Remembering Jim Kolbe: News of an outing
'I think Jim knew what he meant to all of us'
It was your normal, hot, dry August afternoon in Tucson. We were slogging through a race for the Arizona House of Representatives. My cellphone rang.
U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe gave me his usual greeting but without his signature sunny and cheery voice. Jim told me that a national publication had contacted him and was readying an "outing" of the congressman. Jim wanted me to know directly from him—he was my campaign chairman, after all.
"I want to apologize in advance for any trouble or any problems this might cause you or affect your race," he said.
I remember the call being quite brief. I do recall telling Jim that he needn't worry about me and that my campaign was 100 percent behind him and his re-election. Jim thanked me and the call ended.
Now, my campaign had choices to make.
I was running for an open state House seat in Tucson's District 13, known in the 1990s as the most competitive legislative district. An even number of Democrats and Republicans with just enough independents made general elections real contests at the time. I was an accidental candidate. ("Who are you?" and "Who do you think you are?" was what I heard most from the political class from all parties after I declared for the seat).
That I possessed even a minute amount of political capital or clout at all was because I met and learned from Jim Kolbe. I had come to Tucson in 1992 as a grad student and Army veteran with the proverbial fire in my belly and no clue how to do anything or make anything of it. I knew Southern Arizona somewhat. I went to the U.S. Army Intelligence Center & School down in Cochise County in the '80s but served in other states (Colorado and Tennessee) and overseas mostly.
When I started grad school at the University of Arizona, I took a crash course in local and state politics. Fife Symington was the governor in the post-Evan Mecham/AZ Scam political landscape. It was an election year and the very popular congressman, Jim Kolbe ‚ a moderate Republican who had himself entertained a run for governor in 1990 — was facing a primary challenger in the face of the 1992 House banking scandal (which was another of those bouts of hubris that ended one Arizona congressman's career that year).
I called the Kolbe district office—mispronouncing his last name, by the way (it's KOL-bee, NOT Kolb! D'oh!). They directed me to his campaign office on Broadway in Tucson. I went over and clicked immediately with some of the campaign staffers. In a young Steve Huffman, who later became a talented state representative and congressional candidate in the post-Jim Kolbe political world, I found a kindred spirit. The staff asked if I was up for walking precincts in Green Valley with the congressman. Would I?!!!
And on a Saturday morning in late August 1992, I walked that Republican-voter-rich Mecca of Southern Arizona, Green Valley, with the man. Jim came barreling into the campaign office just a ball of friendly energy. He oozed positivity and enthusiasm. I rode from Tucson to Green Valley with him and got to tell my story: grew up in Upper Michigan; joined the Army after high school; served in Germany, Korea, Panama, Honduras; finished college in Colorado; married, divorced, a daughter back up in Colorado; learned Spanish in Mexico; going to UA for an MA in Latin American Studies.
Jim and I teamed up on several streets. After a good four hours of walking, knocking, and talking, we were just about to call it quits ("Last house," Jim called from across the street). I was still talking to the elderly residents when he walked up.
"Jim, meet Mr. and Mrs. McDowell of Green Valley and Marquette, Michigan," I gleamed. Yes, I happened to knock on the door of the owner of the McDonald's in Marquette where I had worked as a teenager back in Upper Michigan. Jim was blown away. "What are the chances?!"
I spent the balance of 1992 spending more time with the Kolbe campaign than with my graduate studies. I had the political bug and I honestly didn't want the campaign season to end. Because I needed money, I also worked an RNC phone bank for Arizona Republican state senate candidates, most notably Patti Noland—whom I later got to know. Strangely, I worked for a Democratic state house candidate, George Cunningham, mainly because his campaign was paying pretty good cash for phone banking. Clinton won and the Democrats ruled the roost, but I loved the overall atmosphere, and I enjoyed the work.
After the campaign, I applied for an internship with Rep. Kolbe's district office. Because of Jim's work with Latin American policy, particularly Mexico, I was able to work the internship into my graduate program. I interviewed and got the spot. I became a regular staffer in the office in Tucson. Because I was the lone military veteran among the interns, all of whom were several years younger, I worked primarily veterans' issues.
The big military/veterans issue at that very moment was President Clinton's cause celebre, the ability of gays to serve honorably in the military. The debate raged and Clinton eventually had to settle for the now infamous "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy, which really, in my opinion, made things worse by strengthening the closet.
I remember one Saturday, in my intern capacity, I drove with Jim down to Fort Huachuca for a dinner there. For the first time, he asked me about my thoughts on the issue. I told him that I thought the argument from commanders that homosexual troops serving somehow threatened the "good order and discipline" of units was a canard. Were commanders saying that military units were so lacking in discipline and control that the mere presence of a homosexual soldier would bring the whole organization down? Either the military could control its units or there was a far greater discipline problem throughout all of the services than we realized. Harassment and/or hazing, regardless from where it emanated was unacceptable. Jim apparently liked that answer because he developed a much more polished form of it in virtually every presser or interview that I saw him in when the question arose.
The question of Jim's personal orientation and proclivities did come up among us interns in watercooler/lunchroom banter on occasion. Several mentioned that it was essentially an "open secret" in Washington, D.C., that Jim was gay. I remember feeling uncomfortable about the subject. My feeling was that I really didn't care, and I recall telling my young colleagues that I viewed the congressman as basically asexual, "You know, like your mom or dad."
Before I left Kolbe's staff, I helped Jim find a Spanish-language immersion program in Morelia, Mexico. He did quite well.
The internship ended by summertime, but the Kolbe staffers were able to arrange a part-time gig for me in Governor Symington's Tucson office. Though Fife and Jim hailed from the McCain wing of the GOP circa 1990, by 1993 the Symington camp was clearly moving in a more doctrinaire rightward direction. I noticed how thin-skinned the Symington staffers were to even minor criticisms sent their way by Arizona Republic columnist John Kolbe (yes, Jim's brother). I detected a distinct and growing distaste for the moderate wing of the AZ GOP.
I left Arizona in September 1993 to take a job with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in Denver. Though I was out of state, I was never far away. I worked several cases in Arizona for OCR and always made sure to stay in touch with Jim and the staff often.
By January 1995 I missed Arizona too much. I came back to Tucson to finish my masters and started teaching part time at a private high school in Sabino Canyon. I also jumped back into the political game. I helped out on a City Council race and started working some of the presidential primary races. Jim actually contacted me to maybe help out with California Gov. Pete Wilson's ill-fated presidential bid. It launched in August 1995 and lasted about three weeks. It was just not a good fit for Jim, especially given the very anti-immigrant and blatantly anti-Latino bent of the Wilsonian agenda of the mid-1990s.
Southern Arizona legislative politics were heating up as well. I happened to move into District 13, the aforementioned most competitive battleground in the state that would see some hot contests when moderate GOP State Sen. Patti Noland announced she would not seek another term. Democratic Rep. George Cunningham, for whom I had worked in 1992, announced his intention to run for the Senate. The other Democratic House member, Dr. Andy Nichols, would stand fast, while a primary race developed for the district's open seat.
The Republican side of District 13 saw a relatively unknown businessman, Dave Turner, looking to run for Noland's Senate seat. A good, honest man, but a complete political novice with little to no history in the district and zero name recognition. On the House side, a young firebrand-y newcomer, Shane Wikfors, an unapologetic Christian conservative and strongly pro-life, who made a spirited and close run against Cunningham and Nichols in 1994. Shane was definitely running again in 1996.
The real news though was the expected candidacy of Ron St. John, a very well-connected and -financed moderate and openly gay Republican. Ron's early campaign material boasted a campaign finance committee that was a veritable who's who of GOP bigwigs from around Arizona. My friend and political compadre Bryan Elliott—with whom I'd gone to college in Colorado and then grad school and teaching in Tucson—and I approached Ron about working on his campaign team in March 1996.
Ron dropped a bomb on us: he wasn't running.
I found Ron impressive and likely what the district was looking for in a representative. Smart, soft-spoken, and a serious student of public policy and the role of government. I had heard some pretty strong opposition to his candidacy among the harder right members of the District 13 GOP committee, though.
The fact that Ron was gay generated not just opposition but virulent emotion.
It was obvious that there was a schism within the Republican Party in Arizona's most competitive district. Bryan and I had a number of discussions. The House race is a moderate's to take. But who? "Why not you?" Bryan asked. "Me? I'm nobody…but…Yeah, why not?" We met with Ron and got his blessing.
So, Bryan and I, with his dot-matrix printer and maybe $200 began a campaign. We cobbled together a small organization and filed the forms with the Secretary of State's Office. We made an announcement at a District 13 meeting on a Saturday. And who was at that meeting? Congressman Jim Kolbe. Gulp!
In our zeal, we hadn't thought to consult with or ask the most notable politician with whom I had begun my political career for so much as even his thoughts on the idea. After I spoke, Jim came up and pinched my elbow, "Can we have a word?"
We stepped outside and Jim, very nicely, gently, and in his fatherly fashion told me, "You know that because you worked for me everyone automatically connects you with me. It would've been nice if we could've had a meeting before you pulled the trigger. But you're in it now…and I know you're going to do well. You have my support, and I would like to be a part of the campaign." Jim became an honorary co-chair and fundraiser for me.
I had a similar meeting at the legislature in Phoenix with Noland soon after. She met with me after coming off the Senate floor. She told me, "Well, we don't know each other, but a lot of people I trust are saying good things about you…Plus, you're a pro-choice teacher. You're our only hope on the Republican side." Patti became another honorary co-chair.
Arizona election year politics are pretty danged slow and plodding in the summer months. It's oppressively hot and the snowbirds are all out of state, up north and out east. I spent my time begging for campaign cash and trading barbs with some of the local Democrats in the Tucson Weekly primarily. Getting anyone to care was always the challenge.
The whole cohort of Southern Arizona legislative candidates was always looking for a chance to walk a precinct with Kolbe. We all wanted his magic to rub off on us. After all, every one of us, if we were being honest saw ourselves as the next Jim Kolbe. Running for the Legislature was merely the first step in our own Kolbean journey to Congress or beyond.
Every time Jim was able to lend himself to my campaign for even a few hours it was a true joy. I learned so much from him about door-to-door retail politics. Former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini recently noted, "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." That comment nails the Kolbe touch: Your problems were his and he was going to do everything he could to help you.
Meanwhile, I was getting pressure from the Symington camp because I was not supporting a statewide (so-called) "juvenile justice initiative" the governor was pushing as a panacea to curb by mainly young (read minority) men in Arizona. Fife sought to force automatic minimum mandatory sentences on young offenders aged 18 and older. I saw it as a pretty shallow power grab and an attempt to work up older conservatives while doing nothing about actual crime, specifically juvenile crime, in Arizona. So, now, I was a former Symington staffer opposing the governor's pet initiative, pro-choice, and moderate. Now (Heaven forbid), I was about to become a solidly not just Kolbe-aligned, but a pro-gay rights Republican.
Worse, I was now pretty obviously being prepped to align with a group of Republican women house members known as the "Sue Nation" by their friends and enemies, especially within the GOP House caucus. Sue Gerard, Sue Grace, and Carolyn Sue Allen were the (ring) leaders of those key moderates. Noland, when she was a House member, had been a part of the group and now aided from the Senate. Sandra Day O'Connor's younger sister Ann, another Tucson senator, had also been associated with the group when she was in the House.
The Symington camp viewed the Sue Nation and their moderate ilk as their true opponents. The Democrats were barely a factor in that universe.
Speaking of the Democrats, I was a bit of a problem for them in Southern Arizona. My alignment with the very popular Jim Kolbe was putting the chance at a Democratic lock on the most competitive district at risk. Several Democrats had taken to calling me the "Trojan Horse." Sure, he was running as a Kolbe-esque moderate, all pro-choice and cuddly, but he's really going to help pollute the desert, impoverish the working class, and give away the state treasury to big business.
My favorite was the appearance of little mini-signs Democrats staked under my 4x4 campaign signs around Tucson with an up arrow proclaiming, "Friend of Fife."
Symington's staff let me know their displeasure with my retort, "While I have always respected the professionalism of the Maybury Sherriff's Department, I cannot say that I've ever been a friend of Barney Fife." Jim found it amusing, however.
That was my summer: money raising, precinct walking… until the "outing." Once Jim had been outed, my campaign — manager Brian Elliot, our intrepid campaign intern now former state Sen. Jonathan Paton — huddled. We then issued our statement in response to the outing and my steadfast support for Rep. Kolbe, things picked up a bit.
Mike and Toni Hellon, the Tucson Republican power couple, held a support party at their house in North Tucson the night after the story of Jim coming out hit. It was a huge gathering of all of the pillars of the moderate Republican establishment in Pima County.
Jim was so very touched; it was the first time I saw him shed a tear.
He pulled me aside and told me, "I saw your statement today. You know didn't have to do that."
"No, Jim. I absolutely had to. Absolutely!"
He again told me that he was sorry for any problem he may have caused and then me gave me a big hug. This was one of those rare moments in life where know down in your bones you've done the right thing.
In the weeks before the Sept. 9, 1996, primary, I received a number of harassing phone calls from Pima County's resident political weirdo — think Alex Jones in the body of the Crypt Keeper with Shemp Howard's hair — Joe Sweeney and his eccentric band of camp followers. Sweeney, who may have filed to run as Jim's primary "opponent," was just a lunatic nuisance. Sweeney was constantly pushing anti-Kolbe conspiracy theories and was on a kick about insinuating that now that Jim was out, he must have AIDS. (This was the mid-1990s, after all. Ugh!)
Sweeney was trying to get traction by calling on Jim to release his medical records to prove he was HIV/AIDS-free. It took me a second to first understand who was calling me and then what crazy garbage he was spewing. (These were also the days before effective call blocking, too.) As I was hanging up, Sweeney let out, "Maybe you're one of them too!"
"One what, Joe?"
"Well, maybe your relationship with Kolbe is something else."
"Maybe it is, Joe. Maybe it is." Then I hung up.
Several others chimed in over the next few weeks, but it all died down. In the days before the primary the fact that I was pro-choice was gaining the most attention. The GOP's pro-life/pro-choice split was having a real under-the-surface effect.
The primary came and went. Jim swept the race as always. I was the big Republican vote-getter from District 13. Shane and I weren't opponents, but that conservative-moderate schism was being gauged by outside observers and those who were going to put money in the race. The primary was a show of strength externally to show the Democrats the GOP had a turnout machine, internally for the factions within the GOP to flex muscle. I flexed the moderate muscle.
Dave Turner did fine with no primary opponent but wasn't generating enthusiasm. Shane lagged behind both Turner and me. Several Phoenix lobbyists tried to come down and get the three of us to run as a team, but I was not having any of that.
The Democrats had what they ran as a team for the Legislature: George Cunningham for the Senate; Andy Nichols and Brian Fagin, a local attorney, for the House. Cunningham and Nichols were the favorites. Both Democrats and Republicans knew the race was between Fagin and me.
Under normal circumstances, I would be in the catbird seat. 1996 was not normal. Having Bob Dole at the top of a presidential ticket was killing us down-ballot folks. The Clinton campaign (appropriately) smelled blood and saw a chance to be the first Democratic campaign to take Arizona since Harry Truman in 1948…and that opportunity sat smack-dab in Pima County.
Jim, I later learned, was trying to fight the tide with the RNC. I found out the RNC had tacked my race onto another poll the national party conducted. It showed Nichols way out front, Fagin a distant second, yours truly one point below Fagin, and Wikfors far behind all the others. Just before the election, a targeted mailer from an independent committee with a message from Jim hit households throughout the district. But by Election Day we were swimming against the tide.
For a brief moment on election night, I led enough for one local news station (KOLD) to call the race for me. At 2 a.m., my campaign manager Brian called me to tell me that we were going to fall short by about 1,800 votes. The DNC had poured enough cash into an effective get out the vote effort keep those two percentage points out of our reach. Brian noted that the moderate label probably hurt us with the more with actual Republicans than anyone else.
Symington's staff was crowing in the press almost immediately. Jay Heiler, Symington's chief of staff, speaking to the Arizona Republic, pointed to my loss specifically as evidence that "there is no future for the moderate Republican agenda in Arizona."
When I woke up after 8 a.m. and took it all in, I called Brian Fagin's campaign line. He refused to take my call. Classy. That was kind of gut-punchy. I get sore losers, but sore winners? Post-election campaign finance reports revealed that Fagin spent about $65,000+ of his own cash for a seat he went on to lose pretty decisively two years later, so… meh.
At about 9 a.m. I got a call. It was Jim. He just had this gift. I immediately felt better. He told me that he had been exactly in the place I was back in 1982. He lost that first race for Congress by just under two percentage points. "You ran a great race, amigo. You can do this again if that's what you want. Take some time and decide what's best for you and your family."
I thanked Jim for all he'd done for me. That year and that race cemented our friendship. Friends we remained until the end… though we got worse at staying in touch with Jim finding the love of his life and me serving literally around the world.
The Symington administration lasted less than a year after the election of 1996. Fife was forced to resign after his federal fraud conviction in 1997. His successor appointed me to the Arizona Civil Rights Advisory Board where I served two terms. That position led me to a job with Attorney General Janet Napolitano's office until I was appointed an associate state schools superintendent with Superintendent Jaime Molera's administration. September 11th and the global War on Terror brought me back to the military which led to more overseas work after active duty.
Jim always told me that he'd remain in Congress until he no longer enjoyed it. Jim kept enjoying it until 2006. By 2005, the border and the growing xenophobic strain within what was still our political party was just too much. That his congressional seat went to Gabby Giffords, a former Republican, now-moderate Democrat, may have saddened Jim a little, but ultimately made sense. Gabby was clearly the better fit in a post-Jim Kolbe Southern Arizona.
I know the attack on Gabby and the horrendous loss of life broke Jim's heart. Later, watching the Republican Party morph into a zombie shell of what Jim worked so hard to build tore at his soul.
One constant I keep reading from the myriad remembrances of Jim is the sense we all had that he would always be there. I rarely get to Arizona anymore. When I do, I always think "I need to stop and see Jim" …and then think that it would impolite to just show up without scheduling ahead. "Ah, he'll be there next time I'm in town," I think selfishly.
I wish I could tell him how much he meant to me, how much he helped me, and how I will always hold dear that incredible period in Arizona and American political history. I think Jim knew what he meant to all of us.
I am so happy knowing that he lived the rest of his days happily with Hector. It elates me that Jim lived to see same-sex marriages recognized and to see the mutated version of the Republican Party in Arizona fairly soundly trounced.
Thank you so very much for everything, my friend. I will honor your memory for the rest of my days.