(LA Blade) Former Republican Congressman James (Jim) Thomas Kolbe, who represented Southern Arizona in Congress for 22 years, died Saturday, Dec. 3 of a stroke at the age of 80 his husband Hector Alfonso confirmed to Arizona media outlets.
“He belongs to so many people,” his husband said through tears on Saturday. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”
Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff until sunset Sunday in honor of the former congressman.
Kolbe was the first openly serving gay Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives having served from 1985 to 2007. During his 22-year tenure he served as chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs of the House Appropriations Committee.
In 1996, Kolbe held a press conference and outed himself after his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, this, according to political journalist Jake Tapper, was owed to the fact that Kolbe was under the impression he was about to be outed by a gay publication.
Addressing a gathering of Log Cabin Republicans and other gay Republicans in 1997, he said he didn’t want to be a poster child for the gay movement.
“Being gay was not — and is not today — my defining persona,” Kolbe said during his first speech as an openly gay GOP lawmaker. He also sat on the national advisory board of the Log Cabin Republicans.
In 2013 however, Kolbe was a signatory to an amicus brief in support of overturning California’s Proposition 8.
In a private ceremony in 2013 after being together for eight years, Kolbe and Alfonso were married.
Alfonso, a Panamanian native who came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in special education had been a teacher for two decades. The couple’s nuptials were held at a private event at the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Ave. in Washington D.C.
“Two decades ago, I could not have imagined such an event as this would be possible,” Kolbe told the Blade in an interview in May of 2013. “A decade ago I could not imagine that I would find someone I could be so compatible with that I would want to spend the rest of my life with that person. So, this is a very joyous day for both of us.”
The couple had to endure a year-long separation when Alfonso returned to Panama while immigration issues were being sorted out, although he was granted U.S, Residency also known as a green card.
Kolbe also battled his friend and fellow Republican, Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain who opposed the repeal of the Clinton-era Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell policy, which barred military service by gay and lesbian Americans. He repeatedly co-sponsored a bill to scrap the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy at odds with others in his party over the issue.
After he left Congress he continued to be active in Republican politics in 2012 endorsing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in his race for the presidency against then-incumbent Barack Obama.
In an interview with the Washington Blade at the time, Kolbe responded to the anti-gay language in the draft version of the Republican Party platform. In addition to endorsing a Federal Marriage Amendment, the platform criticized the Obama administration for dropping the defense of DOMA in court and judges for “re-defining marriage” in favor of gay couples.
Kolbe predicted the 2012 Republican platform will be the last one to include such language.
“That’ll be the last time that will be in the Republican Party platform,” Kolbe said. “It won’t be there four years from now. It’s got its last gasp. I don’t believe it’ll be there four years from now; I wish it weren’t there now, but I don’t believe it will be four years from now.”
The issue over the rights of same-sex couples to marry ended with Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644, the landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Just this week prior to his death, the Respect for Marriage Act passed the Senate by a vote of 61-36.
That legislation requires the federal government to recognize a marriage between two individuals if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed and guarantees that valid marriages between two individuals are given full faith and credit, regardless of the couple’s sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin. It is expected to pass the House again this week after which it heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.
Early in his career Kolbe, in 1976 ran for a seat in the Arizona Senate in the Tucson-Pima County district and defeated a one-term Democrat. In mid-1982, he resigned from the state Senate to run in the newly created Arizona 5th U.S. congressional district but lost to Democrat Jim McNulty.
He ran again in 1984 winning the seat that he went on to hold for over two decades.
According to his biography, Kolbe was born in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, but when he was five, his family moved to a ranch in rural Santa Cruz County, Arizona. It was there he attended Patagonia Elementary School and Patagonia Union High School, but graduated from the United States Capitol Page School in 1960 after serving for three years as a United States Senate Page for Arizona Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater.
He matriculated first at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and then at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California earning a master’s degree in economics. During the Vietnam era from 1965 to 1969, he served in the United States Navy, including a tour in Vietnam as a member of the Navy’s “Swift Boat” force.
After military service, Kolbe served as a special assistant to Illinois Republican Governor Richard B. Ogilvie. He then moved back to Arizona settling in Tucson where he worked in business.
Accolades for the former Congressman included many from Arizona's political and business fields of endeavor.
“Pima County and southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bronson said in a statement.
Matt Gress, who was recently elected to the Arizona Legislature, called Kolbe a political pioneer.
“Today, because of Jim Kolbe, being a member of the LGBT community and serving in elected office has become irrelevant,” he said in a statement.
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