From Summer 2000: As attorney general of Arizona, Grant Woods ’76 helped bring Big Tobacco to its knees. Every day he ignites the airwaves with his popular radio gig. Is a run for governor in his future? For once, Woods isn’t saying
Editor's note: Occidental Trustee Grant Woods '76 passed away on October 23, 2021. This story was published in the Summer 2000 issue of Occidental magazine.
“Softball-sized hail! Did you say ‘softball-sized hail?’” Arizona radio personality Grant Woods ’76 asks incredulously. “Tell me this is a Texas exaggeration: softball-sized hail!?”
It’s a busy news day on KFYI-AM in Phoenix; segments on the New York Senate race, Elian Gonzalez, and an intriguing ruling by the Supreme Court await. But the host of The Grant Woods Show is momentarily baffled by an eyewitness report—from a CBS correspondent, no less—of softball-sized hail in Fort Worth, Texas. “I find this hard to believe,” Woods declares.
To his surprise, however, callers are quick to back up the assessment. Craig in Mesa once saw hail that large in Plato. John in Tempe concurs, recalling chunks of ice “the size of my hand” during a storm. “I’m getting a lesson here, it looks like,” Woods says, his skepticism easing. “Our callers are standing up for the Texans.”
It’s been nearly a year since all-talk KFYI lured Grant Woods away from rival KTAR, outbidding its competitor for the services of the always-opinionated lawyer and former state attorney general. Since giving Woods the coveted 5-7 p.m. slot, KFYI has shot into first among Phoenix’s eight news-radio stations during afternoon drive time.
Part of the attraction may be the unpredictability of the host. As a maverick politician and two-term state attorney general (1991-99), Woods built a reputation of always speaking his mind—no matter whom it offended. In fact, when KTAR approached Woods in 1993 about hosting a weekly radio show, it was his take-no-prisoners approach that prompted his advisors to plead with Woods not to accept the offer. With a second term in the offing, “They were afraid of what I would say,” Woods recalls. “Most politicians like to play it close to the vest, but the bottom line was that I didn’t really care. And it’s worked out great.”
Woods’s show is a lifeboat for moderate thought amid a sea of conservative, often rabid, talk radio (the KFYI lineup features Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, in addition to other local personalities). Combining a droll sense of humor with a keen feel for pressing issues, Woods likens his program, which changes topics each 15-minute segment, to NBC’s Today show—“just a little more out there,” he says. (That explains his on-air reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision on nude dancing: “To have Justice Sandra Day O’Connor poppin’ off on nude dancing … very strange. Welcome to America.”) Judging by the ratings, his tell-it-like-it-is style has won over conservatives and liberals alike. But remember, this is coming from a Republican who championed Democratic issues—environmental protection, civil rights, consumer protection—while twice being elected attorney general in a notoriously conservative state.
The Arizona political landscape, past and present, is dotted with politicians who have placed personal conviction ahead of party ideology. Raised in Mesa, Woods is shaped in the mold of such noted Arizona mavericks as Morris Udall, Barry Goldwater, and John McCain. But for a while, it appeared as if the courtroom would win out over the public arena for the Occidental political science major. The son of a construction company owner and a schoolteacher, Woods attended law school at Arizona State University and then spent three years working as a public defender. He dabbled briefly in politics in the early 1980s, serving as a staffer to McCain in the U.S. House of Representatives. After two years in Washington, though, Woods moved back to Arizona and set up his own legal office.
But the political leadership of the Grand Canyon State in the late 1980s was a far cry from Woods’s own idealistic bent and sense of moral decency. Fed up with the direction his home state was going, he decided to run for attorney general in 1990. “I thought we had tremendous leadership—if we were talking about the 1890s,” Woods recalls dryly. “But we were coming off a governor (Evan Mecham) who had been impeached, recalled, and then indicted. It takes a lot of effort to pull a trifecta like that.”
Running as a reformer before the term became chic, and with the backing of McCain and other prominent politicians, Woods swept into office past incumbent Republican Bob Corbin, who resigned rather than run against him. It took all of one day as attorney general before Woods began rocking boats.
In 1990, the people of Arizona had rejected a measure, largely opposed by the Republican Party, that would have instituted Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. Yet when Woods stepped to the rostrum in January 1991 to make his inaugural address to a gathering of state Republicans, he made sure that the issue was not dead. “Our number one priority is to work as hard as we can to pass Martin Luther King Day,” he said, stunning the audience in a blatant rebuke of party mantra. “Out of 800 people, 600 erupted in a chorus of boos,” Woods recalls with a chuckle. “But ultimately, we got it done.” The measure passed in 1992.
In the eight years that followed, Woods and his office turned the state upside down in a far-reaching effort to root out wrongdoing and civil injustice. He put away drug dealers, child molesters, and murderers. He filed suit against Arizona’s largest oil company, leading car dealer, and biggest bank. And his sense of morality was never far from his work. In 1997, the state’s top cop blew the whistle on the Border Patrol and a local police force, accusing officers of violating the civil rights of Hispanic residents in an attempt to detain illegal aliens. The attorney general’s report on what became known as the “Chandler Roundup” resulted in a $400,000 settlement and the establishment of a city human relations commission.
“Something like the Chandler Roundup will never happen again,” Woods declares. “Going after the police wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but it was something I needed—had—to do.”
If you take the term “conviction” and twist it around a bit, you come up with a word that has quite a different meaning: convicted. And in Arizona in the 1990s, conviction burned in the heart of one politician—while “convicted” lurked in the future of another. When the people of Arizona selected Grant Woods as attorney general, they also elected as governor a Republican named Fife Symington.
Party affiliation might have been the only thing Woods and Symington shared, and each found the other to be a constant force of friction from the outset. Both were re-elected in 1994, but the feud did not simmer; it boiled. “I must have criticized, clashed with, or investigated Symington on a daily basis,” Woods says. “We certainly didn’t lack for action, that’s for sure.”
By mid-decade the governor was facing a federal investigation into financial improprieties, and clashes with Woods—a source of high theater for the local press—were becoming more and more frequent. At the same time, Woods was ready to take on the biggest challenge, and largest foe, of his tenure: Big Tobacco.
In 1996, several states, all with Democratic attorneys general, sued the tobacco companies to recover state Medicaid funds spent on treating sick and dying smokers. But the suit was picking up little steam and was in danger of being pigeonholed as a partisan witch hunt. That all changed when Arizona joined the plaintiffs that fall, with Woods helping bridge the political divide by lending a Republican voice to the traditionally Democratic cause. Back home, he was met by either harsh criticism or silence.
“The right-wingers thought I was jumping in the pocket of Big Government,” Woods recalls, “and everyone else thought I was committing a suicidal act.” The only people who stood next to him at the announcement were doctors and nurses; Gov. Symington was noticeably silent. But he wouldn’t remain silent for long.
TOBACCO SUIT PITS GOVERNOR AGAINST WOODS
—The Arizona Republic, Oct. 18, 1996
When Symington decided to speak out about the lawsuit, it was front-page news. Woods was sitting in a negotiation meeting in Phoenix involving other attorneys general when he was handed a letter from the governor ordering him to pull Arizona out of the lawsuit. (Symington said that he hoped the effect of his order would “kick Woods out of bed with the trial Bar.”) The fact that the letter was issued to the press before it was delivered to Woods further stoked his ire.
At a hastily convened press conference with Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore at his side, “I basically said that Gov. Symington could go take a hike,” Woods says, clearly relishing the recollection. “He didn’t have the power to tell me to do anything.”
Symington did have the power, however, to remove the state’s health-care program for the poor—the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System—as the client in the suit. But Woods pressed on anyway, telling reporters that he decides “the policy of this state in consumer protection.” Skeptical of the governor’s motives, he openly questioned why Symington had reneged on his pledge not to interfere. Does he really believe the case is unwinnable, Woods asked the press, or is there another reason for the sudden demand?
It wasn’t long before the Fourth Estate uncovered enough evidence to cast the governor’s motives in doubt. A search of Symington campaign records revealed that tobacco-industry political action committees had contributed more than $13,000 to the governor’s campaign coffers since 1990. Furthermore, The Arizona Republic reported that Symington met with tobacco lobbyists the day before his announcement.
Public opinion steadily lined up behind Woods. A January 1997 Gallup Poll showed that 58 percent of Arizona adults favored the lawsuit. One month later, a poll conducted by KAET-TV and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunications at Arizona State showed that Woods was the state’s most popular politician, with an approval rating of 66 percent. Symington, meanwhile, was languishing at Gingrich-esque depths, clinging to a 33 percent approval rating.
The outcome of the suit made history. That spring, Liggett Group Inc. broke from the pack of cigarette makers and settled the case. And Woods, who had served as lead negotiator for the states, found himself at center stage. In a press conference broadcast live on CNN, Woods declared “this is the beginning of the end for the conspiracy of lies and deceptions perpetrated against the American public by the tobacco industry. Someone is finally telling the truth.”
What it meant for the state of Arizona was a windfall of nearly $3 billion. On Sept. 3, 1997, Gov. Fife Symington was convicted by a federal jury on six counts of bank fraud and one count of wire fraud, and subsequently resigned from office.
In discussing the settlement and the billions that will come Arizona’s way, Woods can’t help but recall Symington’s claim that the case was unwinnable and would cost the state too much money. “I guess he was wrong about that,” Woods says, slyly adding, “but he’s not too good with numbers.”
“He received a letter from her that told him how proud she was of him and how, if she had to, she would wait forever for him to return. And at the bottom of the envelope were two tiny candy hearts, unbroken that read ‘Love You’ and ‘Need You.’ Jack carried them carefully in his pocket for the rest of the war.”
—from “A Valentine’s Story,” an essay by Grant Woods
Yes, the man who brought down Big Tobacco also writes sentimental essays. “A Valentine’s Story,” the tale of an elderly couple faced with Alzheimer’s disease, was included in an anthology, Generally Speaking, that was sold regionally in Arizona. When he graduated from Occidental, Woods was torn between pursuing a career as a lawyer and trying his hand as a novelist. While we know what path he chose in 1976, he might yet venture down the other trail. He says he’s two-thirds of the way through a novel (“a few years” and counting in the making) and is working on a screenplay. Adhering to the adage “Write what you know,” the book is a courtroom thriller—“I think there’s room for another Grisham,” he says—and the only thing holding him up is finding the time to write.
At 3 p.m. on a hot April afternoon in Phoenix, Woods weaves in and out of traffic on his way to meet governor Jane Hull. His radio show begins in a few hours, and he’s already put in a typically busy day at his law practice (since leaving office in 1998 he has worked as a plaintiff’s attorney, tackling medical malpractice cases and the like), but he still manages to lend his voice to public policy issues. “It’s a pretty good deal,” he says. “I can have an impact on public policy, and I don’t have to hold office.”
Today, he and the governor will discuss a proposal to use the tobacco money to fund health-care needs. As chairman of the organization Healthy Children, Healthy Families, Woods would like to see the money benefit children and the under-insured. He also spoke out recently on an urban-sprawl initiative, causing a small controversy when he switched his endorsement from the Sierra Club’s more radical Citizens Growth Management Initiative to Hull’s Growing Smarter II bill. “The governor came up with a better proposal,” Woods says, brushing off the switch. “I don’t care who gets credit. I just want Arizona to get a handle on its growth.”
Pundits and politicos alike speculate that every move Woods makes is with an eye toward the governor’s mansion. Some think he’ll run in 2002 as an independent. Others say Republican, while bolder soothsayers postulate Democrat. Woods claims that his opinion on the matter hasn’t changed. “It’s not something I’m inclined to do, but I’m going to keep my options open,” he says. “I had eight great years in office. I accomplished what I wanted, and I left on a high note. There’s something to be said for that.”
In the meantime, he’ll continue practicing law, consulting with the governor, and, of course, pontificating on the airways. KFYI is changing ownership, and he’s considering sliding into another role with the station (it will be his decision, he stresses). There’s talk of him doing an Arizona version of Paul Harvey—a heavily promoted, taped segment that would run in the morning and afternoon drive times—with an eye toward national syndication.
The conversation circles back to his Valentine’s Day essay. For a moment, Woods is in sentimental mode, expressing the thoughts that went into his story. Coming from most people, these words can ring hollow, or worse, disingenuous. But with Woods, the words sound sincere. Then, just when you’re convinced that he’s a softy, he mentions The Notebook, a 1996 novel that follows the same general theme—and a No. 1 best-seller for first-time author Nicholas Sparks. “And that pisses me off,” he laughs.
You’re never quite sure what the former Arizona attorney general will say. But you know he’ll always speak his mind.