Former state Rep. Bill Konopnicki died Oct. 17 at his home in Safford after being diagnosed earlier this year with an autoimmune disorder that led to non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. He was 67.
“I know, down to my core, that Bill Konopnicki was the cream of the crop,” said former Rep. Marian McClure, a Republican who served with Konopnicki for six years. “I know I’ve lost my best friend.”
Konopnicki was born in Detroit and moved to Yuma with his family when he was five years old. He graduated from Kofa High School and attended Arizona Western College before transferring to Arizona State University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business education.
He went on to receive his doctorate in higher education from the University of Arizona. In Tucson, he worked for local public schools, Pima Community College and the University of Arizona.
After moving to Safford in 1972, he worked at Eastern Arizona College and was an ardent supporter of efforts to let students at rural two- year colleges pursue bachelor degrees. He also served 12 years on the Safford School District Governing Board, and was a president of the Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center.
Konopnicki also built a small business empire in eastern Arizona, owning nine McDonald’s franchises, seven radio stations and serving as the CEO of WSK Management Systems.
In 2002, he was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in Legislative District 5 alongside fellow Republican Franklin “Jake” Flake. He served in the House until 2010, and chaired the Financial Institutions and Insurance and the Natural Resources committees during his tenure.
In 2010, he unsuccessfully tried to unseat Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen, but remained active in politics as a board member for the Grand Canyon Institute, a centrist think tank.
Legislative colleagues praised Konopnicki for his dedication to public service, his willingness to approach even the most complicated and controversial issues with an open mind and his work to foster bipartisan cooperation.
His longtime seatmate in Legislative District 5 was Jack Brown, a veteran Democratic lawmaker. Brown, a rancher from St. Johns with a reputation for working across the partisan divide, said he quickly forged a strong relationship with Konopnicki.
“We were best of friends. We trusted each other 100 percent,” he said.
“He was the most respected legislator of anybody I know. He’s my kind of legislator.”
Konopnicki forged a reputation as a moderate who fought hard against the increasingly ideological positions taken by some of his fellow Republicans.
“Bill believed in Arizona as much as anybody down there,” said House Speaker Andy Tobin, who served with Konopnicki from 2007 to 2010. “He fought hard for the kind of Arizona he wanted to live in and he wanted his children to live in. He didn’t let party labels get in between that.”
Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat who served in the House from 2003 to 2009, said Konopnicki had the ability to bring disparate points of view together and forge a deal.
“We haven’t had anyone at the Capitol in a long time that had that type of magic,” he said.
Konopnicki’s clashes with other Republicans were never more apparent than when it came to illegal immigration. He often criticized enforcement-only proposals, and frequently called for an approach that didn’t punish those who came to America to seek a better life.
However, even Konopnicki couldn’t stop the anti-illegal-immigration fervor that led to SB1070 in 2010. After missing a late-night vote on a similar proposal a year earlier that failed on the House floor, Konopnicki said he felt he had no choice but to vote for the bill — even though it was bad public policy.
“I get really tired of playing games and passing feel-good bills that don’t do a thing to stem the tide of illegal immigration,” Konopnicki said. “This bill is filled with problems. But I feel obligated to vote aye.”
One of his allies on illegal immigration was Sen. Rich Crandall, but the pair forged a strong bond years earlier when they were neighbors in Safford.
“It’s so funny because he hired me (at McDonald’s) when I was 15 for my first job, and all of a sudden we’re sitting next to each other in Michele Reagan’s Commerce Committee,” Crandall said. “He would remind me. If he disagreed with a position I took in committee, he would always say, ‘I knew that $3.35 an hour I paid you was too much.’”
Tobin said Konopnicki was one of the friendliest lawmakers he’s served with, and he made a special effort to help newcomers to the House of Representatives.
“The first thing you get from Bill was a big smile and a hand on your shoulder and an invitation to sit down at talk about what you needed,” Tobin said.
In January of this year, as he was mulling a run for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st Congressional District, Konopnicki began experiencing shortness of breath and fatigue. By mid-March, he had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that had been attacking his liver.
That had turned into cirrhosis and had atrophied most of the organ, leaving him in need of a liver transplant.
“It went from being fine nine months ago to there just being almost nothing left,” Konopnicki said in May about his liver. The comments were published in the Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times.
By September, Konopnicki was wheelchair-bound and had developed an enlarged heart, making him too unhealthy to qualify for a liver transplant, said Clancy Jayne, a former legislative colleague and close friend of Konopnicki’s.
Several weeks of physical therapy intended to improve his health were unsuccessful, and he was transferred on Oct. 11 from the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale to his home in Safford so he could be near his family.
Konopnicki is survived by his wife, Cathy, and their four children.