Arkansas state senators tore into Health Department Director Dr. José Romero Thursday at a meeting at which Romero was not present. The 10 senators present for the meeting ultimately voted 7-3 to forward Romero’s confirmation to the the full Senate for consideration today.
Republican senators Jason Rapert, Trent Garner and Gary Stubblefield lobbied hard against confirming Romero’s appointment to the directorship of the Arkansas Department of Health, a post to which Romero was appointed by Governor Hutchinson months ago. The trio of senators opposed to his appointment said they were dissatisfied with the way Romero handled the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. Romero discouraged its use, but Rapert and Stubblefield said the drug might have saved lives. And Garner criticized the rollout of COVID vaccines under Romero’s leadership. Rapert said he believed some Arkansans who died of COVID might still be alive had Romero endorsed the drug’s use despite National Institutes of Health recommendations.
Stubblefield added an unexpected comic twist to the sometimes tense meeting when he shared that for months, he has been taking Ivermectin, a dewormer he gives to his cattle. The FDA does not recommend Ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19.
Under state law a secretary of health must be confirmed by the state Senate. In the past this has always been a gimme, a simple checking of a box done without any fanfare or pushback. Not this time. Senators on the Rules Committee decided at an unrecorded April 1 meeting to single Romero’s nomination out for consideration, prompting this response from Sen. Jim Hendren, a former Republican, newly independent.
The Arkansas Department of Health confirmed Thursday morning that they had received no invitation to have Romero attend. Still, some senators at the meeting criticized him for not showing up.
“Why did I sit in this chair?” asked Garner from his spot at the head of the long conference table. “Because the man who should have been sitting in this chair didn’t show.” Garner said senators shouldn’t sit back and let a bad precedent be set that agency directors can blow them off. What if the next director of the Department of Health pushes transgenderism and refuses to answer to legislators? Garner asked. “We are effectively the only check and balance for the whole state of Arkansas,” he said.
But Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) came to Romero’s defense, saying it would make no sense for Romero to be here.
“It really bothers me that we would be so prideful and so arrogant that we would take it out on him for not showing up,” she said. “What could he do? We’re all senators. He wouldn’t have a chance to push back.”
An extremist wing of the Arkansas legislature has long bristled at Romero’s fidelity to CDC guidelines like social distancing and mask-wearing, proven to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the main health consultant to Governor Hutchinson, Romero was able to encourage a statewide mask mandate and a state of emergency that limited crowd sizes and some business operations in an attempt to contain the virus. But some Republican lawmakers — especially extremist senators Bob Ballinger and Dan Sullivan — opposed these directives from the get-go as an affront to liberty, the lives of Arkansans be damned. Eighteen Republican lawmakers, went so far as to sue the governor to drop the mask mandate and other health measures unless and until the legislature got to vote on it. Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffin threw the case out, ruling that Hutchinson was within his authority to issue COVID-related restrictions.
Hutchinson has repeatedly expressed confidence in Romero’s work.