Tip O' the Hat

Sen. Andy Nichols earned respect from conservatives as well as his fellow progressives.

State Senator Dr. Andy Nichols was a Kentucky boy groomed by educational elite at Swarthmore, at Stanford for his medical degree and finally at Harvard for his master's in public health.

He also put in a two-year stint in Peru for the Peace Corps and then was lured by Dr. Herbert Abrams to direct the University of Arizona's Rural Health Office more than 30 years ago.

An unabashed liberal, Nichols would have seemed the perfect target for conservative politicians, operatives and commentators. He was someone who loved to spend money--other people's money, really, in a wide array of government programs including his own.

But what has been striking, in the days since Nichols' untimely death last week of a heart attack, at age 64, is the feeling from the conservatives.

In Tucson, radio raconteur Emil Franzi, who also has gutted politicians as a hit piece specialist, called Nichols "a true gentleman and good public servant."

Byron Howard, a conservative Democrat and former homebuilder who through the 1990s was one of Tucson's most visible advocates for business, agreed and said Nichols was "always approachable. And his word was his word."

And John Scott Ulm, the former one-time Democratic State senator who has hosted a politically oriented radio talk show for 11 years, said he "grew to really respect Andy."

Scott, a Republican convert who failed in his 1998 bid to return to the Legislature, was as unlikely a champion for Nichols as there could be. Scott supported Nichols' opponent, one-term House member Kathleen Dunbar, in the tight Senate race last fall.

"It is rare to get someone that intellectually capable in the Legislature," Scott said. "But he was not aloof or standoffish. He was not an elitist. And when he spoke to you, he looked you in the eye. I liked that about him."

Indeed, he was humble and pleasant even while being persistent. A bit of a "nudge," according to Howard Fischer, who provides state government coverage to newspapers through his Capitol Media Services. With one short break, Fischer has covered the capitol since 1982 and says Nichols was the rare "guileless" politician.

Nichols took some good-natured kidding from Fischer about an hour before he suffered the heart attack in his Senate office. They joked about the defeat in the House of Nichols' plan to extend legislative terms. "It's a season of resurrection," Nichols told Fischer.

"He always tried to do the right thing," said Fischer, who watched as Phoenix paramedics worked on Nichols on the floor before taking him to St. Joseph's Hospital.

With neither the flash nor the bull of others, Nichols twice campaigned for a House seat and lost. But he made allies in the media, including Tom Beal, then a columnist for the Arizona Daily Star who wrote how painstakingly honest Nichols was in selling a car.

He found success in 1992 and was re-elected three times before winning the Senate seat vacated when fellow Democrat George Cunningham chose to challenge U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.

Nichols was relentless in pushing for improved health care, particularly for the poor and working poor. He was an architect of Proposition 204, which will extend medical care to the working poor for long left out of the system. He also worked non-stop to get the state, which admittedly was also under federal pressure, to drop the blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving from .10 to .08. He pressed unsuccessfully for mandatory use of bicycle helmets and was getting close to success in his drive for free or subsidized prescriptions for low-income seniors.

But his work was not confined to health issues. He was a major supporter of the tax-increment financing proposal that helps pay for the Rio Nuevo development on the banks of the Santa Cruz and downtown Tucson. And he was doing his part to ward off the attack of Gov. Jane Hull and some conservative legislators on Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

That was one of the topics Nichols covered with Scott in a live interview hours before he died. Nichols said that he told a Senate recording secretary after a Democratic caucus to remind Republicans that Kolbe spoke against the attempt to derail the county land-preservation plan.

Nichols sought out Scott, offering after his victory over Dunbar to appear regularly to reach out to Scott's audience. It was in that final interview that Nichols, quaint or somewhat nerdy, praised the new civility at the Legislature. He then talked about the vigilance needed to derail last-minute legislative moves to gut the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan.

Said Nichols: "And they jolly well better watch it because if we're not paying attention and that thing slips up we're all in deep doo-doo."

Nichols is survived by his wife Ann; daughter Catherine; and sons Michael and Miles.

A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday, April 29, at 2 p.m. at the First Christian Church, 740 E. Speedway Blvd.

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