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Bill Konopnicki

Editor’s note: Yes, the blog is still dark for the time being, but my brother wanted to write a tribute to his friend and colleague (and according to Polish clan rules, shield brother), Bill Konopnicki

Last week came the sad news of the passing of my former colleague, Bill Konopnicki, Republican of Safford. He was a deeply thoughtful statesman in the long-standing tradition of earthy and pragmatic rural Arizona legislators for whom partisan considerations were secondary to the needs of their communities. It is a reminder of how quickly things in Arizona changed so radically that we speak of him as if he was part of some distant, bygone era, but we are talking about a man who was first elected in 2002 and served until 2010. This is not long ago at all, but it is difficult to imagine his like in the current legislature.

An alum of both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, Bill brought to the legislature a long record of community involvement, including terms on the school board and the governing board of the Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center. Back in the early 1970s, he was, along with his future House colleague Phil Lopes, involved in the establishment of Pima Community College. He later moved to Safford to work in the administration at Eastern Arizona College. This experience proved invaluable during the many times that state’s community college system became a political football.

My brother met him before I did. Ted ran Marsha Arzberger’s successful campaign for State Senate in 2000, when her district included both Cochise and Graham Counties. Bill was a supporter, despite the fact that Marcia was a Democrat, and his presence would have been difficult to avoid anyway. He seemed to own every McDonald’s in rural Southern Arizona that was not owned by José Canchola.

We hear all the time from politicians who cite their business experience, but a little bit of digging reveals that their records in this regard are problematic. This was not the case with Bill. He was an exemplary community-minded businessman. Once, during one of those marathon budget sessions, Bill took time out to drive to Safford and back to deal with a payroll problem which would have prevented his employees from getting paid on time, something that others might have let slide. This spoke not only to the special problems that rural legislators face, but also to Bill’s sincere concern for the people who worked for him.

Bill was usually labeled a “moderate Republican.” While this label does not seem unfair, it couches his approach to public policy in terms of some sort of ideology. The truth is that Bill recognized, as did his colleagues from his district, Senators Jack Brown (D-St. Johns) and Jake Flake (R-Snowflake), that the underserved rural communities that they represented could ill afford grand partisan gestures and crusades. To this end, he was willing over and over again to work across the aisle and focus on policy rather than politics.

I do not remember if he was a member of the faction that the capitol press corps dubbed the “Cellar Dwellers,” a group of dissident Republicans who met in the basement to hammer out a reasonable budget at a time that the majority leadership was concerned chiefly with exercising a petty and unproductive feud with Governor Janet Napolitano, but Bill was always a solid voice for reason when it came to the budget. Not only did he recognize the long term needs of his district and the state as a whole, but he also knew that a strictly Republican budget would never survive the closely divided House or the scrutiny of the Democratic Governor. Again, results were far more important than talking points.

It was not unusual to find Bill hanging out in Democrat’s offices, including mine, especially that of his seatmate Jack Brown and his old friend Representative Phil Lopes (D-Tucson) when the latter served as the Democratic Leader. It was not always about business, he was a genuinely friendly guy. We often hear about the collegiality of the legislature, but such geniality too infrequently crosses party lines.

One of the things I worked on at the capitol was trying to fix Health Care Group, a sort of state-chartered insurance pool for small businesses. The legislature had, over the years, very intentionally thrown sand into the gears of the program at the behest of the insurance industry. I was surprised one day to find out that Representative Konopnicki had scheduled my bill for a hearing in front of his committee. It failed, as we both knew it would, but he thought that it needed to be discussed. Afterward, he pulled me aside to tell me that he wanted to work with me on it next session, but, unfortunately, I did not have a chance to do so.

Bill often found himself at odds with his caucus’ leadership, something which got him branded a “RINO” by an increasingly doctrinaire clique of party activists. He was openly critical of Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), whose ascent to near-total dominance occurred largely during Bill’s tenure. It should be remembered that, while Pearce’s rise was due largely to the craven behavior of so many who knew better, he also made use of some despicable tactics, and Bill was one of his targets.

At first, Bill took this with a modicum of humor. Once, when he got a rude email from a Pearce supporter, he recognized the address as being on his way between the place he stayed at while he was in Phoenix and the capitol, so he decided to stop by the writer’s house for a friendly visit. The man’s strident convictions failed him once he was confronted by the fact that his bile was directed at a real person.

However, dealing with this sort of thing this way eventually became impossible. Bill’s opposition to whatever it was that Pearce was pushing at the time made him the target of personal attacks which bordered on actual threats. Though Pearce himself maintained a veneer of plausible deniability, it was clear that he was a little more than indirectly responsible for provoking his most dedicated followers. Finally, Bill rose up to speak out against what Pearce was doing, breaking down into tears on the floor as he voted his conscience. Bill was very careful to stay within the bounds of legislative decorum and not attack Pearce directly, but we all knew who he was speaking of. It was ballsy, and could have been a Joseph Welch moment if a few more of his colleagues had shown this kind of courage.

I will admit that there were times that Bill did things that, at the time, disappointed me. However, in retrospect I understand and even sympathize with why he did what he did. Once, an abortive bipartisan effort to elect him Speaker fizzled before it even started when too many of the Republicans who would have joined Democrats in voting for him proved to be squishy. You cannot accomplish anything at the legislature without steady support from your allies. The reasonable middle is sometimes a lonely place to be, and it seems unfortunate that we have a political environment where governing from consensus is an act of conspicuous bravery.

It was that kind of courage that made Arizona lucky to have Bill. I am proud that he was my colleague and friend.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Tom, for that wonderful recollection of Bill Konopnicki.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  2. Ken Clark wrote:

    Well said, Tom.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  3. jmk wrote:

    Beautifully written, Tom.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink