In many ways, Rick Lavis was a throwback to a different era. As the longtime executive director of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, he was one of the so-called “old guard” of Arizona lobbyists, the ones who are universally lauded for their my-word-is-my-bond approach to negotiating over public policy. But outside of politics, Lavis also held fast to his traditions, eschewing emails and social media messages in favor of letters, which he typed out for decades on the IBM typewriter that was a fixture on his desk.
Lavis died Nov. 26 at the age of 76. He is survived by his wife, Marti, and their two sons.
Lavis spent his boyhood in downtown Phoenix, where his family lived within sight of the state Capitol. As a young man, he served as an aide to U.S. Sen. Paul Fannin, R-AZ, in Washington, D.C., and then lobbied in the nation’s capital for a natural gas company before spending four years as an official in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In 1980, Lavis returned to Arizona to be the boots on the ground at the Capitol for the Cotton Growers Association.
Paco Ollerton, owner of Tierra Verde Farms in Casa Grande and president of the Cotton Growers Association, said he remembered an intense discussion among the group’s board members about whether Lavis was the right man for the job, given that he was raised in Phoenix and had spent much of his professional life in D.C., not in the cotton fields of Pinal County.
But Ollerton said he was of the mind that Lavis’ experience was exactly what was needed: The association needed an expert in lobbying to navigate the Legislature and advocate for those who extracted their livelihoods from the Arizona soil one boll at a time, not someone who had dirt under their fingernails from doing just that.
“He was the master of working his magic with the Legislature,” Ollerton said.
Lavis arrived at the Capitol at a monumental time, as the Legislature was completing a massive deal to regulate the state’s groundwater and balance the competing interests of utilities, farmers and city-dwellers.
Jim Klinker, the chief administrative officer for the Arizona Farm Bureau, worked alongside Lavis on what would eventually come to be known as the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 and said Lavis “got his baptism under fire” that year.
Bas Aja, the executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders’ Association, said that experience helped shape Lavis.
“Pressure makes diamonds, and it made a diamond with Rick,” he said.
Though Lavis’ chief responsibility was to represent the interests of the cotton industry, he was widely known as an expert in all things agricultural, and he represented all agricultural interests on various boards and committees that dealt with water, environmental issues, air quality and education.
NAIOP Arizona Chapter President Tim Lawless, who was a plaintiff with Lavis in a 1999 lawsuit challenging Clean Elections, praised Lavis as “one of the last of the old guard” at the Capitol.
“He was a straight-shooter. He pretty much told it the way it was… He had no problem standing up and being counted, even if it wasn’t a popular position,” Lawless said.
Ollerton said Lavis’ honesty is why he was so well-respected, in both the agricultural and lobbying worlds, even if it sometimes meant he delivered a message that was difficult to hear.
“He had a tendency to, pardon the expression, act like a proctologist and pull your head out of your rear end if that’s what you needed,” Ollerton said, adding that he was on the receiving end of such conversations more than once.
Arizona Capitol Times Publisher Emeritus Ned Creighton was childhood friends with Lavis and said he was an “open-hearted, happy man” who was among the most politically astute people he’d ever met.
“He had the biggest damn political library you ever saw – maybe several hundred books, all on politics. And he read every one of them,” Creighton said.
That knowledge, combined with his experiences in Congress and the Legislature, meant that talking to Lavis was “like a master’s class in politics,” Creighton said.