Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, 11-term member of Congress, dead at 80

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Jim Kolbe
Jim Kolbe

Former Rep. Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican from Tucson, Arizona, who advocated free trade and liberalized immigration rules during his 22 years in Washington, has died at age 80.

"Pima County and Southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe," Sharon Bronson, the Pima County Board of Supervisors chair, said Saturday in a written statement announcing his death. "Whether when he was in the state Legislature or in the Congress, the man from Patagonia always acted in the best interests of Southern Arizona.

"Jim was old school Republican in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower – a friend of business and the environment.

"The preservation and conservation of beloved wild spaces and cultural treasures like Canoa Ranch and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area are the result in large part to Jim’s leadership while in the Congress."

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey eulogized Kolbe Saturday as "a true elder statesman and political powerhouse."

"Congressman Jim Kolbe never wavered in his responsibility to our state and nation," Ducey said in a written statement on Twitter. "We are deeply saddened by his passing."

Kolbe entered Congress after the 1984 elections, when President Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism was winning over some Democrats, and left in 2007 as partisanship deepened, making it more difficult for Republicans to compete in southern Arizona.

He departed Washington out of sync with the GOP in important ways: He was gay, supported abortion rights and a guest-worker program to help manage the growing restlessness about the nation’s immigration system.

Kolbe spent his career after Congress working for think tanks, consulting firms and teaching. He remained a Republican but more often lent a bipartisan appearance to Democratic causes.

Then-President Barack Obama named him an adviser on trade issues. He supported Democrat Andrei Cherny over Republican Doug Ducey in the 2010 Arizona treasurer’s race. And Kolbe withdrew as campaign chairman of the leading Republican seeking to regain the House seat Kolbe once held.

It helped then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., win reelection in 2008, and was an unsurprising bookend to a political career that often cut against the grain.

In September 2018, during President Donald Trump's White House term, Kolbe switched his voter registration from Republican to independent.

"People are making a bigger deal about (the voter registration change) than I have," Kolbe told The Arizona Republic in 2020, the year he endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for president over Trump. "I've always been fairly independent in my thinking. It doesn't change my values."

Kolbe was born in Evanston, Illinois, but raised in Patagonia. His family cared about politics and it became a passion for Jim and for his older brother, John Kolbe, who became a high-profile political columnist for the Phoenix Gazette and The Arizona Republic until his death from cancer in 1998.

Jim Kolbe began working around politics and government at an early age.

February 1999: Rep. Jim Kolbe (right) points out Esther Tang's family in the crowd to President Bill Clinton. Tang, a native Tucsonian and longtime Democratic supporter, introduced President Clinton at his speech at the Tucson Convention Center.
February 1999: Rep. Jim Kolbe (right) points out Esther Tang's family in the crowd to President Bill Clinton. Tang, a native Tucsonian and longtime Democratic supporter, introduced President Clinton at his speech at the Tucson Convention Center.


Kolbe was a page in Washington for then-Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., from 1958 until 1960. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northwestern University in 1965 and a master’s in business administration from Stanford University two years later.

He had two years of active combat duty with the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and remained in the Naval Reserves until 1977.

After his active duty ended in 1969, Kolbe worked as a special assistant to the Illinois governor on capital programs and the Illinois Building Authority.

He returned to Arizona and worked in real estate, but also set his sights on elected office. In 1976, he was elected to the first of three terms in the Arizona Senate.

He quickly established himself there as a moderate with votes to support the Equal Rights Amendment and a bill to offer in-state college tuition for certain immigrants residing in Arizona.

In 1982, Kolbe, known to some as the “Happy Warrior,” quit the Legislature to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“When you hear the word ‘liberal’ used about me, they are usually talking about two issues − the ERA and abortion,” Kolbe said in 1982. “I don’t think I’m a liberal at all. I have a background in economics at Stanford University, a pretty conservative institution, and I am death on government regulations.”

His race against Democrat Jim McNulty was principally a referendum on Reagan’s performance on the economy and came as the nation was still shaking off high unemployment and high interest rates.

Kolbe lost by less than 2 percentage points but narrowly defeated McNulty in a rematch in 1984.

By then, the economy was in better shape and the public largely credited the economic strategies that Kolbe had defended in 1982.

Kolbe also assailed McNulty for having what he considered a “bizarre” and “erratic” voting record in Washington.

Among those votes, Kolbe noted, was one in which McNulty supported imposing sanctions on employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Kolbe said he would have voted against the measure, helping him with some of the Hispanic voters who elected McNulty in 1982.

It was the start of a 22-year run in Washington in which Kolbe saw the GOP move from decades in the minority in the House to taking control after the 1994 elections.

Former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., remembered Kolbe as a kind man who worked cooperatively for his district.

They worked on water and tribal issues and astronomy and border legislation, DeConcini said.

"To me, he is what the Republican Party used to be under Goldwater and Bob Dole and even Ronald Reagan," said DeConcini, who was a contemporary of all of them during his three terms in the Senate beginning after the 1976 elections.

"They were conservative with less government and what have you, but they listened to people. Jim had a way to listen to somebody even if he disagreed. He paid attention like you’re important to me. He’s a wonderful man and such a decent guy. He was a typical congressman you could work with no matter what side of the aisle he was on."

DeConcini served with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and their relationship became strained after the “Keating Five” scandal that led the Senate Ethics Committee to find that DeConcini had interfered with the resulting investigation.

As McCain neared death in 2018, Kolbe told DeConcini he was heading to McCain’s Cornville ranch for a visit. Kolbe took a letter from DeConcini and acted as an emissary on behalf of DeConcini.“He was kind of close to McCain,” DeConcini remembered. "He said, ‘Don’t worry Dennis. John is over any of the problems he had.’ That meant a lot to me personally to have somebody that would care enough to go out of his way for someone who was not a close, dear friend."

Kolbe’s hold on the Democratic-leaning 5th Congressional District grew over time. He won subsequent elections by wider margins, reaching nearly 70% of the vote in 1992. Neither Democrats, who comprised the majority of registered voters, nor Republicans, who grumbled about Kolbe’s moderate votes, offered much political resistance.

“Fifth District people want the government to act fiscally responsible, like they must with their own families, but they don’t want government involved in every part of their lives,” he said in 1994.

In Washington, Kolbe was a social moderate and fiscal conservative.

He supported a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning and sought to end production of the penny, which he noted cost more to make than it was worth. He opposed abortion bans on the grounds that he didn’t want governmental intrusion into personal lives.

In August 1996, Kolbe’s personal life attracted momentary national attention.

His brother wrote a front-page column in The Republic that revealed Jim Kolbe was gay.

“That I am a gay person has never affected the way that I legislate,” Jim Kolbe said at the time.

The Kolbes went public ahead of an effort in the gay community to make Jim Kolbe’s sexual orientation known as punishment for his support of the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA, as it was known, allowed states to ignore gay marriages performed in other states.

It was in response to a legal ruling in Hawaii that left open the possibility of legalizing gay marriage in that state, and stood as the law of the land until the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage in a pair of rulings in 2013 and 2015.

Jim Kolbe said he backed DOMA because he wanted states to have the freedom to decide the matter on their own.

He easily won a seventh term later that year, and four others after that.

His last run, in 2004, proved his most difficult since first winning office. Randy Graf, a hardliner against illegal immigration, challenged Kolbe for the GOP nomination.

Kolbe defeated Graf and easily won his 11th term in Congress later that year, but announced in early 2005 that he would not seek another term.

In October 2006, just before his congressional career ended, federal prosecutors opened an investigation into a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon from the summer of 1996 involving Kolbe and two 17-year-old former congressional pages. Kolbe’s sister and five staffers were also part of the trip.

The investigation ended months later with the Justice Department saying there was no reason to pursue it further.

But the Kolbe investigation came within days of the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., over allegations that he had sent inappropriate messages to teenage pages during his time in the House.

The House investigation in that matter also revealed that in 2001 Kolbe had heard a page complain that Foley had sent him emails that made him uncomfortable. Kolbe said he referred the matter to the House clerk and had a staffer discuss it with Foley.

After leaving Congress, Kolbe was a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan think tank focused on trans-Atlantic trade, and a consultant for Kissinger McLarty Associates. He taught a trade-related class at the University of Arizona’s law school.

In 2013, Kolbe married his longtime partner Hector Alfonso, a teacher from Panama, in Washington, D.C., where gay marriage was legal. About the same time, he testified at the U.S. Senate about the need to extend legal protections to same-sex couples in a comprehensive immigration bill that was pending and ultimately failed.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Jim Kolbe, former Republican congressman from Arizona, dead at 80