Stealth Zealot

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Jon Kyl made a name for himself at the University of Arizona with his keen mind and big political ambitions. After getting his undergraduate degree, he entered the University of Arizona law school and was quickly one of his class' top students.

"I just love the law," Kyl says. "I especially got excited about natural law -- what is the nature of man? How can government best accommodate the competing interest?"

His voting record would indicate that he follows one of the key elements of natural law -- that the health and strength of the system relies on competing interests being allowed to duke it out on their own for supremacy.

At UofA, Kyl was the Alpha Preppie, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, editing the Arizona Law Review and meeting his longtime love, Caryll, at church one Sunday.

After school, Kyl landed a sweetheart job with Jennings, Strouss and Salmon, the Phoenix law firm that represented many of the state's most powerful people.

There, Kyl was part of a team of attorneys representing the Salt River Project. The team included Rex Lee, who later served as the president of Brigham Young University and U.S. Solicitor General, and Jack Pfister, who later became the longtime general manager of SRP.

In time, Kyl became the senior lawyer, and chief lobbyist, for the Salt River Project.

As such, he became deeply familiar with the machinery of state and federal government.

"Jon is a very bright, nimble thinker with an amazing grasp of complex policy issues," says Pfister, his old mentor and longtime friend, himself one of Arizona's elder statesmen. "In Washington, even though he's clearly a very conservative individual, he gets a lot of respect from Democrats for his work drafting and negotiating legislation. He's just a very gifted and respected legislator."

For example, Kyl has worked alongside California Democrat Dianne Feinstein for several years pushing for extended rights for crime victims.

Pfister himself is a moderate Republican, a "Pinto Republican," he says, parodying the name used for the middle-of-the-road "Pinto Democrats" of Arizona. He has several times found himself at odds with his considerably more conservative friend, particularly on social issues. But Pfister says Kyl has always been respectful of his position, and Kyl, he says, "is not at all a fake" in his conservative values.

"Jon is Jon," Pfister says. "He lives modestly, he is frugal, he has the highest level of integrity, he's not at all a flashy guy or a guy who acts out of expedience. I do believe he deeply respected his father and what he represented, and I think he has modeled that sort of Midwestern Conservatism in his life. You can disagree with his views, but I have never questioned that he is a genuine, good man."

Kyl, he says, has helped Arizona "more than people realize." Pfister says Kyl has been a strong supporter of the Central Arizona Project, the massive federal canal project to bring Colorado River water into central Arizona. Kyl has consistently fought against closures or cutbacks to Arizona's military bases.

One of Kyl's great achievements was the landmark Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, the result of 15 years of work by Kyl and several dozen Indian communities and other stakeholders that, Pfister says, "essentially secures Arizona's water supply for decades to come."

Rita Maguire, former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, worked closely with Kyl throughout the Water Settlements process. She has only good things to say about Kyl's role in bringing about a settlement many thought was impossible.

In the months before the settlement, Kyl was flying in to Phoenix from Washington on Fridays and spending much of his weekends hashing out details of the agreement. Maguire says he was constantly bouncing from meetings with the different parties, "lunch here, dinner there, he was always moving," she says. "It was amazing to watch his energy and commitment to getting the deal done."

"One Friday night, my daughter and I drive into our driveway and we notice we've been followed by this beat-up old Suburban," Maguire says. "Well, it's Jon, and he jumps out of that thing and is all excited about something he had forgotten to tell me in an early meeting. That was it. He was just really earnest, really dedicated."

But it was by no means fun, Kyl tells New Times in the interview.

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," he says. "But I was in a position to be the catalyst. There wasn't anybody else who could do that water deal. And it had to be done."

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Robert Nelson