motives and results, he cut back from weekly in-person briefings in March to one approximately every two to three weeks. Meanwhile, the pandemic twice pushed Arizona to the number one COVID 19 hotspot in the world, first in July and now in January. Daily cases are soaring and so are deaths with over 600 a week in mid-December.
“It’s absolutely worse than it was in the summer surge,” said emergency room physician Dr. Quinn Snyder, “At some point will the virus burn itself out? Yeah, but in the process you’re going to have literally thousands of people die unnecessarily when we knew the formula in the first place as to how to bring it under control.”
Additionally, he’s facing protests from Arizonans who believe either he’s not doing enough or doing too much and infringing on their rights. There’s widespread disappointment that the summer’s protests demanding police reform have gone nowhere in the state; that police shootings continue at a high rate with prosecutors deciding not to charge officers. And there’s the Red State-Blue State-Trump demonstrations and threats. The Trump team has apparently forgotten that for months, the governor spent time and energy away from pandemic management in a failed attempt to win the state for the president.
In December, when the governor certified the win by President-elect Biden, the move sparked a Twitter feud with Trump. The president tweeted that Republicans would "long remember" that he signed off on the vote while Trump's legal team still attempted to fight the results. As Ducey turns to the state of the state Monday, he’s learning a hard political lesson. No one is happy.
“The basis of making decisions has shifted tremendously,” political consultant Chuck Coughlin told ABC15 in December. “It’s testing people who have never been in the position of having to lead in this environment.”
“Any elected official who is a supervisor or represents a district or state senate or even a congressperson doesn’t understand until they are in that role where you actually represent everybody," said Coughlin who worked in the administrations of governors Fife Symington and Jan Brewer. "You actually are leading the entire state.”
The governor will face the entire state in Monday’s address. Arizonans have not heard from him in three weeks. The last COVID-19 briefing was in mid-December when he toured the launch site for vaccinations at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.
“We would like, and have wanted to see all along, is do more. We will support you in doing more,” said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (D). “I alone lost two family members last week, this is hitting Arizona hard.”
Senator Rios, a veteran legislator, said that to be an effective leader, you must acknowledge there are going to be varying opinions, and you listen to everyone, “But, at the end of the day I think it’s incumbent upon leaders to identify ‘what can I do that will provide the most good for the most Arizonans?’”
Despite the pushback, Ducey will find allies in the audience within the business community. Last Friday, a virtual 2021 legislative luncheon with The Arizona Chamber of Commerce gave insight to those who may be wondering who is in the governor’s ear and what is he hearing.
“The way you’ve handled things in COVID-19, you’ve brought the state together, you’ve brought both parties together,” said Chamber President Glenn Hammer. “It’s a model. It’s an inspiration.”
Even if his only friends are Arizona’s business leaders, even with pandemic deaths mounting, even with a state divided and angry, even with threats from the Trump camp, Governor Ducey still carries much authority and much power.
“Nothing will happen at the state level without the signature of the governor,” former Chief of Staff Kirk Adams offers as a reminder. “He is the only indispensable person in the room.”