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'Cardinal' Kolbe saw the big picture with an eye on the local

What the Devil won't tell you

'Cardinal' Kolbe saw the big picture with an eye on the local

U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, who died Saturday, was a brilliant politician

  • Former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe at a 2010 think-tank discussion on 'Avoiding a Government Debt Crisis.'
    New America/FlickrFormer U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe at a 2010 think-tank discussion on 'Avoiding a Government Debt Crisis.'
  • Kolbe speaks to newly elected lawmakers in Peru in 2011.
    Congreso de la Republica del PerúKolbe speaks to newly elected lawmakers in Peru in 2011.
  • Former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe wasn't really a schmoozer but he had a big mind and a dedication to Southern Arizona that made him a political juggernaut.
    Inter-American Dialogue/FlickrFormer U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe wasn't really a schmoozer but he had a big mind and a dedication to Southern Arizona that made him a political juggernaut.

Back in December 2006, I'd spent two weeks trying to set up a final interview with U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe for a retrospective piece on his career in Congress — which was about to wind to a close after 22 years. His office just wasn't being cooperative. But in their defense, his staff was all out looking for new jobs.

So I was stuck and after explaining how stuck to my city editor at the Tucson Citizen, my podmate Garry Duffy turned around and asked with New Jersey deadpan: "Maybe he's listed."

See, back then, there were these things called "phone books."

They were known for being large – thick as bricks – and they were a list of all the people in the community and their corresponding addresses and phone numbers. To be in the phone book was to be "listed." Guys like Kolbe were always "unlisted."

But it was worth a shot. I'd called his office, showed up at his office, called his cell phone and his press secretary was about to take out a restraining order on me. But I opened the white pages, where people's home land-line numbers were printed, page after page, flipped through the Ks and there he was. I dialed the number and...  "Hello?"

Related: Jim Kolbe - Southern Arizona's 'congressman from central casting' for 22 years - dead at 80

So I'm off to his house on Swan Road and something or other, not far from Speedway. It was just a little ranch job like all the others in Midtown Tucson. 

That evening I got a graduate course in national and global politics. I knew he was smart. I didn't yet realize he was brilliant. Kolbe understood how issue A over here stemmed from condition 12 half a world away. This wasn't a guy who was going to watch and repeat slogans picked up from Tucker Carlson.

Inside, all his bookshelves were overstocked. Hardcovers and softcovers piled up on all the flat surfaces. He didn't just read them. He kept going back to them.

Kolbe died Saturday, leaving behind his sister, Beth Kolbe, and his husband, Hector Alfonso.

Before he left public office, he had a special position in Congress as a subcommittee chairman on the House Appropriations Committee. They call them "cardinals." 

Cities, towns and states pass budgets. 

The federal government passes a series of appropriations bills pounded into place at the direction of a subcommittee chairman. Kolbe's role was to oversee the foreign operations budget. That's the U.S. State Department and foreign aid.

The man was literally a statesman, as close as it comes in Congress. 

So when we were talking about the Middle East peace process and I said "the king of Jordan seems interesting," he could  respond with "Let me tell you about my dinner with him at his seaside home."

Oh, OK. I see the conversation is going there now. Just shut up and listen.

Sure enough, he explained in great detail about flying in a helicopter over the Jordanian desert to King Abdullah's glassy palace. He was the guest of honor. Queen Rania met him and charmed the socks off him over the the course of the meal. He called her the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. 

He left one thing out that night I only learned about years later. During a U2 concert at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2009, Bono started giving shout outs to people in the crowd. Oprah Winfrey, Muhammed Ali and "Jim Kolbe, a great hero of mine."


How the Christ did he not tell me about that? He knew Bono? (Shut up, kids. They were cool once). I'm in "Rattle and Hum" for God sakes. Right there in the corner of Sun Devil Stadium. 

Of course he knew Bono because Kolbe was in charge of foreign aid at the time the Irish frontman was doing all that work getting developed economies to invest in the fight against AIDS in Africa. 

So yeah, saving an estimated 20 million lives is something he could brag about.

He didn't though. He didn't even bring it up.

What he did bring up was NAFTA. He humble bragged about how he and California Rep. David Dreier came up with the idea of establishing a trade corridor from Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

No, it wasn't Bill Clinton who came up with the idea. It was largely negotiated under George H.W. Bush at the pesky urging of Tucson's congressman.

Trade was his thing. He was convinced it was great for the country and awesome for Southern Arizona. 

There was just one bugaboo. It brought waves of undocumented migrants into the United States. Mexico's Land Tenure System had created a lot of small farms that could subsist locally with small production. NAFTA meant American agri-giants could absolutely flood the Mexican markets with cheap food and that wiped out a bunch of farmers with small plots.

Well, U.S. farms need workers here, right? They did but the same rules that freed up the cross-border flow of goods and capital did not allow for such permissiveness with labor. 

Oh, they could come. They'd just be in the country illegally and would be scapegoated for every social, economic and cultural ill the U.S. would experience over the next 20 years. 

I don't count Kolbe's advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform as being a moderate. His belief in a path to legal status for undocumented migrants was more evidence of his hard-line faith in free markets and that labor should be allowed to follow production.

He was pro-choice, and yet was one of four Republicans to vote against the ban on late-term abortions the anti-choice Right dubs "partial birth."

That vote was more in line with the libertarian roots of Arizona conservatism.

Culture warrior (and not)

It's not that he was immune from a good, old culture war fight even if it made him seem like a total hypocrite.

Kolbe voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to disregard gay marriages allowed by other states. That Kolbe himself was gay was the worst-kept secret in Southern Arizona politics. 

When The Advocate magazine essentially outed him involuntarily in 1996, he could have been in trouble in a time when being gay could be seen as a career killer for a politician — especially for a Republican. But his Southern Arizona congressional district didn't give a shit. Voters re-elected him a few months later with 68 percent of the vote.

He told me that December night in 2006 that having his sexuality disclosed against his will was a personal infringement but in the end the best thing that ever happened to him. The vote for DOMA was his biggest regret, he would later say.

When he delivered an address about free trade to the 2000 Republican National Convention, the whole Texas delegation bowed their heads in prayer. Did they think the soundtrack to "Les Mis" would dance off with their souls?

Later in life he got married to his partner Hector Alfonso. 

Not everyone in Tucson was thrilled with a gay congressman. I had to cover the Gospel Rescue Mission dis-inviting Kolbe to help feed the homeless on Thanksgiving of 2004.

The whole world came down on the mission the day before the holiday, when finding people to quote isn't easy. In their defense, the mission's leaders almost immediately realized they had screwed up, and by the end of the day were apologizing and inviting him to whatever the heck function the congressman could make it to.

How to cross over

Kolbe was a reliable Republican soldier on the big issues. He checked the right Republican boxes for the Bush tax cuts, the war in Iraq, the confirmation of conservative judges. That freed him to work locally with the other side on issues his party cared less about. 

The environment was one area where he left his mark. The Las Cienegas National Conservation Area east of Tucson was largely his baby in Congress. 

At the same time, he was not a fan of Pima County's efforts to have Ironwood National Monument set aside. 

The former was done by an act of Congress. The latter was accomplished by a president signing a piece of paper. Fine, whatever. The presidential authority to establish monuments is written into the law.

Environmentalists have told me that he was generally more eager to work with them than his successor in office, Gabrielle Giffords. He represented a swing district and needed to cross-over to the left. Giffords had to do it to the right.

Impeachment and checkpoints

He could draw some local boos.

He was a vote to impeach Clinton over a lie in a civil deposition over a sexual harassment suit that wound up being dismissed. The president didn't want to go public confessing to an affair. 

The country opposed impeachment by a wide margin but the GOP base insisted on it. 

A few weeks after the impeachment ordeal ended, Kolbe got booed by a heavily Democratic crowd when he stood on stage with Clinton at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall.

Kolbe showed some toughness showing up on stage next to a president he voted to oust from office. Clinton and Kolbe were at the time talking about how to shore up Social Security. Third rail? What third rail?

Like a lot of brilliant minds they can get an annoying idea in their head and not let it go. 

For some reason, he wanted to get rid of the penny. On some level it makes sense, I guess, except it would screw every jurisdiction in the country that collects a sales tax.

He also had this other bugaboo where he refused to allow a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19, between Tucson and Nogales.

He used the federal appropriations process to block any effort to establish one. Why? He thought the checkpoint should be mobile, even if it meant moving it north of Green Valley. Green Valley residents felt like that put them in Mexico.

Kolbe would not budge. He wouldn't be defensive about irking his constituents. Ask him about it and he'd say "a fixed checkpoint is a stupid idea. And if you are questioning it, you are stupid, too."

That's another thing refreshing about Kolbe. He wasn't a natural schmoozer. 

Still, he really only faced one hard race for re-election during his 11 terms. In 1998, former Tucson Mayor Tom Volgy held Kolbe to 51 percent of the vote.

The reason wasn't science or advanced analytics. He worked like a freaking mule. The man was back in his district every weekend, which means spending like 12 hours a week on a jet or in an airport. 

He knew the district cold and the issues that faced it. One could tell just by looking at him he spent a lot of time out in the district. His bald scalp was perpetually burned red by the Arizona sun. It was almost uncomfortable how uncomfortable it looked. It was hard not to offer him aloe. 

When to quit

Kolbe had a great run in Congress in the day when people looked at him and said "yeah, he's pretty good" and that was sufficient to vote for him.

The caveat here is that he quit a year before what was bound to be the fight of his life. The 2006 midterms were rough on the GOP nationally and Giffords won what had been Kolbe's seat handily over former state Sen. Randy Graf. 

Graf was very conservative and a hardliner on immigration. He challenged Kolbe in 2004 and won nearly 40 percent of the primary vote. Graf was gearing up for another run. 

The war in Iraq had left voters worn out with "staying the course" and the George W. Bush administration was just seen as having screwed up the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Had Kolbe run again, he wouldn't have faced Giffords. Giffords didn't want to run against him. He probably would have faced Air Force veteran and war critic Jeff Latas. 

Latas would have been trouble for Kolbe. Then about six weeks before the election, Kolbe's name came up in the Mark Foley scandal. Foley was a Florida congressman who sent highly inappropriate instant messages to underage House pages. Kolbe was never implicated in wrongdoing but he did forward a complaint about Foley to the House and back to Foley's team.

People forget how big of a deal the Foley story was heading into the 2006 elections and Republicans didn't want to be in any way associated with it. Kolbe was.

That, the war and Katrina could have been enough to sink his campaign. 

In his living room that night he swore up and down he would have won easily. I didn't have the heart to tell him it was 50/50.

Part of any performance is knowing when to leave the stage and Kolbe decided the day before Thanksgiving in 2005. He had a way of making me work late on Wednesdays.

He walked away on top, which is another way of saying he knew when to quit.

The passing of Kolbe signals another end to a kind of conservative: The free-market type, who could see the whole board and make his moves accordingly. If his brain triggered snowflakes on the right, well, he was OK with that.

In fact, the "Republicanism" of Donald What's His Name proved too much for Kolbe. He left the party in 2018. It was right about the time the whole party stopped being conservative. He endorsed Joe Biden for president two years ago. But this year, he endorsed the GOP's candidate in the redrawn Southern Arizona district, Juan Ciscomani — while warning against any votes for Trumpist candidate Mark Finchem for secretary of state.

I'm left with this: You've just gotta like a guy who had power over billions of dollars in spending that leverages America's soft power around the globe, and still answered his own home phone with an unpretentious "Hello?"

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil himself won’t.

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