PHOENIX — State flags are at half staff today following the death Thursday night of veteran state lawmaker Andy Nichols.
The 64-year-old Tucson Democrat collapsed at his desk in his third floor office of the state Senate. Nichols, who also teaches medicine at the University of Arizona, was conversing with a student when "he just passed out," said Pat Sciara, falling off his chair.
"He started snoring," said Sciara who is a fourth-year medical student. At first Sciara said he thought that Nichols might be narcoleptic.
"But then he stopped breathing (and had) no pulse."
Phoenix firefighters who arrived several minutes later were unable to revive him before taking him to St. Joseph's Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Nichols apparently exhibited no signs of medical trouble before he collapsed. Sen. Mary Hartley, D-Phoenix, one of the legislators who went to the hospital, said Nichols told her he had a defective heart valve which she said he characterized as "no big deal."
By law, it is up to the Pima County Board of Supervisors to appoint a replacement, who must be from the same political party. A likely front runner is first-term Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from the same district.
Time is an issue with the Legislature entering its final weeks. Nichols' death leaves only 14 Democrats against 15 Republicans.
Nichols was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, serving there for eight years before winning a Senate seat last November in a hotly contested electoral contest with fellow House member Kathleen Dunbar, a Republican.
His main priority this session has been to push through legislation to provide free or subsidized prescriptions for seniors of limited income. That measure cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this week.
Nichols also was actively involved in implementing Proposition 204, a measure to boost the number of people entitled to state-paid health care approved by voters last November. Nichols was a prime mover behind the measure which beat a better-financed alternative pushed by Arizona hospitals.
He has been a perennial supporter of legislation to provide tax incentives for solar energy programs.
But many of his efforts revolved around public health.
A physician and professor of family medicine at the University of Arizona, Nichols was a perennial champion of lowering the permissible blood alcohol limit for motorists from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. That measure finally was approved and signed into law earlier this year.
He also pushed through another measure this session to have the state use its funds from the federal Women, Infants and Children program to provide folic acid supplements to women of child-bearing age. Nichols said the lack of folic acid, a B vitamin, is a leading cause of birth defects.
Nichols was not as successful with his plan to require young bicyclists to wear helmets, with most colleagues calling it unnecessary government intrusion.
"He was a champion of so many causes," said Senate President Randall Gnant, R-Scottsdale. "He was a member of our Senate family and we already miss him."
Former state Sen. George Cunningham entered the Legislature as a House member with Nichols and roomed with him the first three years. He remembered Nichols as a "tenacious advocate" for his causes — a trait that sometimes got in his way.
"I think that when he first arrived he did not have the diplomacy skills to work other members," said Cunningham, who left the Senate last year in an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He said that Nichols, who replaced him, eventually developed "an uncanny ability to work with those of his own party and the other party."
Francie Noyes, press aide to Gov. Jane Hull, said Nichols and the governor did not always agree on issue. She said, though, Hull believed "his dedication to his constituency and his causes has been really unparalleled."
Nichols got his master's degree in public health from Harvard University and his medical degree from Stanford University.
Nichols served in the Peace Corps in Peru in the 1960s. He is survived by his widow, Ann, and three children.
— Arizona Daily Sun