Jim Kolbe - Southern Arizona's 'congressman from central casting' for 22 years - dead at 80
Longtime Republican representative said he was 'born for the job'
Jim Kolbe, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who served Tucson and Southern Arizona from 1985 to 2007, died Saturday at the age of 80.
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," Gov. Doug Ducey said Kolbe "never wavered in his responsibility to our state and nation," and ordered flags throughout the state be flown at half-staff through sunset on Sunday in his honor.
"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."
What the Devil: 'Cardinal' Kolbe saw the big picture with an eye on the local
"He always put his district first, and was known for top-notch constituent services," said C.J. Karamargin, who reported on Kolbe while working for the Arizona Daily Star and then served as a spokesman for his successor in office, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. "When Gabby came in, our goal was to meet or exceed that mark — a high bar."
"Kolbe wasn't a schmoozer. He was all business but knew exactly how to politically navigate his swing district," said Blake Morlock, a Sentinel columnist who reported on the congressman for years for the Tucson Citizen.
Kolbe "came home every weekend, and knew how to deliver for the district," Morlock said. "He'd go with the Republican Party's big priorities and look for every little opportunity to cross party lines."
"He was a class act," said Karamargin, describing Kolbe as "the congressman from central casting" and "beloved by his staff, and loyal to his principles."
"My dear, dear friend and the best boss and mentor ever, Jim Kolbe, slipped away today. I can't imagine the world without him," said Vera Marie (Bunny) Badertscher, who worked as director of Kolbe's district congressional office.
"His commitment and dedication were boundless," said Ducey, noting Kolbe was a "highly-regarded expert on trade, a champion of the free market and a passionate advocate for the line-item veto. From his community in Tucson, to those in need around the world, Congressman Kolbe had a profound and lasting impact."
"He once said he was 'born for the job.' He certainly was and Arizona is better for it," the governor said.
Both Morlock and Karamargin praised Kolbe's intellect.
"He was good about being available to the local press but he talked way too fast," Morlock said. "The only option for interviewing him was to record it because his mind worked so quickly."
"Foreign aid ran thru his subcommittee, from the Peace Corps to going after poppy fields in Afghanistan," Karamargin said.
After leaving Congress following the 2006 election, Kolbe became a fellow with the German Marshall Fund think tank and a consultant with high-powered lobbying firm Kissinger McLarty Associates.
Kolbe died following a stroke this week.
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.
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."
Kolbe was "a dedicated champion for Southern Arizona, a defender of our nation as a veteran, and protector for our economy and precious environment as a public servant. But he was so much more," said state House Democratic Minority Leader Andrés Cano, on behalf of his caucus. "His courage and decency have been an inspiration to all who strive for equality and to live in truth. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with his husband Hector Alfonso and their family and loved ones during this difficult time."
"Arizona has lost a giant. A proud Vietnam veteran, legislator and congressman, Jim Kolbe served our state & country with passion, dignity, and a tireless commitment to advancing freedom & democracy worldwide," the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry said.
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.
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.