Tucson memorial service for ex-Rep. Jim Kolbe set for Jan. 28
A memorial service for former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, who died last month at age 80, will be held in Tucson on Saturday, Jan. 28. A memorial is also being scheduled in Washington, D.C.
The service for the longtime Republican congressman will begin at 3 p.m. at Catalina United Methodist Church, 2700 E. Speedway.
The event "celebrating his life and legacy" will conclude with refreshments in the reception hall after the service.
Kolbe served Tucson and Southern Arizona in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 to 2007, died Dec. 3, 2022, not long after a stroke.
He is survived by his husband, Hector Alfonso, whom he married in 2013, and his sister Beth Kolbe of Tucson. Brothers John and Walt Kolbe died before him.
In his 11 terms in office, U.S. Rep. Kolbe became a political powerhouse, holding the purse strings of foreign aid as a subcommittee chairman and serving on the Appropriations Committee for two decades, and weathering the controversy of him being outed as gay in the middle of his tenure.
Kolbe became the second openly gay Republican to serve in Congress when he was re-elected in 1996.
Calling him a "true elder statesman," then-Gov. Doug Ducey said Kolbe "never wavered in his responsibility to our state and nation."
"He once said he was 'born for the job.' He certainly was and Arizona is better for it," Ducey said.
What the Devil: 'Cardinal' Kolbe saw the big picture with an eye on the local
"Pima County and Southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe," said Sharon Bronson, chair of the Board of Supervisors. "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."
Born in Evanston, Ill, in 1942, Kolbe lived in Patagonia, Ariz., from age 5, attending Patagonia Union High School and then graduating from the U.S. Capitol Page School in Washington, D.C., after spending three years as a page for U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.
He attended Northwestern (BA in Political Science) and Stanford (MBA, concentration in Economics) universities, and served in the U.S. Navy's "Swift Boat" forces for a year during the Vietnam War. He retired from the Navy Reserves as a lieutenant commander in 1977, and was first elected as a state senator that year.
Kolbe was married to his first spouse, wife Sarah Dinham, from 1977 until their divorce in 1992.
While he was noted for being a fiscally conservative Republican, Kolbe was often praised for his commitment to the wild areas of Southern Arizona.
"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," Bronson said. " I offer my deepest sympathies to his family and hope they take comfort in knowing that Jim was respected and admired and that he will be missed by many."
Although he was a stalwart Republican Party member for years, Kolbe drifted away from the GOP during its rightward bent over the past 20 years.
He declined to endorse the Republican running to take his place in 2006, and when Randy Graf — who had challenged Kolbe in the 2004 primary — lost the congressional race to Giffords, Kolbe showed up at the Democrat's election-night party to congratulate her.
In 2018, he quietly changed his voter registration away from the GOP, becoming a "party not designated" independent voter.
"I've told people but I didn't make a public announcement," Kolbe confirmed in 2020.
That year, he endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for the presidency, over Donald Trump.
"I thought the Republican Party had veered off in a direction that doesn't represent the values of the past — fiscal responsibility, strong national defense, free and open trade and a respect for human rights. I think they've lost their bearing," he said.
"I think the driving force is the fact that the Republican Party has changed its directions, its values — it lost values that I thought were important, that I thought were the bedrock of the Republican Party," he said.
In 2022, Kolbe endorsed the GOP candidate in CD6, the winning Rep.-elect Juan Ciscomani, but would not align himself with Trumpist Republican candidates. He warned voters against Mark Finchem the GOP candidate for Arizona secretary of state, saying he would "take a wrecking ball to our elections" and that Finchem "poses a direct threat to our state's democratic processes." Finchem was swamped in the election by Democrat Adrian Fontes.
Kolbe came out as gay in 1996, as he was about to be outed by the Advocate magazine in the wake of his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act that allowed states to continue to ban marriage equality.
Kolbe said at the time that he thought the matter should be decided by the states.
Although his orientation raised the hackles of many in his party — some Republican Party delegates turned their backs on him when he gave a speech at the 2000 GOP national convention — Kolbe put his energies into other issues rather than becoming an outspoken gay-rights proponent.
"I would rather be known as 'Jim Kolbe, the trade expert in Congress who happens to be gay,' rather than 'Jim Kolbe, gay congressman from Arizona," he said.
In 2013, he married Hector Alfonso, a teacher from Panama, after an eight-year relationship. The two were wed in Washington, D.C., because at the time Arizona did not yet allow same-sex marriage. Arizona's ban was overturned the next year, after a judge ruled that same-sex couples had equal rights to be married in the state.
During his time in office, representing first CD 5 and then, after redistricting for the 2002 election, CD 8, Kolbe was the sponsor or co-sponsor of nearly 2,400 bills in the House. Four of those measures were vetoed by presidents, with one partly subject to a line-item veto by President Bill Clinton that was later reversed by the courts.
Kolbe introduced or co-sponsored 192 bills that became law, starting with a 1985 designation of National Child Safety Week and winding up with a 2006 measure supported by Arizona's entire House delegation to rename Tucson's main post office for the late U.S. Rep. Morris K. "Mo" Udall.